By Clancy Sigal

Icon Books. 340 pages. £12.99. ISBN 978-178578-439-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Towards the end of his life Clancy Sigal was ďProfessor Emeritus at the University of Southern CaliforniaĒ, a position which might have seemed somewhat at odds with his previous experiences as a soldier, union organiser, Hollywood agent, blacklisted writer, journalist, and novelist. Iíve missed out a few short-term jobs that he took when he was being hounded from one to another by the FBI who had him down as a subversive element. And then again, perhaps all the adventures and misadventures connected with those occupations might have been just what a professor needed in his background. No ivory tower for him. He may have taught writing in his professorial role, but heíd not come out of any creative writing programmes himself.

Sigal was born in Chicago in 1926. His parents were Jewish-Russian union organisers, his father reputedly packing a pistol as part of his job, and his mother, who essentially raised Sigal when his father disappeared, a vibrant woman commemorated in his book, 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.

Sigal joined the American Communist Party when he was fifteen, went into the army when he was eighteen and, after a stint in Germany, returned to America and resumed his radical activities. The problem was that, as the anti-Nazi alliance with Russia ended and the Cold War began, left-wingers, and especially communists, were looked on with suspicion. Unions were starting to purge them from their ranks. Sigal moved to the West Coast where he was, for a time, employed in the film studios until his political activism caught up with him and he was blacklisted.

He left the USA in the mid-1950s, passing through France and eventually making his way to Britain. He mixed with left-wingers in London, had an affair with Doris Lessing (see his novel, The Secret Defector) and wrote Weekend in Dinlock, an account of his friendship with Len Doherty, a miner from the North-East who was also a novelist. The book actually portrays Doherty as a painter called Davie, and its bleak descriptions of life in a Yorkshire pit village didnít go down well with some people on the Left in Britain. The workers werenít portrayed as political or noble enough.

A second book that Sigal wrote, Going Away, may well be the one that he is best remembered for. An autobiographical novel, it described his journey across the United States as he headed for New York and the ship to Europe. Along the way, he called on old friends, now keeping their heads down as the anti-communist crusade forced people out of jobs and sometimes into prison, and he reflected on what had happened to his country.

Before leaving Los Angeles in 1956, Sigal had worked as a talent agent, a job which brought him into contact with a variety of actors, writers, and others employed in films. It is this period of his life that is covered in Black Sunset. At the same time that he was an agent he was being watched by other kinds of agents, those belonglng to the FBI. They regularly called on him, and itís a characteristic of Sigalís writing that he is always self-depreciatory and never tries to portray himself in a heroic light. He admits to being worried, even scared, by their visits. The amusing thing is that, knowing of his contacts with film stars, they ask if he can fix them up with dates, and even a screen test.

He was also still mixing with radicals in Los Angeles, though the group he was involved with do not seem to have been orthodox communists, and he mentions that Dorothy Healey, a West Coast Party leader, disapproved of what she saw as their frivolous tactics and behaviour. Itís interesting to note that, although the FBI had caused Sigal to be fired from some other jobs, he appears to have somehow managed to hold down the one at the talent agency. He had been subpoenad to appear before HUAC, though the hearing was cancelled just before he was called. For those interested in the period of the blacklists in Hollywood, he says that the screenwriter, Paul Jarrico, had been grilled by the Committee immediately prior to Sigalís session being suspended. Jarrico refused to co-operate and was blacklisted.

Sigal had some success as an agent, though the agency he was employed by tended to limit his activities in various ways. They were wary of his radical reputation. Still, he got to meet Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, Gloria Grahame, Dorothy McGuire, Humphrey Bogart, and others. He was a big enough film fan to be impressed, sometimes almost awe-struck, at being in their presence. He has a number of stories about the film-making process, again with a degree of self-depreciation coming into them. Accidentally involved and blacked up to play a native in a Curt Siodmak horror film, he rightly incurs the contempt of the genuinely black actor, Woody Strode. On another occasion, he angers Barbara Stanwyck by creeping around a studio set, trying to get a look at her and in the process disrupting a scene by knocking over some equipment.

If heís star-struck by actors and actresses, he is interested in writers. He refers to Daniel Fuchs, a novelist who published three critically-acclaimed, but financially-unsuccesful, books in the 1930s, and then decided that Hollywood might be a better way of looking after his family. And he mentions Nelson Algren, Horace McCoy, John Fante, James Agee, ďan honour role of novelists and poets who have a calling, not a movie career, and really donít belong in HollywoodĒ. He doesnít disregard those writers who do mostly make their living in films and names Ernest Lehman, Charles Lederer, and two ďgreat western writersĒ, Frank Davis and Frank Nugent, as worthy of respect.

Insofar as the blacklist generally is concerned, Sigal points to how many people it affected, not all of them well-known and therefore largely overlooked when histories of the period are written. He did meet Martin Berkeley, who probably held the record for the number of names (155) he gave to HUAC, and he tells how Clifford Odets addressed a meeting where he called on everyone to defy the Committee, and the following day appeared before it and named names. It was a sad time in Hollywood, and Sigal is honest enough to say that he drew up a list of people he could name as communists or ex-communists, and always wondered if heíd have used it had he been called on to testify.

There are good people he meets. Dale Robertson, star of minor cowboy films. And Peter Lorre, who for all his problems seems pleasant. Donna Reed comes across as decent, and so does Dorothy McGuire. They make a marked contrast to someone like the gossip-monger, Louella Parsons, whose bad behaviour is overlooked because of the damage she can wreak in her columns for newspapers. Sigal is also dismissive of right-wing types like Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, and Ward Bond, all of whom managed to stay safely in America while other actors served in various theatres of war.

Black Sunset is a racy, fast-moving account of Sigalís ups and downs in Hollywood at a time when the film industry was experiencing economic problems as TV began to make incursions into peopleís leisure activities, and HUAC was having its baleful effect. Itís also a feast for anyone who finds American cinema, with all its failings and foibles, utterly fascinating. Sigal was a film fan and laces his narrative with frequent references to old films, and their actors, writers, and directors. And heís often very funny.