Ballad of a Wounded Man

Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal and Raging Egos BY Clancy Sigal. Soft Skull Press. Paperback, 250 pages. $17.

The cover of Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal and Raging Egos

I’d long had it in the back of my mind to write something about Clancy Sigal, which according to my notes I’d provisionally titled “The Man Who Fascinated Women (Writers).” Whatever it is in me that’s drawn to wounded men—and Clancy was a great one of the species—I suspect the fact that Doris Lessing got to this one first, branding him as her property, was no small part of the allure. Clancy and I spoke once on the phone, mostly about his thing with Lessing, but I never followed through. I guess he gave up waiting, since he went ahead and died in July, at age ninety. I don’t think he’d mind some irreverence about his departure.

Our acquaintance, such as it was, started in a peculiar way. A decade or so ago I was asked to participate in the test-drive of a software platform, funded by a big foundation, designed to revolutionize the concept of the book group. A bunch of other women writers and I were supposed to read Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which had been scanned into this software, and type our comments in the margins of the book; then the reading public would join in, blogging about our comments, all of which would effectively transform TGN into an exciting interactive text. I think the master plan was that virtual book-reading collectives would soon erupt worldwide and literacy would flourish, though for reasons I never learned, none of this got past the beta stage.

When we arrived at the section of TGN where the Saul Green character first appears—this is Anna Wulf’s tormented, magnetic American boarder, with whom she’s fated to fall “hopelessly in love”—as someone always pleased to have a bit of literary gossip to share, I said that Saul Green was based on Clancy Sigal, the American writer and Communist who was one of Lessing’s lovers. Sigal had himself written a novel in which Lessing was a character, I wrote, adding, “I read his autobiography years ago but remember nothing of it.”

Something about Saul Green has always riveted me. Maybe it’s that he so transfixes Anna: He’s bristling, disruptive, mocking, all too fuckworthy. She claims to hate the “brutal sexual inspection” he subjects her to on first meeting—“there was no humour in it, no warmth, just the stockman’s comparison-making”—but it’s not like her inspection of him is any less brutal: She scrutinizes his suspicious pallor, the way he covers his lies with compulsive verbiage, the whimpering in his sleep, the neurotic isolation he exudes. Even the way he stands, like a caricature of an American in the movies: “sexy he-man, all balls and strenuous erection.” He’s a cad, sleeping his way through left-wing London, but she’s never met a man with as much insight into a woman—or such a “real man” in bed. She humiliates herself by reading his diaries to find out which of her friends he’s bedding on any given day; when she dreams about him, he’s an “old dwarfed malicious man” with a great menacing penis protruding through his clothes.

Shortly after my comment about the Saul-Clancy connection, a reader with the handle “Brutalman” posted on the blog section of the website: “What a pity Laura Kipnis could not remember Clancy Sigal’s ‘autobiography.’ (Actually, ain’t no such animal, but still.) That hurts.” This took a few beats to process. Who on earth would know whether or not Clancy Sigal had written an autobiography? He wasn’t exactly a household name. Also, there was something about the phrase “ain’t no such animal” that struck me—it reminded me of Saul Green himself, who’s always calling Anna “lady,” like a movie gangster or cowboy (“Lady, you sure know how to make me feel a hick”), and correcting her naïveté about life.

The post continued:

I love the phrase—I slightly paraphrase—“brutal sexual inspection” that Anna undergoes at the hands, or under the eyes, of Saul Green. Another way of looking at it is that Saul was looking at her openly and frankly as opposed to what Anna may have been used to, sidelong and embarrassed glances by middle class Englishmen who had a tormented sexual history at their public schools. Just a possibility.

It was signed “BRUTALMAN,” in forceful, manly caps.

Intrigued, I posted a reply, asking Brutalman to elaborate—was it a roman à clef I’d read, then? He seemed awfully familiar with the Sigal oeuvre, I pointed out, hoping to elicit more. No reply. The less I heard from Brutalman, the more I kept checking the blog. Nothing. Like Anna Wulf, I’d been reeled in and left wanting more. “You’re looking for happiness,” Saul tells her, with no little condescension. “It’s a word that never meant anything to me until I watched you manufacturing it like molasses out of this situation.”

So I did what Anna does: I overanalyzed, trying to pinion Brutalman with my critical calipers. “You see the same vacillation between injury (‘that hurts’—said ironically, but still) and swaggering that characterizes Lessing’s portrait of Saul,” I posted, wanting to force Brutalman out of the shadows and get him to admit what I knew was true.

If Brutalman was obviously Sigal, then Brutalman was obviously also Saul Green, meaning that a character from one of the classics of modern literature had leaped from two dimensions to three, and was speaking to me from somewhere in the ether. It struck me that what resonated about Saul was how much Sigal must have emblazoned himself on Lessing. It felt like I’d been inducted into the notebooks myself, another of Anna’s friends with a crush on Saul, constantly ringing the flat too early in the morning.

Clancy Sigal and Doris Lessing, England, 1958. Courtesy Janice Tidwell.
Clancy Sigal and Doris Lessing, England, 1958. Courtesy Janice Tidwell.

I made some inquiries—of course, Brutalman turned out to be Sigal—and eventually managed to get in touch with the man himself, who was living in Los Angeles. After returning to the States following a protracted stay (thirty years) in the UK, he’d written the screenplay for the 2002 biopic Frida, and taught periodically at USC. I called, we chatted, but it was a terrible connection, as you’d expect when bridging the fiction-reality divide. I’d wanted to ask him what it was like to have your ex plunder your life for a book and then win the Nobel Prize, while your own books go out of print. He parried. “Don’t blame me for her clothes. I don’t know what she’s up to with the Grandma Moses look.” This was catty but funny—Lessing was then still alive, and according to recent pictures had indeed thrown in the towel, fashion-wise. I asked how close the portrait of Saul had been. He said he’d known she was reading his diaries and had invented stuff to rile her, but what she didn’t know was that he was reading her diary too.

I said I’d like to come to LA and interview him; he agreed. A lot of other “lady writers” had written about him, he informed me, not just Lessing. Apparently I’d be joining a club I hadn’t known existed.

For some reason I never got back in touch, though I’ve always wished I had. When a mutual acquaintance messaged last spring to suggest I write something about Sigal’s latest book, Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal, and Raging Egos (Soft Skull Press, $18), I said I would, and asked him to tell Clancy. I knew he was getting on in years; I hoped there wouldn’t be an obit before I turned in the piece.

Black Sunset is, I can attest this time around, an autobiography: a funny, cynical, score-settling romp through blacklist-era Hollywood, where Sigal had managed to charm his way into a junior-agent job with the legendary Sam Jaffe, whose clients included Humphrey Bogart. What a life: Girls dropped their girdles left and right; Peter Lorre was a drinking buddy. Except Sigal was also being trailed everywhere he went by two FBI agents in fedoras (he nicknames them Mutt and Jeff), threatened about his pinko connections, and eventually subpoenaed to testify before HUAC.

In a book obsessed with who did or didn’t name names, it’s Sigal’s antiheroics that are remarkable. When Mutt and Jeff show up regularly on his doorstep, he puts on a tough-guy front, but afterward gets diarrhea and skin rashes. Of course he was also subsisting on a toxic combo of speed, downers, asthma inhalers, and White Horse mixed with buttermilk, perhaps accounting for Saul Green’s loose clothes when he too eventually decamps America for Lessing’s London.

Unlike the smug Hollywood liberals of our day—I mean the ones who pointedly refused to stand when name-namer Elia Kazan got his honorary Oscar, sure they’d never cut their consciences to fit the fashion of the time despite having faced no character test greater than whether to buy fair-trade coffee—Sigal lacked moral vanity. He knew firsthand what it means to be “fired for cause” when you won’t sign the requisite loyalty oath. It means you can’t get another job—his FBI pals made sure of that. He was even fired from a job cleaning toilets, leaving him so destitute he started dumpster-diving for leftovers.

After Jaffe took him in, Sigal carried a list of nine names in his wallet with him at all times, unsure whether he’d actually use them. On the day he was supposed to testify, the committee recessed early, so he never had to find out. All of which makes him a shrewd student of the “vast cosmology of informers,” with its gradations of betrayal: Was the testimony voluntary or coerced? How many lives were ruined? Was there an institutionalized wife to protect?

Saul Green, who’d been kicked out of the party for being “prematurely anti-Stalinist,” then “blacklisted in Hollywood for being a red,” is less insouciant about the experience—his political bitterness is an emotional tourniquet. But Black Sunset is more antic than tragic: Despite the backdrop of devastated lives and moral idiocy, each day was a new caper. Whose version to favor? The intensity of Anna’s desire for Saul Green still feels charged, wracked, alive. Sigal’s self-portrait is more reconciled—a few hatreds linger, but the wants and strifes no longer gnaw.

It’s good to know that if you live long enough, history turns your antagonists into clowns and bitterness recedes into reminiscence. Meanwhile, new political clowns take the stage, new witch hunts are mounted, and the lady writers keep scribbling about the brutal men.

Laura Kipnis is the author, most recently, of Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Harper, 2017).