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NY Times, July 22 2017
Clancy Sigal, Novelist Whose Life Was a Tale in Itself, Dies at 90
By SAM ROBERTS
The first time Clancy Sigal went to jail he was 5. His mother, a
Socialist union organizer, had been arrested in Chattanooga, Tenn., for
violating social and legal norms when she convened a meeting of black
and white female textile workers. Hauled away to the jailhouse, she took
Clancy with her.
As an American Army sergeant in Germany, he plotted to assassinate
Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. A victim of the movie
industry’s Communist-baiting blacklist, he represented Barbara Stanwyck
and Humphrey Bogart as a Hollywood agent (but improvidently rejected
James Dean and Elvis Presley as clients).
During a 30-year self-imposed exile in Britain as an antiwar radical,
Mr. Sigal was the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing’s lover and
flirted with suicide as a sometime patient of R. D. Laing, the
In short, in a mixed-bag life of almost a century, Mr. Sigal had enough
rambunctious experiences to fill a novel — or, in his case, several of
them. He drew on his escapades in critically acclaimed memoirs and
autobiographical novels, developing a cult following, especially in Britain.
But when he died on July 16 in Los Angeles at 90, he had never quite
equaled the fame and commercial success achieved in the United States by
other stars in his literary constellation — none of whom burned more
In one passage, Mr. Sigal described the waiting room of the talent
agency where he worked:
“Without looking twice I knew who was there. A hamburger-joint
proprietor who wanted to be a writer-director. A one-book novelist from
Chattanooga who wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do in Hollywood but
was sure that wasn’t his problem. A once-important actor who had written
a play about Lord Byron and wanted to play the lead. A Bronx Cocteau
with a screenplay for sale about a homosexual who kills a cop and falls
in love with the cop’s wife. The Rin-Tin-Tin series writer who had
written a ‘comedy’ about an unemployment agency; I couldn’t sleep the
night I read it.”
As a career agitator on behalf of American blacks, Vietnam War deserters
and the mentally ill, Mr. Sigal mirrored his fictional alter ego, Gus
Black, in “The Secret Defector” (1992). “A traveling salesman of
resistance, Willy Loman with leaflets in my battered suitcase instead of
nylon stockings,” he wrote.
While he directed most of his vitriol at conservatives, he was also
unsparing of the other end of the political spectrum. Reviewing “The
Secret Defector” in The New York Times Book Review in 1992, the novelist
Daniel Stern wrote, “Lenin and Stalin may have fallen, but Mr. Sigal
still stands, dispensing his memories of the left with wit, irony and
sheer pratfall comedy.”
His other books include “Weekend in Dinlock” (1960), a brutal portrait
of British coal miners, which The Boston Globe likened to James Agee and
Walker Evans’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”; “Zone of the Interior”
(1976), a satirical novel based on his misadventures with Laing; “A
Woman of Uncertain Character: The Amorous and Radical Adventures of My
Mother Jennie (Who Always Wanted to Be a Respectable Jewish Mom) by Her
Bastard Son” (2006); and “Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour,
Betrayal, and Raging Egos” (2016). His account of his London exploits is
scheduled to be published by early next year.
Clarence Sigal (he was named for the vaunted defense lawyer Clarence
Darrow) was born on Sept. 6, 1926. He became Clancy when, while working
as a stock boy at a department store, a boss with a speech impediment
mispronounced his name. His birth certificate says he was born in
Chicago; a cousin always insisted to him that he was actually born in
Brooklyn, where he apparently spent time as a toddler.
His gun-toting father, Leo, also a labor organizer, absented himself
from his family to pursue his political agenda. Clarence was raised
mostly in Chicago by his Russian-born mother, the former Jennie Persily.
Mr. Sigal’s first taste of ego-gratifying literary recognition came at
the age of 10, when a local youth counselor referred to him in a novel,
“Boys’ Club.” (The second time his name appeared in print, he recalled,
was in the 1950s, when The Saturday Evening Post suggested that he was a
Communist subversive. “But again I felt euphoric,” he wrote. “Somebody
had taken the trouble to single me out from the common run — and had
spelled my easily misspelled name correctly.”)
He was 13 when he decided to become a writer. Too young to enlist in the
Army when he sought to at 17, he was drafted in 1944 and shipped to
Europe in the midst of World War II.
It was after the war, in occupied Germany, that he slipped away from his
unit to Nuremberg. By his account he hoped to shoot Göring, the captured
Nazi Luftwaffe commander, at his trial, but his gun was confiscated at a
checkpoint before he could reach the courtroom.
After his discharge from the Army, he returned to California and
enrolled at U.C.L.A. There, he later wrote, a precursor to the Watergate
scandal played out. As the story goes, a fellow student, H. R. Haldeman
— the future chief of staff to President Richard M. Nixon — tried to
cover up the beating death of a dog during a hazing ceremony at a
fraternity where Haldeman, known as Bob, was pledge master. The incident
was reported in the campus newspaper The Daily Bruin, where Mr. Sigal
was an editor.
“Since Frank Mankiewicz, a liberal, was editor, it was obvious to Bob
that there was a liberal conspiracy to ruin his reputation,” Mr. Sigal
wrote in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times in 1993. “What
fascinated me was that Bob remained convinced that Mankiewicz (later a
Kennedy aide), carrying a 30-year grudge, had masterminded the ‘liberal
line’ that torpedoed the Nixon presidency. That is, the Watergate coup
d’état had been caused by a dead dog.”
Mr. Sigal graduated from the university with a degree in English and
briefly found work at Columbia Pictures, making his sole screen
appearance in 1951 as a savage in the B movie “Bride of the Gorilla,”
with Lon Chaney Jr. A card-carrying Communist at the time, he was
blacklisted briefly for mimeographing subversive leaflets, he said, and
joined the Sam Jaffe Agency.
Awarded a literary fellowship, he went to Paris to chronicle his
cathartic cross-country trip. After six months, on the way home to the
United States, he stopped in London for the weekend. He stayed 30 years,
as a writer and commentator.
In Britain, he and Laing experimented with LSD and, while dabbling in
what he described as “an amoral Dostoyevskian world almost beyond
suicide,” they formed the Philadelphia Association, a charity dedicated
to the humane treatment of the mentally ill. His self-diagnosis, he told
The Chicago Tribune in 1992, was straightforward: “I’m this perfectly
ordinary Jewish neurotic depressive anxiety-ridden professional writer.”
Embarking on a four-year affair in the late 1950s, Mr. Sigal and Ms.
Lessing — she was twice divorced with three children — proceeded to crib
from it for their novels. As the British author Lesley Hazelton wrote in
The New York Times Magazine in 1982, along with Laing they formed “a
circle of almost incestuous mutual influence, using one another as
characters in their work and playing on the others’ titles and
Mr. Sigal, who insouciantly appeared in public wearing a Friar Tuck-like
monk’s robe made for him by Ms. Lessing, was cast as Saul Green in her
novel “The Golden Notebook”; Mr. Sigal kissed and told in “The Secret
Defector” (1992), in which the character Rose O’Malley was Ms. Lessing’s
In the beginning of their relationship, he recalled, “I had the moral
upper hand — although she was reading my diary, I was not yet reading hers.”
When he returned to California decades later on assignment for The
Guardian, he married Janice Tidwell, with whom he collaborated on
several screenplays, and taught writing. She confirmed his death, from
congestive heart failure. He is also survived by their son, Joseph Sigal.
During their drunken revelries in London, Mr. Sigal and Laing would
“exchange profundities about the schizophrenic implications of a divided
self being further split by the act of being written about” by Ms. Lessing.
“Once, at a party,” Mr. Sigal recalled, “she put her arms around me and
boasted to the guests, ‘I invented Clancy.’
“‘No, you didn’t,’ I said stubbornly, ‘my mother, Jennie, did that by
giving birth to me.’
“‘She had,’ Lessing said, dismissing my protest, ‘the easy part.’”
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