He was a street-corner communist agitator in the early 1940s, then a Second World War soldier who stared down one of the chief architects of the Holocaust at a Nazi war-crimes trial. In Hollywood, he was Humphrey Bogart’s agent before being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He was a promising novelist in the 1960s, experimented with LSD in London and was the model for a character in one of the 20th century’s most celebrated novels.
In his 90 adventurous years, until his death on 16 July in Los Angeles, Clancy Sigal led a life overflowing with action, famous names, firings, breakups and a vision of America – at once earnest and cynical – born of many years as an expatriate.
Among his several novels, one (Going Away) was a finalist for America’s National Book Award. Since its first US publication in 1962, it has become a cult favourite and has been compared favourably to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as a restless portrait of 1950s America.
“It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains,” critic John Leonard wrote in The New York Times about Sigal. “His intelligence is always ticking. His ear is superb. His sympathies are promiscuous. His sin is enthusiasm.”
There were countless love affairs along the way, and Sigal was briefly part of the Paris intellectual world of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the author of the feminist manifesto The Second Sex. Sigal hoped to seduce De Beauvoir, but he failed in that amorous attempt and was hastily driven out of Paris, by some accounts, at the point of a gun.
He moved in 1957 to London, where he rented a room from writer Doris Lessing, who 50 years later won the Nobel Prize for literature. During their four-year affair, each of them furtively read the other’s diaries and notebooks. Sigal was clearly the basis for the character of Saul Green, a handsome “American lefty” who was the lover of Anna Wulf, the protagonist of Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook.
Sigal spent 30 years in Britain, working as a journalist and BBC commentator before returning to the US in the late 1980s. Rejuvenated in a city he once condemned as a place of “too many freeways, too much sun, too much abnormality taken normally”, he wrote screenplays and published several books, including a memoir about the woman who occupied his thoughts more than any other: his remarkable, cinematically colourful free spirit of a mother.
His story began in Chicago, where he was…