Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner: Review of Clancy Sigal's A Woman of Uncertain Character: The Amorous & Radical Adventures of My Mother Jennie (Who Always Wanted to Be a Respectable Jewish Mom) By Her Bastard Son (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006)

Jun 19, 2006 8:50 am

Murray Polner: Review of Clancy Sigal's A Woman of Uncertain Character: The Amorous & Radical Adventures of My Mother Jennie (Who Always Wanted to Be a Respectable Jewish Mom) By Her Bastard Son (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006)

In 1982, on the eve of departing from England after thirty years, Clancy Sigal wrote “Goodbye Little England,” for the Guardian in which he praised South Yorkshire’s working people, “a class I’m from rather than the one I’m in.” He was a “tweenie,” he confessed, “a demographic half-caste,” so typical of many American writers who rose from poor and working class homes and later tried to sentimentally memorialize their origins while escaping into a higher class with far greater creature comforts.

It was his mother, Jenny Persily, who set him straight. “Rise with, not from, your class,” she would tell him.

Never forgetting, this was Sigal’s mother’s credo in A Woman of Uncertain Character. Jennie was an unwed mother at 31 raising an only child. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, she was a dedicated pacifist and socialist who, like his often absent father Leo Sigal, a craftsman in a job which no longer exists-- "quality shirt ironing and finishing" --- doubled as union organizers when labor's muscle came to be almost if not quite equal in power to corporations outside the South, rather than as they are today, struggling for new members.

His parents were also anti-communist. “For Jennie and Leo, the Stalinists were gangsters who betrayed the American union movement with their slippery shenanigans and secretive agendas.” Leo carried a weapon while Jennie lectured and hectored workers to “awake and sing”—a la the Clifford Odets' play reflecting those troubled years—and waited patiently for Leo (and other men) to show up as he did from time to time. Leo, however, had another, legal family. Even so, Jennie as portrayed by her son, was a proud woman and mother, and her models were all hell-raisers: Emma Goldman and her lover Alexander Berkman, who once tried to kill Carnegie Steel’s Henry Frick, as well as John Reed, Clarence Darrow and Upton Sinclair. Both she and Leo battled company-hired mobsters, yellow dog union goons, scabs, communist thugs and the cops. Justice for working people, lovemaking and organizing was their creed. If they were alive today no doubt they’d be horrified about the many millions of Americans who don’t take a stand in defense of their civic and economic rights.

Left alone to raise her son, Jennie worked in garment factories to support Clancy. While organizing she dragged him to different cities and towns. Once, in Chattanooga, while the local racist newspapers were sensationalizing the Scottsboro trial in neighboring Alabama, she tried to get black women workers to join a union and was promptly escorted out of town, young Clancy in tow.

Unlike his parents, Sigal joined the Communist Party at 15 for reasons he doesn’t quite explain other than to say it was to rile his mother and presumably assert his independence. Was it a deliberate affront to his anti-Communist parents? Did he believe Moscow’s authoritarianism to be more effective in rescuing the nation from economic disaster or Hitler?

Many then honestly believed in the fiction that only Communists had the guts and programs capable of resisting the bosses and fascism. Communists, of course, were more acceptable than Republicans, especially during the Second World War when the Red Army destroyed the German armies and thereby helped save the West from surrender or defeat.

Yet in his native Chicago’s Jewish neighborhood, while every shade of socialism had its supporters, most clearly loved and voted repeatedly for FDR.

Sigal’s unflinching interpretation is more than a mere tribute to a strong and resourceful mother. It’s also a political and historical recollection how she and others were forced to fend for themselves and their larger communities during the awful years of the Great Depression, the rise of communism and fascism, the wars at home and abroad, the bitter unresolved conflicts between labor and capital, and the emergence of McCarthy, McCarran, and HUAC and their ilk. Once when FBI agents came calling to ask about Clancy’s politics, Jennie asked her pal, the Los Angeles police chief’s mom, to get them to lay off her boy. Which they did.

When he left Chicago after his army discharge he moved west to study at UCLA and then worked as a lowly employee in one of Hollywood’s film factories. In “Hollywood During the Great Fear,” a piece he wrote at my request years after his return to the U.S. for Present Tense, a magazine I edited, he portrayed himself as an insignificant cog in Harry Cohn’s Columbia studio. Told--no, ordered-- to sign a loyalty oath, he demurred. A “bureaucratic monster” had emerged, he wrote, which included those who did the firing of studio employees and those who told them who to fire. Sigal was denounced as a subversive by mercenary red-hunters with information fed them by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. He refused to sign, and one of Cohn’s executives demanded of him, “Who are you to step out of line?” demanded a studio executive pointing to his personal safe. “Right in there I have affidavits from Judy Holliday, Aldo Ray, Rita Hayworth.” Sigal, a Hollywood nobody, still balked and was blacklisted. (Ironically, he recently was the main screenwriter for the film Frida, the biopic of the painter Frida Kahler).

Out of work with no job prospects, and taking a leaf from his peripatetic parents, Sigal left for England, but fortunately with a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship in his pocket. He went on to write his classic work of McCarthy’s America, Going Away, in which he described visiting silent radicals terrified lest they alert the new Torqumadas prowling the nation.

More than all else he wants his ten-year-old son to know about Jennie. People like his parents, Sigal muses, “are indispensable to the health of the nation because without them very little good would be accomplished: they have what it takes to go against the currents of ignorance, superstition, ugliness and injustice,” characteristics not unknown in our past and present. If nothing else they could not remain passive observers. Sigal’s forceful memoir imparts a crucial lesson his son will do well to remember all his life.

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Louis N Proyect - 5/27/2006

Interesting review. I had a series of exchanges with him after panning "Frida", for which he wrote the screenplay. When he stumbled across my review, he gave me a piece of his mind. I really like him, even though we don't quite see things the same way politically. For people interested in reading his views on current events, go to and do a search for "Clancy Sigal"