Inside the chaotic Hollywood of the 1950s.
Social iconoclast Sigal (Emeritus, Journalism/Univ. of Southern California; Hemingway Lives! (Why Reading Ernest Hemingway Matters Today), 2013, etc.) mined his early years as a leftist in novels like Going Away (1961). Here, he returns to this rich autobiographical well with a gonzo memoir about his life in the ’50s as a talent agent (“flesh peddler, ten-percenter, shark”) at the prestigious Sam Jaffe Agency in Los Angeles. The book opens with a reckless, chaotic pace in rambling, scattered, and jumpy prose describing the 25-year-old Sigal losing his job as a movie gofer. The narrative eventually settles down, but the book’s episodic, digressive structure, punctuated with movie and actor references, makes it a messy read, a never-ending litany of having clients, losing clients, and getting them back. All in a day’s work. Keep those commissions coming in. The back story is the McCarthy Hearings and the Commission’s unrelenting pursuit of getting Hollywood folks to turn on each other: “Informers rule my Hollywood.” Even Sigal was being pursued by FBI agents to give names: “Every nerve end tells me to get out before I make a splendid mess of things.” The agency boasted a spectacular client list—e.g., Jack Palace, Richard Burton, Ginger Rogers, Peter Lorre—and Sigal’s job was to hobnob with them, talk shop, promise them a role they probably wouldn’t get. They did help a number of blacklisted actors and writers. Numerous profiles and anecdotes are scattered about, some insightful, some just icky. Out drinking one evening at the Beverly Wilshire hotel with Sam Jaffe, Humphrey Bogart, Sheree North (“our bid against Marilyn Monroe’s increasingly fragile stardom”), and Louella Parsons (“queen/matriarch of vipers”), Sigal recounts how Parsons started “pissing, hugely, drunkenly, in her pants.”
As a more in-control memoir, this could have been a rich gold mine about Hollywood legends and lore.