Jennie Persily, with her fiery red hair, buxom figure, and bohemian spirit, is a strong-willed fighter for justice and a passionate lover. A Russian-Jewish émigré who organizes unions in the sweatshops and on the mean streets of Chicago during the thirties and forties, Jennie frequently brings her son—the book’s author, Clancy Sigal—along to rallies and on dangerous missions, often eluding union-busting hit men.
As unsentimental, intelligent, and brazen as its subject, A Woman of Uncertain Character is a candid look into a childhood shaped by a feverishly brave, sexually open, and very complex mother. Sigal gains a deep, satisfying understanding of the woman who made him, and the world that made her.
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About the Author
Sigal moved to London in the 1950s and stayed in the UK for thirty years, writing and broadcasting regularly from the same BBC studios that George Orwell had used. During the Vietnam War, he was the “stationmaster” of a London safe house for American GI deserters and draft dodgers. For several years, he collaborated with the radical “anti-psychiatrists” R. D. Laing and David Cooper, with whom he founded Kingsley Hall in London’s East End, a halfway house for so-called incurable cases.
Sigal’s most recent book was the memoir Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal, and Raging Egos (Soft Skull Press, 2016).
Read an Excerpt
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
By Clancy Sigal
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Clancy Sigal
All rights reserved.
A Chat with Grandma
Like Dr. Frankenstein, I, Jennie's son, bring the dead back to life. In Hollywood, where I write movies, I helped raise Frida Kahlo from her grave, gave the kiss of life to Sandra Bullock as the wartime nurse who was Hemingway's first love, and resurrected Maria Callas and Simone de Beauvoir. The only woman who has resisted my touch is my own mother. It should be a piece of cake, since no producer is leaning over my shoulder to demand a "money shot."
A story comes easier if you imagine the actress who plays the lead, so I'm casting not one, but three stars in Jennie's role: Reese Witherspoon (in a red wig) as my mother the teenage sweatshop worker and strike leader; Julia Roberts with her glorious swagger as the single mother of a mutinous son; and Susan Sarandon or Kathy Bates as the scandalous, liberated older woman putting it all out there. Jennie hated sentimental self-sacrifice, so Meg Ryan is all wrong for the part. Ma, who loved movies, might have preferred Myrna Loy or Ginger Rogers, but that's not possible.
The story that follows tracks my obsession with—and journey toward—a woman it has taken all my life to find through her miasma of lies and half-truths and evasions. What a genius she was at covering her trail. Why do our parents do it? What's in it for them?
I'd make a good cold-case detective, slow but tenacious.
Author's note: Writing Jennie's story is to violate the most fundamental compact between my mother and me—to keep it strictly between ourselves. Squealing—informing—was lower than murder, worse than the ultimate crime of scabbing on a picket line. Our conspiracy of silence became second nature, as it is in Mafia families. Style was ultra-important to my mother, and her mode was extreme poise under stress, iron calmness at all costs. She did not warn, prompt, or sermonize on the absolute need for secrecy, but enforced our Jewish form of omerta merely by a single lift of her arched eyebrow or a quick sidelong glance. For a long time I felt that talking or writing about her would be like ratting out—a violent betrayal of everything in our culture.
But now that I am a father and tempted to veil from my son certain facts of my own life, I see where family mystery gets us: Nowhere.
Even before I was ten—my son Joe's age now—I was already Jennie's accomplice and partner in crime. It was like being a Mob kid, except in reverse. We were the good guys, the union people, against whom Al Capone and Meyer Lansky supplied the paid goons who beat up my parents and their friends. But this wasn't like The Untouchables. In real life, the lines of morality got all twisty and tangled. Our little household, moving from city to city and state to state, had an in with "connected" guys, tank town gorillas who could be lured away from strikebreaking by a decent enough bribe. We lived in a twilight world between law and lawless and were comfortable in the commute.
In the 1930s there was no clear boundary between honest trade unionist and hoodlum-for-hire because, in a world of shifting alliances and desperate men and women, you couldn't afford legalistic ethical judgments. Leo Sigal, my dad, packed a Colt .45 model 1911 with a five-inch barrel; Jennie Persily, my mother, although a sworn pacifist, used her fists, as well as her strong voice, on scabs. In the furnished rooms we kept moving in and out of, Jennie and Leo entertained a cosmopolitan cocktail of small-time criminals, professional and accidental hoboes, drifters, curbstone philosophers, Prohibition-era ex-bootleggers, Wobblies (International Workers of the World) committed to industrial sabotage ("propaganda of the deed"), anarchists, and freeloaders, a swirling soup of men and a few women devoted, in one degree or another, to the union faith. Until I was an adult I thought every home was like this.
This story is for Joe.
San Fernando Valley, a day before yesterday.
It's a furnace-hot day in Los Angeles. From a free kick, the little green soccer ball arcs high into the eye-achingly blue cloudless sky over Kagel Canyon, which lies in the northeast corner of "the valley" not far from the Charles Manson ranch across the Santa Susannah mountains and the 118 freeway. My son, Joseph Franklin Sigal, a husky blond boy, toe-nurses the soccer ball among rusty bronze grave markers that are inscribed with names like Zaretsky, Cohen, Friedman, and Zimmerman. He's brought along a baseball and glove for insurance and our Australian shepherd Kelly, who's going crazy in the dry grass.
Joe hopscotches atop the markers to retrieve his soccer ball at the goalpost he has invented—Grave H, Plot 77—on a sunny slope in the Workmen's Circle section of the Glen Haven cemetery. The plaque here does not say, as others do, "Beloved Mother and Grandmother" or "Beloved Wife and Mother," but reads simply, "Jennie Persily Sigal—a woman of the working class." The soccer ball rests on the little mound of earth where my wife Janice—Joe's mother—and I bend to clean away the accumulated leaves and weeds from Jennie's marker. Then Joe dribbles the ball away from the grave while idly munching a peanut butter sandwich.
"Hey Joe," I call, "be more respectful. Grandma is sleeping."
"No, she isn't," he responds in that surprisingly deep voice for a ten-year-old. "She's dead." He may still believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy but is strict about being fibbed to.
Over the graves, we start lobbing his Eric Gagne-signed ball and I teach him my side-arm splitter "slurve" from a recently recovered baseball memory.
When Joe moves away to inspect some ants under an elm tree, Janice leaves me alone with Jennie. I kneel on the grass and, as usual, confide my troubles to Ma, like George C. Scott in Patton muttering holy thoughts to his wounded GIs.
Joseph Franklin is getting restless. Janice takes him by the hand and they stand over Jennie's modest marker, which is oxydized almost green by rain and sun. Joe asks, "What do you and Granma Jennie talk about?" "Oh," I say, "world politics, the Academy Awards, and does the Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter have a girlfriend?" "No, really," he demands. Like Jennie, he hates being patronized. "We talk about you," I tell him truthfully. This satisfies him, and now he wants to go home.
As we stroll down the hill to the car he turns and waves. "Bye, Jennie."
All the way home—under gathering rain clouds over the mountains, past the mysterious eucalyptus-shrouded canyons where they keep horses, Harleys, and meth labs hidden in the mustard scrub, past the post-World War II tracts with tiny, sunbaked front lawns (the kind of flat-roofed, single-storey GI loan house Jennie dreamed one day we might buy and live in surrounded by rose bushes), down to Lakeview Terrace, where the LAPD whaled on Rodney King and where I have a cousin who is a porno projectionist in a Pussycat Theater (union job, of course), onto the Foothill 210 to the Ronald Reagan 118 to the 405—the kid's got something on his mind. Finally blurts:
"Dad, who is Jennie?"
"Your grandmother on my side," I remind him.
"No," he stubbornly shakes his head, "who is she?"
How do you raise a child in a time so very different from your own? I'm a Flapper Age hootchy-kootchy speakeasy baby; my Joe is a child of the "war on terror." He had just been born when Tim McVeigh murdered 168 men, women, and children in the Oklahoma City bombing, and six when—arms tightly around each other—we watched on TV as nineteen men armed only with box cutters crashed their planes into the Twin Towers. Osama bin Laden, not Adolph Hitler, is his Darth Vader.
He's into gangsta rap, Randy Johnson's late-inning relief stats, and Captain Underpants. I come from this distant other time, before SATs, playdates, Lizzie McGuire, Grand Theft Auto, and not speaking to strangers. I had half a dozen names before I was Joe's age, but he knows he is Joseph Franklin Sigal. The Franklin is for the president who shaped my life and Jennie's—CHAPTER 2
First Memories: Red Hair, Ruby Lips
1929—Black Friday stock market crash triggers the Great Depression. Six Chicago gangsters gunned down in St. Valentine's Day Massacre. "Talkies" kill silent movies.
The German Shepherd Dog, leashless in the streets of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, leaps howling between two parked cars and bites me, age three. I flee, screaming, into the path of an ice truck that drags me half a block down Neptune Avenue. Voices ring in my knocked-out head. "Kook! Der kleiner starbt! Es izt die blot fun im!" ("He's dead! Look! It's blood!") My eyes fly open. I'm in Ma's lap; she's sprawled in a chair in the drugstore wiping my gashed knee with a cotton swab. Customers crowd in like medical students, each with an opinion on the cadaver—me. Everyone except Ma is convinced that I am dead. "Wake up, Kalman," she commands. "You hear me? Open your eyes! Do it now!" I know that tone. It means, Don't you dare die on me.
I sit up and hug her. How splendid she looks, flame-colored hair framing her strong, round, freckled face, blue eyes as steady as God's, red-ruby lips pursed in relief and reprimand. Shedding tears is unthinkable for either of us. Has she paused for a moment to put on makeup before dashing out of the house?
Tomorrow, we'll stroll down to the swarming sand of Coney Island, the salty-smelling boardwalk, and the terror-eyed plaster horses of the musical merry-go-round, and I'll play the game of hunting and picking through the cracked-leather satchel that a strange but familiar man, Jack—Uncle Tzak (I have a speech defect)—takes to the beach with Ma and me and where I find a constantly refreshed trove of Lincoln pennies. Uncle Tzak wears a tilted derby hat and a sly knowing smile. I never find out who he is.
Nor why we are in Brighton Beach.
What I Know Now about Jennie Then
Her maiden name Persily translates as "porcelain" from Russian. She was born in 1895, in the pogrom-ravaged town of Proskurov, which lies on a low marshy plain in the province of Podolia—on the railroad line between Odessa and Lemberg at the confluence of the Bug and Ploskaya rivers in the Russian Ukraine. Her father, Kalman, was a grain merchant or an itinerant peddler, depending on who is telling the story. A middleman between peasants and wholesalers, he fit the superstitious peasants' profile of bloodsucking Jew and exploiter of the masses. Czar Alexander II's assassination in the 1880s set off a vicious wave of anti-Jewish pogroms on Proskurov's 25,000 Jews, half the town's total population. The little girl Jennie Persily witnessed the random ethnic-cleansing raids by armed krestynanin who roared "Christ has risen!" and fierce mounted Cossacks wielding sabres who responded, "Indeed he has!", and she never forgot the carnage, later transferring to me, her only child, a deep foreboding that nothing in life was secure. From then on, her natural disarming smile never quite lost the shadow of an anxious frown that somewhere, somehow, a bad thing was about to happen.
My grandfather Kalman Persily's wife, Edith Rosenzweig, was the family's beating heart and moral guardian over Jennie, her four sisters—Fannie, Pauline, Bessie, and Surkah, and her five brothers—Arkeh, Duvid, Shiya, Usher, and Joseph. When one by one, two by two the Persilys emigrated to America, Surkah stayed behind to marry a shoemaker; it is possible she was murdered by the Germans when they invaded Russia in 1941, but nobody seems to know. All the brothers came to New York except "Yussele" (Joseph), who vanished somewhere in South America. Like so many others, the Persilys came through Ellis Island and settled on New York's Lower East Side. There the kids overnight became full-time child workers after Kalman, the family patriarch, was killed by a runaway beer wagon. An American story.
Jennie, the riotous one, was labelled a "crazy bohemian" because, to compensate for her almost complete lack of formal education, she devoured books and went to Cooper Union lectures by the rebel poet John Reed, the anarchist Emma Goldman, and the fiery labor lawyer Clarence Darrow—who was Ma's friend and Dad's defense attorney—after whom she named me Clarence, a cross I bore for too long. She was sixteen when, from a sweatshop down the street, she witnessed the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City that claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers, mostly girls and women. By then, she was already an experienced needle-trades worker on several types of machines—including overlock and high-speed single needle lockstitch—and a can-do union organizer, having called her first strike at thirteen when the boss kept putting the time-clock back. Of all the Persily sisters, she was perceived as the wildest, least predictable, and laziest because, as my Aunt Fanny explained, "She was too busy learning to be a revolutionist to settle down like the rest of us. And then that animal Sigal came along...."
That animal Sigal—my dad.
Jennie was single and thirty-one when she had me. As usual, my father was not around at the time.
There is some dispute where I was born. My birth certificate indicates Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, but my cousin Esther—who married a semipro wrestler who fought the Japanese in the Aleutians (and who's the daughter of Jennie's favorite brother Arkeh)—told me, "That Chicago certificate is a phony. Your father paid somebody off, or scared somebody into faking it. He knew how to manage such things. You were born in Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. I was there. Why else were you and your mother in Brighton Beach?" Then Esther clammed up.
At some point, I was placed in an institution for homeless boys, whose high wooden fence and regular meals calmed me down for a while. When Jennie eventually came to claim me, I screamed bloody murder and grabbed ahold of the iron bedstead of my cot and begged the other orphans to rescue me. Matron had to pry my fingers loose before turning me over to Jennie, who got down on her knees to me.
"Aren't you glad to see me?" she begged.
I stared at her coldly. Why was she taking me away from my friends?
"I want to stay here." I squirmed out of her embrace.
Ma let go, looked at me calmly, and offered a bribe: "Let's take a train."
"Is it a Pullman?" I asked.
"Of course! And we'll never get off."
"Promise?" I loved trains more than anything.
She nodded, got to her feet, took me by the hand, bade goodbye to Matron, and hustled us off to the railroad station for what turned out to be the first of mysterious stopovers in Buffalo, Detroit, Flint, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Cape Girardoux, Cairo, Winston-Salem to ...CHAPTER 3
Jennie, Dowun Sowuth
1931—Frankenstein a box-office boffo. Scottsboro Boys framed on a rape charge in Alabama. German millionaires support the 800,000-strong Nazi party, edging Hitler to power.
When I was a little boy Jennie and I spent a lot of time riding soot-filled railroad coaches, sleeping cradled against each other on wicker-lattice reversible seats in our home on wheels. Lackawanna, Pennsylvania Central, Virginia & Blue Mountain, Central Pacific, Georgia Southern. The names on the passing freight cars rolling by helped teach me to read as I picked out the letters—B&O, MOP, OK, SAP. Best of all, when we had the money, I loved "going Pullman," scampering up the hooked ladder to an upper berth in a thrilling ascent second only to looping the loop in a wartime Spad like my cartoon-strip hero, Smilin' Jack. Warm and cozy, a cocoon of crisp clean white sheets and pillow slips (smelling faintly of Clorox) and tightly tucked hospital-corner brown blanket with the "property of the Pullman Company" logo on it, no bedbugs, ticks, or cockroaches, the noise of the wheels as soothing as a South Sea breeze to Tahitians. Back then, all "colored" porters—members of A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Railway Porters—were called "George," businessmen smelling of Barbasol and wearing black-white-and-brown wingtip shoes lounged over manhattans in the rear observation car, and the Baldwin steam locomotives up front actually did go clickety-clack on iron tracks in the fastness of the American night.
Excerpted from A Woman of Uncertain Character by Clancy Sigal. Copyright © 2006 Clancy Sigal. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 A Chat with Grandma,
2 First Memories: Red Hair, Ruby Lips,
3 Jennie, Dowun Sowuth,
4 Windy City Blues,
5 The Heart Is a Gregarious Hunter,
6 Ring Wise,
7 Bum Heaven,
8 Jennie and the Women,
9 Die, Yankee Dog!,
10 Old Folks at Home,
11 Among the Amazons,
12 To Name Is to Empower,
13 Divorce, Chicago Style,
15 Venus, Released,
16 Percy Comes Home,
About the Author,