Clancy Sigal (1926-2017): Big Ballsy Anti-Fascist

by Jonah Raskin, August 2, 2017

I did not know Clancy Sigal well, but I read almost all of his books, including Going AwayWeekend in DinlockZone of the InteriorHemingway Lives!, plus A Woman of Uncertain Character—which is about his mother—and Zone of the Interior, a fictionalized version of his time with the British psychiatrist, R.D. Lang. I reviewed a couple of his books for the San Francisco Chronicle. For a time, I carried on a correspondence with Clancy who always urged me to think of New York editors and publishers as modern day Borgias and not to trust them. That was good advice.

I met Clancy on one occasion in San Rafael, California and spent an afternoon talking about a subject he loved to talk about: politics, especially the politics of the American Left. I also read all of his memorably pieces for the Anderson Valley Advertiser. I was always eager to know what he was thinking and feeling because I admired his brand of radicalism and his dedication to writing and not repeating himself. No two Sigal books are the same, though they carry his essential trademarks, including the ability to excavate his own life and turn it into both fiction and non-fiction.

I knew a lot about Clancy before I met him because I was a friend of his most famous lover, Doris Lessing, the British author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, and who wrote about him under the name Sol Green in The Golden Notebook. By the late 1970s, Lessing had grown irritated with what she called my “revolutionary romanticism,” though she had been a revolutionary romantic herself. After all, it takes one to know one.

Fed up with my defense of the ideological left, she suggested that Clancy might be a more willing listener than she. Indeed, he did listen to my screeds, though he made it clear that he didn’t agree with me, especially when it came to what I called “revolutionary violence.” Sigal was against it, including the bombings that were carried out by the Weather Underground in the 1970s. At the same time, he also insisted that the Weather Underground had played a significant role in the annals of American radical history, and that time would validate that perspective. He didn’t care for the IRA bombings in London, either.

We often wrote to one another about the nuts and bolts of publishing: namely how to get a book into print. Clancy explained unapologetically that he’d do most anything to get his manuscripts published, including having sex with women editors. I didn’t ever follow in his footsteps in that regard. I didn’t have his balls, but I did flirt with women editors at Random House and elsewhere and my flirtation did help get my work out there for the reading public.

Looking back at Clancy’s life and work, I can see now that he has been a role model: an unreconstructed radical who was true to his core beliefs and who went for the jugular, especially when writing about insidious, villainous American slime balls like Roy Cohn. Clancy came through McCarthyism, the blacklist and red bating with his head held high. I think of him now as a kind of street fighter. I was glad to be on his side. For those who don’t remember, he wrote big sections of the screenplay for Frida, the feature length film about Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky, whose real lives he knew a great deal about and whose personal drama he turned into a riveting cinematic story. See it if you haven’t. See it again even if you have, and read Weekend in Dinlock. It’s a real classic about British coal miners in which there’s no doubt whose side the author himself takes in the war between the classes.

The title of his next-to-the-last book, Hemingway Lives! is a paean to one his role models, who was another American original, an anti-fascist and a living legend. Now that Clancy is dead, I feel safe in saying that his work will be rediscovered and that readers will say, “Sigal lives.”

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