Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Clancy Sigal: A Woman of Uncertain Character

The subtitle of Clancy Sigal's A Woman of Uncertain Character is: The Amorous and Radical Adventures of My Mother Jennie (Who Always Wanted to Be a Respectable Jewish Mom) by Her Bastard Son.

Should you be in any doubt, it's a memoir/biography, not a novel. Says the publisher, Carroll and Graf (an eminently respectable US firm): 'This memoir is about Clancy Sigal's intense attachment to his fast-talking, redhaired, sexy, unwed mother Jennie, a firebrand union organizer, and his roaring Oedipal rivalry with his mostly absent father Leo who carries a gun to social occasions.' The time: the 1930s and '40s. The place: Chicago. Publication date is Mother's Day 2006 -- or thereabouts; i.e., end of this month.

I wonder how many men have written a biography of their mother. I can't immediately think of any, but Jennie seems to be a thoroughly suitable subject. And our Clancy must have done the job well, because he gets a plug on the book's cover from Studs Terkel -- a man who knows a thing or two about Chicago characters. (If you have never read any of Studs Terkel's oral histories, you should. Masterly.)

Clancy himself writes a better description of his memoir than his publisher has done, at least in my opinion. It contains, he says,


...a lot about gangsters, street violence and the shadowy no-man's land between criminal and legal where my Mom and I lived.

Jennie, my mother, was a single woman on welfare with a disobedient, illegitimate son (me). Because she doesn't give me up for adoption, and because of her street smarts and her flirtations, she's a 'kourveh' (whore) to some in her Jewish world.

She's a union organizer, a dangerous life for a woman, alone, facing down strikebreakers with guns in their hands. Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone -- who are in the story -- may be romantic figures today, but to us they were goons pure and simple...

I'm a conflicted boy, identifying with my scrappy, super-male father and struggling against my mother who is the source of my greatest strength.

There do not seem to be plans for a separate UK edition of this book, but I think we are going to hear quite a lot about it in the UK, especially if it gets sent to UK newspapers for review. Why do I think that? Well, because I get the feeling that Clancy Sigal is at least as well known in the UK as he is in the US.

I can't find a single, really authoritative source of online information about him, but I remember his name from thirty or more years ago. Clancy, you see, was one of many American writers, actors, and directors who fell foul of Senator McCarthy and his allegedly anti-Communist witch hunt in the US of the 1940s and 1950s. Many of those harried by McCarthy and his associates just came to England and carried on regardless: Joseph Losey and Carl Foreman being notable examples.

By American standards, McCarthy's activities are ancient history now. Even twenty-five years ago, the American film producer Sheldon Reynolds told me that his wife Andrea had known nothing about McCarthy until he gave her a novel about the man (The Troubled Air, by Irwin Shaw). But the era is not entirely forgotten, as the recent film from George Clooney, Goodnight and Good Luck, demonstrates.

Clancy Sigal seems to have been a fully paid-up member of the Communist Party, and not surprisingly that didn't go down too well in Hollywood. So, like many another talent, he went to England, where socialism was still respectable. He stayed for thirty years, until eventually the English wore him down too.

When Clancy Sigal left England, c. June 1989, to go back to America, he wrote a lengthy piece in the Guardian, explaining his reasons and giving something of a personal history. He had certainly made his mark here.

Not surprisingly, given his background, Clancy had mixed with the left-wing intelligentsia. Unlike most Americans -- and unlike most English writers, for that matter -- Clancy also seems to have lived and worked among the working class. He spent time in the industrial north, where the world is very different from that of the UK tourist brochures.

Clancy also crops up in literary history. He was for a time the lover of Doris Lessing, and they both wrote novels which dealt with their affair. Doris Lessing maintains that she never read Clancy's book, and he, apparently, is not kindly dealt with in The Golden Notebook. But he seems to have played an important part in Lessing's personal development. (For an account of which, see the 1982 interview with her by the British writer Lesley Hazleton.)

There are many other sides to Clancy Sigal. He was involved, for instance, in a mental health project called the Philadelphia Association. This was a charity (in legal terms) 'concerned with the understanding and relief of mental suffering.' The most famous collaborator in the Philadelphia Association was R.D. Laing, a man whom, perhaps out of sheer ignorance, I have always regarded as both mad himself and also bad. At one time he was certainly a huge name in certain circles, and Clancy Sigal was heavily involved with him.

Whether I'm right or wrong about Laing being a bad influence, it is a matter of record that he suffered from both alcoholism and clinical depression. And Clancy Sigal subsequently wrote a novel, Zone of the Interior, in which a thinly disguised Laing features. Clancy has written about this book quite recently, again in the Guardian.

The 2005 Guardian article gives an account of Clancy Sigal's own mental breakdown. And in doing so it reminds me of a television programme that I once saw, decades ago, in which the American psychiatrist Thomas S. Szasz was attacked by four British equivalents.

The Brits argued, basically, that the mentally ill ought to be treated, against their will if necessary, and preferably with drugs. Szasz argued, broadly speaking, that you should leave them alone. In the course of the discussion, one of the Brits described how he had once had a famous colleague who became depressed. But the British psychiatrist didn't immediately put the famous man on antidepressants, as he would have done with any ordinary patient. And when Szasz asked why not, the Brit replied that he didn't think it appropriate for a man of his standing. 'I cannot imagine,' said Szasz dryly, 'a better proof of my contention.'

Clancy Sigal's treatment by Laing and his colleagues seems to have been that handed out to 'ordinary people', and quite contrary to what Laing had promised him.

In recent years, Clancy Sigal has returned to the United States, and has also returned to the craft of writing for the movies. He was the author of the screenplay for the 2002 film Frida, a biography of the artist Frida Kahlo.

One way and another, the man has had what you might call an interesting life. Some would call it rackety. So far as I know he has never written an account of his own life. But let's hope that he does so soon, while he still has the chance, because it would make a fascinating read.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not many men write memoirs of their mothers, but Nigel Nicolson wrote a joint memoir of his parents Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville West, 'Portrait of a Marriage', which as I remember was rather more frank about his mother's affairs than his father's, though both were more inclined towards their own gender.

Martin said...

I was planning a bio of my mother - and her two sisters. Then she realized I would reveal things she preferred hidden. A wise woman.

Jill said...

James McBride wrote The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to his White Mother (1997) - a beautifully told memoir of a man grappling with his identity.

archer said...

Joe McCarthy's "allegedly anti-communist witch-hunt?" I protest. (Of course this may be the sort of subtle British irony that fools us Yanks. If so, I cheerfully admit to beeing had.)

Anonymous said...

Clancy reminds me of the Jewish mother character from Sam Moffie's new novel-SWAP.

Mark Mercer said...

Clancy Sigal has a terrific Diary article in the 9 October 2008 edition of the London Review of Books.

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