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Clancy Sigal, Novelist Whose Life Was a Tale in Itself, Dies at 90

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 blisteringly.

Mr. Sigal was a prolific essayist for The Guardian and other publications and a popular BBC commentator. His books, most famously “Going Away: A Report, a Memoir” (1961), chronicling a cross-country escapist odyssey in a red-and-white DeSoto convertible, were described as “proletarian literature.” The journalist George Plimpton ranked them with the works of Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, Jack Kerouac and Harry Matthews in the genre of “American picaresque.”

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.”


The authors Clancy Sigal and Doris Lessing in the late 1950s or early ’60s, who used their romantic relationship as source material for their novels.

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 Mr. 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.”


One of Mr. Sigal’s memoirs.

Carroll & Graf Publishers

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 characters’ names.”

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 virtual doppelgänger.

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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