The work of the American novelist, journalist and essayist Clancy Sigal, who has died aged 90, was much admired and discussed – particularly in leftwing circles – over the course of six decades. His best known book, the novel Going Away (1961), featured a politically blacklisted Hollywood agent on a cross-country journey from Los Angeles to New York, observing with sagacity the experiences both of ordinary people and of the protagonist himself.

The novel was largely autobiographical: Clancy himself had been blacklisted in Hollywood, where he worked as a talent agent, and, in the 1950s, had spent a period on the run from J Edgar Hoover’s FBI agents. At the end of that decade he fled to London, where he began a relationship with the novelist Doris Lessing and became a darling of the London left.

Thereafter, with periods spent between the UK and the US, he wrote novels, aligned himself with political causes, became involved with the radical psychiatrist RD Laing, contributed comment pieces, columns and book reviews to various newspapers, including the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, and wrote screenplays, notably for the 2002 film Frida.

Clancy acquired his chutzpah and resilience in 30s Chicago, where he was born as the result of an illicit affair between Leo Sigal and Jennie Persily, both labour organisers. Leo was almost entirely absent from Clancy’s upbringing and he was raised by his tough Jewish mother, who managed to earn a precarious living from union activities in a neighbourhood blighted by gangsters, poverty and violence.

After school he was drafted into the US Infantry, where he trained to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and retrained after VE Day for the expected invasion of Japan that never happened. He was then posted as a sergeant to occupied Germany, attending the Nuremburg war trials and determined (he insisted later) to shoot Hermann Göring.

After being demobbed Clancy returned home to become an organiser for the Detroit auto workers’ union, only to find himself expelled during one of the early cold war purges of communists and fellow travellers. He hitchhiked to Los Angeles, attracted by the promise of golden age Hollywood, where he attended UCLA and found success working as a talent agent, hustling in the day and, in his own words, playing the radical Scarlet Pimpernel by night. However, he was fired when Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures, discovered him using the studio mimeograph to run off subversive leaflets.

Now blacklisted and under the shadow of FBI surveillance, he travelled to Britain via Paris, where he had dug his sharp elbows into the set around Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and dived headlong into the violent street politics whipped up by the Algerian war of independence.

He entered London illegally and, in partnership with Lessing, brought a splash of colour to every CND rally and leftwing demonstration that the glamorous couple attended.

But the adoration did not last long. His first novel, Weekend in Dinlock (1960) was a warts-and-all account of the time he had spent in a Yorkshire mining village. The left glitterati searched for mention of Stakhanovite heroes steeped in socialist history but found only an uncompromising description of people surviving on lousy wages and weekend alcohol in a bleak landscape as riven as any other with petty jealousies and frustrations.

There were prominent academics and trade unionists who never forgave Clancy for refusing to apply a varnish of noble heroism to those he encountered in the coalfield. But he was not deterred. His next novel, Going Away, was equally candid and tough about the painful decline of socialist politics in America’s old industrial heartlands.

His life during the early years in London was spent trying to make a name for himself as a writer at the same time as evading the police and immigration authorities. His experiences in the army had left him with some mental health issues and, advised by Lessing, he sought help from Laing, the controversial “anti-psychiatrist” with whom he set up a halfway house for so-called schizophrenic “incurables” at Kingsley Hall in London’s East End. The place became a favoured venue for the rich and famous to drop acid – in the cause, Laing argued, of furthering psychiatric research.

Homesick by the mid-60s, Clancy returned to the US to become involved in the civil rights movement, working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Albany, Georgia, and riding with the young “soldiers of the night” into southern counties to help register black voters. When the Vietnam war intensified, he returned to London and became the “stationmaster” of a safe house for American GI deserters and draft dodgers. To finance travel costs, food and the forging of documents for those on the run, he tapped donations from every available source, including the (then imprisoned) Kray twins and various criminal gangs.

By the end of the Vietnam war, Clancy was in demand as a journalist and commentator, living in London but travelling constantly, using his vast network of contacts to gain access to the movers and shakers in politics, trade unionism, journalism, literature and film. He had great affection for the BBC and, during his London days, was a regular contributor to radio programmes such as Kaleidoscope and Critics’ Forum. He relished, as he put it: “Sticking a little streetwise Chicago intelligence to those perfectly modulated, brainy British aesthetes.”

He was enthusiastic and curious about every aspect of British culture, including football. The first time I met him was in Cambridge during the 1978 World Cup when, returning home late one afternoon, I called up to a friend living in the flat above mine, checking on how the much fancied Scotland team had fared in their match against Peru. A Chandleresque voice I vaguely recognised from the radio floated down, informing me: “You guys got whacked, three-one.”

I looked up and saw a slim man leaning out over the balcony, grinning at me. I told him I was Welsh, not Scottish.

“Wow,” he chuckled, “a goddamn sectarian. Just can’t get away from ’em in this country. Guess you’re the troublemaking leftie I heard about, the one living in the basement, right?”

In 1976 he produced his next novel, Zone of the Interior, a scathingly funny account of being part of Laing’s “brotherhood” that encountered great legal obstacles in the UK. Eight years later he covered the Los Angeles Olympics for the Observer – an experience that confirmed his growing conviction that the older he got, the more sun he needed.

He began teaching writing courses at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Santa Barbara, rediscovering his love for California in the process. In December 1992, in the hills above Los Angeles, he married the writer Janice Tidwell, with whom subsequently he wrote screenplays, including Frida, the biopic of the painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

His fourth book, The Secret Defector, published in the year of his marriage, was another autobiographical novel featuring the expatriate figure of Gus Black, a freethinker who moves to Britain in search of a new life and has a passionate affair with Rose O’Malley, a brilliant writer loosely based on Lessing, with whom he had had a four-year relationship.

In 2007, A Woman of Uncertain Character looked at what he described as the “amorous and radical adventures” of his mother’s life, and in 2016 his last book, Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal and Raging Ego, recalled with affection his time in the film industry.

The pace of Clancy’s written output never slowed and his creative energy was phenomenal. Even in his 91st year he was exploring with urgency the reasons for Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House and its likely effects on American society. Like his great journalist friend and fellow Chicagoan, Studs Terkel, he loved people and was driven by a boundless curiosity about their lives and ideas. With Janice’s help, he wrote and blogged until a couple of days before his death, and would not have wanted it any other way.

He is survived by Janice and their son, Joe.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/20...sigal-obituary