Squealing to Survive

John Lahr

  • Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal and Raging Egos by Clancy Sigal
    Icon, 352 pp, £12.99, May 2018, ISBN 978 1 78578 439 2
  • The London Lover: My Weekend that Lasted Thirty Years by Clancy Sigal
    Bloomsbury, 274 pp, £20.00, May 2018, ISBN 978 1 4088 8580 2

‘I love the con, crises are my fuel. It’s the best high … and anaesthetic,’ Clancy Sigal wrote in Black Sunset, a memoir of his Hollywood hustle as an agent in the mid-1950s, representing the interests of Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Joseph Cotten and many lesser lights in the studio firmament. Those of us who knew Clancy – he died in July 2017 in Los Angeles at the age of ninety – can attest that he was a tummler of note, a real-life Zelig who found himself with astonishing frequency at the ringside of history, rubbing shoulders with many of its high rollers and low riders. ‘This is where it’s happening and I’m part of it,’ he said about the thrill of Hollywood in its heyday; the compulsion to be near the hot centre never left his restless heart. Somehow he was always in the frame, writing his name on the barbarous history of his times. ‘Clancy was here’ was the motive for his writing, as his widow, Janice Tidwell, astutely observes in her introduction to The London Lover: My Weekend that Lasted Thirty Years.

Growing up on the wrong side of the Chicago tracks at the beginning of the Depression, the bastard child of two Russian-born union organisers, Clancy had early exposure to the rough and tumble of American life. He was marinated in rebellion. Gangs, guns and Emma Goldman were mother’s milk to him. A lonely, obstreperous child, he spent much of his youth killing time and anger in movie houses – ‘my prep schools’, he called them. He joined the Communist Party at 15, the army at 19, and at 21 he got himself to UCLA on the GI Bill, where he studied English and edited the Daily Bruin (Watergate conspirators Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were his arch-enemies on the paper). By then, he’d already been part of the Allied occupation of Germany pulling bodies out of the rubble, gone AWOL to attend the Nuremberg Trials (with the intention of assassinating Hermann Göring) and worked as a gun-toting union organiser for Detroit car workers. In other words, he’d been through hell in a gasoline jacket and lived to tell the tale.

In Black Sunset we meet Clancy in his late twenties as some kind of left-wing Sammy Glick ruled by his mother’s hard-nosed motto: ‘You do what you have to do to make it happen.’ On the page, he presents himself as a ‘multi-masked’ Machiavelli. ‘My lying imagination knows no limits; maybe it’s my politics which I hide from the Industry but not the women,’ he writes. Craven Hollywood agent by day, radical agitator by night, and round-the-clock horndog, he can’t understand why he’s catnip to ‘the Ladies’ Auxiliary’, as he calls his conquests. ‘Why me?’ he asks:

I don’t have movie star looks, haven’t much money … I’m not spectacularly hung … Probably they feel safe because I’m such poor husband material. The other factor in my favour is that, compared to most other guys, I have nothing to lose.

He nurses a jones for the agency’s older, married female boss. When his moment finally comes – her bare legs stretched before him on the coffee table – she says: ‘Take me – or your Christmas bonus.’ It’s a hilarious Jack Benny ‘Your money or your life’ moment. Our hero takes the spondulicks, natch. Is it true? The choice seems unreal; but it fits the genre requirements of film comedy.

Clancy, who spent his last thirty years in Los Angeles writing screenplays, among them In Love and War (1996), about Ernest Hemingway’s First World War experiences, and Frida (2002), a biopic about Frida Kahlo, had been a ‘movie balcony bug’ from the age of five. ‘The heart,’ he wrote, ‘never has to be lonely in a dark movie house.’ Among the many things he absorbed from the screen was how to mask his own agitation with a movie star’s display of perfect poise. The trick, he said, ‘learned long ago, originally from my mother for whom “keeping up a front” under stress was important, is temporarily to “be” somebody else.’ With a chronically absent father – in fact, his father had a secret second family, so Clancy was doubly betrayed while hardly acknowledged – he grew up with Jimmy Cagney, Robert Mitchum and Clark Gable as his ‘movie fathers’. From an early age he developed what he calls a ‘star astigmatism’. R.D. Laing later told him he had ‘the makings of a first-class schizophrenic’. His problem, he admits, was ‘slipp[ing] onto the soundstage of my mind where I can control the camera, lighting, make-up’.

Black Sunset, a memoir written with the pace and in the idiom of the tough guy movies he grew up on, is a case history of Clancy’s cinematic sleight of mind. Looking for a way of performing himself in the Hollywood jungle, he writes, ‘I audition myself all the time in front of a mirror, with gestures, intonations, timing.’ Eventually he settles on being Kirk Douglas ‘in his crueller moments (see Ace in the Hole and Champion)’. Here, the events may be true (he’s at pains to tell us he has fact-checked the incidents with the main cast of agency characters): it’s just Clancy’s responses to them which sometimes seem as if life was imitating MGM. For instance, the book opens with a chase: Clancy is dashing for Universal Pictures’ perimeter fence with wire cutters in his pocket, pursued by studio goons intent on banning him for ‘unethical, unscrupulous, underhanded behaviour’. (Usually this is done by not returning the offending agent’s telephone calls.) Renegade and fugitive, he is also, when the spirit grabs him, Jimmy Cagney dishing out one-liners and rough justice. At a bar, he spots a rival agent who’s been trying to steal one of his clients. Clancy sidles up to him and calls him out. The agent claims Clancy’s client is just a friend. Clancy kicks the bar stool away and sends the guy sprawling. ‘“Get a new friend,” I say and walk out.’ Cut. Print.

At another point in his slapstick saga, Clancy strikes up an acquaintance with the Mormon FBI agent who’s following him and routinely going through his garbage for clues to his subversive activity. ‘May I ask your denomination?’ the agent says, clearing his throat. ‘Five, tens and twenties,’ Clancy says. Ba-boom! Stars know his name and call to him: ‘Get the fuck outta here’ (Joan Crawford); ‘Pedantic little shit’ (Humphrey Bogart). On one occasion, the agency demands that he squire Louella Parsons, the doyenne of Hollywood dish, to an elegant company function. While he guides the boozed up Parsons around the dance floor in his tuxedo, she pees ‘hugely’ on the parquet. ‘Relax, kid,’ Bogart whispers to him in ‘that world-famous prison-lisp, ever so quietly. “She does it all the time. Pisses on us.”’

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Clancy knows the back lots and the business. For his B-list screenwriting client Stewart Stern, Clancy pulled off a coup by getting him big bucks and a big assignment: Rebel without a Cause. Afterwards, according to Clancy, Jack Warner pushed him against the wall – ‘He positively fire breathes Brut aftershave’ – and tore him off a strip. ‘Next time you rob me put a mask on your fucking face and do it with a gun!’ Warner growls. It’s a powerful two-shot. But Clancy can’t resist his close-up. Warner puts a manicured hand on Clancy’s shoulder. ‘But kluge,’ he says admiringly. (‘Clever’.) ‘Tsair kluge.’ (‘Very clever’.) And ‘struts away almost as if he has put something over on me’.

Clancy’s preternatural curiosity is his strong narrative suit; it makes him a first-rate reporter and an irresistible raconteur. In Black Sunset he sees the period’s toxic political climate in deep focus – ‘Informers rule my Hollywood.’ ‘The old rule was nothing happens without a script first. Today nothing happens without a person of talent tattling on his best friend. Nobody is innocent. You squeal to survive.’ Everything is seen through a political lens; in his rollicking report, Clancy can’t resist letting gossip and history collide:

[Barbara] Stanwyck was married to the ultra-conservative actor Robert Taylor, who betrayed fellow actors to the House [Un-American Activities] Committee, and she herself has just wrapped a B-minus picture with her personal friend Ronnie Reagan. Both Stanwyck and Robert Taylor are staunch members of the fang-dripping Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.

The writer Bud Schulberg helped liberate the death camps and captured the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

Next to J. Edgar Hoover, [Harry] Cohn has the finest surveillance system in the USA.

The director Edward Dmytrk probably got it right when he refused to give names and honourably served his prison time and then – surprise! – became employable again by testifying against his former comrades. Way to go, Eddie.

Clancy’s narrative voice is first-person confidential, as if he’d just slid into the luncheonette booth and put a quarter in the jukebox. ‘Keep in mind, I was hired because I’m the youngest agent so must have my finger on the growing youth audience. Right,’ he says, only to drop the bomb that he rejected as clients both James Dean and Elvis Presley. His prose is acrylic – swift and vivid. Clients are ‘mutts’, the editor of the Hollywood Reporter is a ‘mobbed-up blackmailer’, a ‘night-crawling crud’. Underneath the pyrotechnical display – Clancy enjoys juicing up the reader and himself – the undertow of the Red Scare plays out with an unmistakable whiff of real menace. Describing Martin Gang, a lawyer famous for scrubbing the stain of disloyalty from Hollywood personalities, Clancy writes:

He operates under a strategy that correctly perceives the Red Scare as driven by antisemitism by co-operating with congressional Jew-baiters who call famous actors by their Yiddish birth names (Emanuel Goldenberg, Jules Garfinkle, Bernie Schwartz, Sam Klausman etc) as if this is prima facie proof of treason. HUAC member Representative John Rankin curses them on the House floor as ‘Communist kikes’.

After two years pounding the back lots and working the studio corridors, at the age of 29 Clancy drove his red and white DeSoto convertible across America and went into European exile. ‘It came back to this, the sheer shock, in my own country, of walking along the street and seeing faces behind which are no ideas, or even enjoyment. No. No more of this. It was time to go,’ he wrote in Going Away: A Report, a Memoir (1961), which was nominated for the National Book Award. (‘It was as if On the Road had been written by someone with brains,’ the New York Times said.)

Clancy’s initial destination was Paris ‘to fuck Simone de Beauvoir’, he boasted to his Chicago homey and client, Nelson Algren, who, unbeknown to him, had beaten him to it. But with a cancelled US passport and no visa, his Gallic welcome wasn’t warm. He decided to return to America but not before a quick jump across the Channel for a couple of days. The London Lover: My Weekend that Lasted Thirty Years picks up the saga where Going Away left off.

Clancy’s life and his impressionistic retelling of it in these last two books adhere to the same principle: safety lies in speed when skating on thin ice. London Lover also begins with Clancy on the move, though at a more sedate, literary pace. ‘Keep going. Can’t stop. Cannot. Staying still makes you a target,’ he writes as he sets off on the passenger freighter Heraklion. ‘I’d arrived in an interregnum, after doodlebugs but before there was money to rebuild: stability of a sort,’ he says about the dilapidated London he found. ‘A bleak, otherworldly serenity has settled on the streetscape. It suits my mood perfectly. The cleared but still-wrecked streets seem to mirror my own “condition”.’ London, ‘emotionally restrained, perpetually one step behind and two drinks under’, vaccinates him finally from crazy-making American momentum: it’s ‘somewhere to slow me down’.

Even so Clancy inevitably gravitated to where the British action was. ‘Being at the centre of the action is the only thing that helps to reduce my state of perpetual terror,’ he said. He went on the Aldermaston March; down the Yorkshire pits to write Weekend in Dinlock (1960), a brilliant report on coal-mining life in the North; plunged into Swinging London’s youth culture; took part in the Notting Hill Riots; went into analysis with Laing, and was made acting chairman of Laing’s Philadelphia Association, which he helped to found; became an underground point man for the Vietnam War resisters; recrossed the pond in time to join the 1963 March on Washington. Disguised as ‘Saul Green’, he even found his way into one of his era’s major works of fiction, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

On his first night in London, Sigal, an illegal immigrant, slept in Trafalgar Square, where ‘yobbos in thick-soled boots kicked the crap out of me.’ After a time of sleeping rough, looking to rent a room, Clancy rolled up at 58 Warwick Road, SW5: Lessing’s doorstep. ‘See me now the way she probably does the first time,’ he writes. ‘Woollen watch cap pulled down over my wind-frozen ears, threadbare army field jacket with collar hiked up over a roll-neck cable-knit docker’s sweater, dirty jeans with thumb in waistband and fingers pointing unmistakably to crotch – I am the reincarnation of James Dean, feet planted firmly in an old pair of newspaper-stuffed GI combat boots: a working-class beauty in distress.’ Lessing got his drift. ‘He was examining me,’ she wrote in The Golden Notebook. ‘I have never in my life been subjected to as brutal a sexual inspection as that one.’ They lived together for four years. Lessing had Clancy’s number: ‘He had a jaunty soldier air, and I knew all his energies were absorbed in simply holding himself together,’ she writes, adding: ‘All his different personalities were fused in the being who fought only for survival.’

In Lessing, Clancy found the intellectual simulacrum of his mouthy, radical, seductive but elusive mother, Jennie Persily, whom he idealised as a ‘warrior queen’. (‘It seemed as if all that anger, resentment and pent-up fury she could never articulate, for fear of being consumed by it, shot straight into my veins,’ he wrote.) But where his mother’s legacy to him was, as he said, ‘love and catastrophe’, Lessing’s was more benign, boundaried and bountiful. ‘She is a fabulous improvisational cook, dashing from her writing table to the kitchen to please her man, producing stews and home-baked bread on demand … What she isn’t, is a natural nurse,’ he writes. ‘If I moan and groan, fall over and blank out, race around the house hyper-anxiously, Doris will not play Florence Nightingale. The unstated position is: you, Clancy, have to take the consequences of what you are. She’s one tough farm girl.’

Clancy fitted easily into Lessing’s louche bohemian scene. He educated her in poker and American jazz. He put her in stylish clothes; she put him into Play with a Tiger (1962), her new play at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. ‘Watching Doris madly type … was like standing next to the vibrations of a huge whirring literary turbine,’ Clancy writes. ‘It seems to have energised me too.’ Lessing was not only Clancy’s ticket to write but to ride; she helped him navigate London’s cultural labyrinth. ‘You have a god-given gift for literary bullshit,’ the head of Clancy’s Hollywood agency observed. He moved sharpish up the literary food chain, becoming part of the talentocracy he was drawn to. Laurence Olivier commissioned him (along with Kenneth Tynan) to write a musical on nuclear war; the Spectator appointed him film critic, and his friend David Astor got him permanent residence and made him a regular reporter on the Observer.

Lessing and Sigal inspired and tormented each other in equal measure. ‘She blames me for forcing her into other men’s arms. (“You made me do it. I’m really a one-man woman. Why did you make me your slut?”) Hypocrite that she is, she never confesses to the randy pleasure she freely takes. All I ask is that she bathe afterwards,’ he writes, adding: ‘Eew, the unwashed look of that leather jacketed biker poet!’ Clancy is particularly amusing about watching a parade of African lovers pass through Lessing’s kitchen. ‘They couldn’t be more straightforward about viewing Doris, the London left’s Rita Hayworth, as their property,’ he writes. Harry Nknumbula, co-chief of the Northern Rhodesian African Congress, sends Clancy packing with: ‘When I walk in the door of Mrs Lessing, you walk out, boy. Understand?’ Kenneth Kaunda, who would go on to become Zambia’s first president, shows him the door with more grace. ‘You must forgive us, Clancy. Detention with hard labour is not the best place to learn how to capture a woman’s heart.’ Although they would remain friends, the last words Lessing said to him when he moved out were: ‘I have to protect myself from you.’

In leaving America, Clancy also left behind the FBI. He needed villains in his life, he says, but ‘the only villain left [was] myself’. His pain, he admitted, was ‘hard to locate’. Enter Laing and Clancy’s radical attempt to dismantle and heal his manic tormented self. (Clancy dubbed Laing ‘Willie Last’ in his satirical novel Zone of the Interior, published in 1976. Laing threatened libel action, so the novel was published here after Laing’s death.) At the time they met in his Wimpole Street office, Laing was in his mid-thirties, ‘with the doomed beauty of a haunted artist’. Clancy was immediately wowed by ‘his colourful slum background’. But in fact, he adds, Laing had been ‘fashionably downgrading his real Presbyterian middle-class origins in Glasgow.’ Laing called himself a ‘sojer [soldier] of the mind’, and Clancy was quickly enlisted in ‘his assault on “bourgeois” sanity’.

And so began his wacky analysis, which sometimes had Laing and Clancy switching roles, ‘he becoming the patient and I the therapist, and we celebrate this together in his office or my flat by swilling (then legal) LSD straight from the Swiss Sandoz lab.’ Soon enough, Clancy became part of Laing’s inner psychoanalytic circle, whose belief was that ‘life itself is but a bleak purification ceremony on the way to extinction of ego.’ ‘Without irony we call ourselves “a revolutionary community of the elect” (like the early Bolsheviks) where admittance is by damaged heart,’ he says. ‘A fascism of the spirit creeps unnoticed into our little circle.’

The setpiece of this fascinating section ends with Clancy as den mother at Kingsley Hall, the alternative community set up by the Philadelphia Association for the non-restrictive treatment of schizophrenics. He is there to open its doors to the forty-year-old former army nurse Mary Barnes, ‘our first non-celebrity schizophrenic’, who is also significantly Clancy’s ‘first major test of patience and humanity as a caretaker of the mad’. Things don’t go well. Barnes is ‘totally whacked out, given to flinging her faeces all over herself and bystanders and me’. Clancy ends up patrolling the halls with a cricket bat to keep Barnes and the other florid denizens in line, a treatment which finally gets him traded from Kingsley Hall to another anti-psychiatry warren, David Cooper’s Villa 21, an experimental ward for male acute schizophrenics under thirty at state-run Shenley Hospital ‘in London’s countrified suburbia’. Or, as Clancy describes it, ‘hard-core musical theatre, not just one Lost Note but a Whole Fucking Chorus’.

For nearly two years, shuttling between both halfway houses, Clancy too descended into madness. One night, after a lunatic spree, he bolted from a candlelit supper with Laing – ‘He saves sanity, drives you mad’ – and his team at Kingsley Hall, only to be set upon by them and dragged back. ‘They stick hypo needles full of the anti-psychotic Largactil into me, despite my futile screams of protest.’ Later that night, he climbed to the roof of the building and contemplated jumping. ‘Without my summoning him,’ he writes, ‘my long-absent dad, the guy who can’t remember my name appears. There he is, inside my head, large as life, curling his lip at me: “Punk! Loser!”’ Clancy goes on: ‘Slowly, ever so slowly, suicide’s seductive grip loosens, and I tumble backward off the ledge onto the balcony, saving my own life.’

What saved Clancy was his wit, his inquiring mind, and his courage to speak up. Instead of going mad, he bore witness to the folly of his times. Deadlines, he said, became ‘my true religion’. A tempestuous first marriage to the feminist writer Margaret Walters – over which his book casts a benevolent un-real light – sent him first into hiding in North London and finally back to America, where he fell in love, married and, in his late sixties, became a father for the first time.

A few months before he died I visited Clancy for a few hours at his West Hollywood home. Back in the mid-1980s, when he was on the run from Walters, I’d found a basement flat on my street for him to lie doggo; we had only seen each other a few times over the years since he first decamped to LA. Even in his absence, though, Clancy’s feisty blog kept his acid thoughts and youthful spirit in mind. Anger is a great anti-depressant; right up to the end, Clancy was full of fine, fulminating fury, and punching very much above his now shrunken weight. One wallop will have to stand for many:

Before we rush to embrace the FBI’s ‘proud tradition of impartiality and neutrality’ just because Trump screwed the pooch in firing its fumbling director Comey, just hold on a second … J. Edgar never died, his paranoid ghost stalks us. The agency is a rigid top down yessir nosir bureaucracy with a historical and irresistible tendency to break and bend laws. (It messed up the 9/11 investigation by not listening to its own whistle-blowers. It loves entrapping dumb-as-dogshit, mentally retarded ‘terrorists’.) By many accounts, the agency was virulently anti-Hillary and today is ‘Trumplandia’ with agents openly admitting who they voted for. Within living memory the agency engineered COINTELPRO, to illegally disrupt antiwar, civil rights and left groups; and colluded with presidents Kennedy and Nixon to smear Martin Luther King into (they hoped) suicide.

I remember being startled by his entrance into the living room. A pile of Black Sunset, newly arrived from the American publisher, was on the hallway table. As he came in, Clancy jostled the table with his stroller, collapsing the pile of books. He clocked what had happened, shrugged, and flashed a jaunty hello. He was wearing a red baseball cap which stayed on his head all night. In his books, Clancy liked to leave ’em laughing; in life, he practised the same civility. He put on a cocky show that night – and never let on that he was going blind. (Now that I’ve read his last books, I wonder who he was playing. Walter Matthau? Spencer Tracy? William Powell?) He wanted all the London news – the old friends, the old neighbourhood, the kids now grown up and, of course, who was writing what – but he kept his own recent private battles with Legionnaires’ disease, insomnia, chronic sciatica, quadruple bypass, to himself. In the kitchen, while Janice and I cleared away the plates, she mentioned that Clancy had been in such pain with the sciatica that he wanted to die – a sentiment that in no way jibed with the guffawing, good-natured guy in the dining-room waiting for his strudel.

Until the end, by which time he’d gone blind, Clancy kept writing and pronouncing himself to the world. ‘You want to die; you want to write?’ Janice reports saying to him. ‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘There is no contradiction.’