Articles

The Life and Times of Terry Southern: A Texan Gone Hollywood

by Byron Browne

“Southern?” she asks, unsure about the word or even what part of speech it may be.

“That’s right.” I answer, although I’m losing my patience. It is the third time I’ve had to pronounce the word for her.

“How dya’ spell that?” She wants to know.

I’m nearly stunned to silence but offer, “Like, South and —ern.”

My wife has that Oh, dear Lord smileplaying around her mouth that is meant to placate the unusually thick and fatuous. She keeps it holstered, drawing it out only when absolutely necessary. This is one of those times.

“Terry Southern?” she asks, clicking away at a large, over-sized, out of date computer. And I answer yes, that’s the guy. I am relieved. I feel as though I’ve pushed through some invisible barrier. There is a sticker on her computer’s hard drive that says: Read More!

She is the librarian at the Alvarado, Texas library and I’ve come to ask her about any information she may have on the writer Terry Southern. He is the American short story, novel and screenwriter who gave us the novels The Magic Christian, Candy, Flash and Filigree, as well as the screenplays for the films Easy Rider and Dr. Strangelove among many others.  Even though we are standing smack in the middle of the man’s birthplace, even though Texas has become, over the years, notorious for praising and loudly advertising any celebrity major or minor with billboards, museums or festivals, she has never heard of him. She seems to find my interest both intrusive on her time and unusual in its request. I’m bemused at the idea of the former because the library is only the size of a meat locker. Her assistant keeps attempting to feign indifference as she wipes CDs with a damp cloth; however, I can see that she is intent on hearing the conversation. I wonder if she’s familiar and is just keeping mum for some ridiculous reason.

“Umm. We have two under that name.”

I make an attempt to keep up my end of the insipid counterpoint, “Two what?”

The question hits its mark and has the desired effect. She looks up. “Two books,” she states flatly then adds, “One is called Candy and the other is Now Dig This, The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern.”

I ask for the second one and the librarian gets to the shelf and retrieves the book. My wife and I sit at an empty table (all the tables are empty) and I open the text and begin to explain the extraordinary life and work of this native Texan writer.

Terry Southern, born May 1, 1924, in Alvarado, Texas is, without question, one of America’s greatest literary minds from the second half of the twentieth century. At times severe, harsh or profane, Southern could also exhibit both a remarkable fluidity with dialogue and astound with his prose. As a satirist, few could match his alacrity with wit. Indeed as he stated, “The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish. Not shock–shock is a worn-out word–but astonish. The world has no grounds whatever for complacency.” And this, from the man who placed the following into the mouth of Major T.J. “King” Kong (a.k.a. Slim Pickens) in the film Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb:

Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. 

This, the perfect example of what he meant by “astonish” – not bombast – but simply writing with a rhetorical flair that seizes and holds the audience’s notice. This was a technique Southern employed in all of his work, i.e. careful manipulation of words and phrases to grab our attentions and then to finish the story gliding along in a carefully constructed, wicked extravagance. Clearly other writers (Tom Robbins, of course, with all of those, seemingly unintended, yet brilliant rhymes and puns) have used this same skill to great effect but Southern paved the way, slashing through the thick undergrowth of starched censorship and puritanical traditions with works like The Magic Christian and Candy, a mollified pornographic novel (co-written with Mason Hoffenberg) with a lovely but slightly retarded heroine (discover the character of Candy Southern, a buxom figure from Marvel comic’s X-Men series from the late sixties). Southern, a proponent of Voltaire, forever wanted to expose the folly of everyday life and everyone, including himself, was fodder for his work or, “quality Lit.” as he liked to phrase it.

As a young man, Southern attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas (no relation) but when the Second World War erupted, he left for Europe as a lieutenant in the army, fighting in the infantry at the Battle of the Bulge. After the war Southern attended the University of Chicago and Northwestern University where he earned a philosophy degree in 1948. That same year, using the G.I. Bill, Southern left for Paris and studied at the Sorbonne. It was while in Paris that he made the acquaintances of persons such as Alexander Trocchi and Aram Avakian, who would help shape and direct the rest of his life’s work. Also during these years Southern began publishing the many pieces of satirical short fiction that would define him as an author until his screenwriting career took flight in the 1960s. In fact, his short story The Accident was the first short piece of fiction published by the newly commissioned Paris Reviewin the winter of 1953. The stories that emerged during these few years as an expatriate showed Southern’s predilection for satire, absurdity, dark humor and just an elbow’s nudge of pornography.

Returning to the United States in 1953, Southern began work on longer, more expressive pieces, which revealed not only his ability and fluency with the novel as a literary form but also illustrated this prowess to a much wider, universal audience. His first novel Flash and Filigree, published in 1958, depicts a rather Melvillian set of circumstances; one character becoming obsessed with another (think Bartleby) and leading him on a series of absurd adventures that epitomize an American society turned on its head. Southern’s next work, The Magic Christian, again a satirical commentary on American society, earned him international attention. (One story has Peter Sellers, who would become a close friend, buying 100 copies of the work to dispense as gifts.) From this success Southern made the acquaintance of the Rolling Stones, whose infamous 1972 tour he would cover; the Beatles, who would include his picture on their 1968 album cover Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; the author Henry Green and countless others who made up the Parisian literary and the American Beat scenes of the 1950s and then the glamorous, swinging London scene of the 1960s. Southern was there for it all, witnessed it, lived it and wrote about it.

One result of this fame occurred when Peter Sellers handed a copy of Magic Christian to Stanley Kubrick who was then directing Sellers in Lolita. When Kubrick decided to change the dynamic for his next project, a film based on the novel Red Alertby Peter George, he contacted Southern to help rewrite the script with a decidedly absurdist, black-humor stamp. In fact, as Southern described Kubrick’s view of both the film and Southern’s role within it:

He decided to do it with humor. The flavor that attracted him in my novel, The Magic Christian, could be effective in this new approach. He would talk about the mechanics of making it totally credible and convincing in terms of the fail-safe aspect and then try to make that funny. And the way you make it funny, because the situation is absurd, is by dealing with it in terms of the dialogue and characters.

The resulting movie, Dr. Strangelove: or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, proved to be a great success, earning the team an Academy Award nomination. Even though George and Kubrick performed the majority of the screenplay’s work, the genius of the scenes with Sellers is due to Southern’s efforts who wrote them with Sellers specifically in mind.

From these accomplishments, Southern was given work on other films such as The Cincinnati Kid starring Steve McQueen, Barbarella with a nearly-clothed Jane Fonda and then, of course Easy Rider. (The writing credit for the screenplay of Easy Riderhas always been a controversy, with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda both claiming equal contributions and Southern arguing that his was, by far, the film’s major contribution. The evidence seems to point towards Southern’s version of the story.)

By the late 1960s, Terry Southern was at the peak of his career. His travels and work had brought him into contact with people such as James Baldwin, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau, George Plimpton, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner and Larry Rivers. Additionally, he developed friendships with Nelson Algren, Keith Richards, Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr, Lenny Bruce and Henry Green. However, even this list is skeletal and reflects only a portion of the portrait that would have been Southern’s world of associates. Seeing his smirking visage on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s is oddly appropriate. There he is, the guy from some small, rural Texas town standing among some of the Western world’s greatest luminaries . . . in sunglasses.

As with most of us, just when Life sees that things are going your way, it spanks them back as if success and fulfillment had never been its intent. Although Southern remained prolific, screenwriting work began to diminish and the tax bills began to pile up. For many years it seems that Southern was forever working on projects that just never saw completion, including a stint writing for Saturday Night Live from 1980-1981. Among the many works produced in his later years is a last novel titled Texas Summer, published in 1992. The work centers on an adolescent white boy and the family’s older, African-American hired hand as they wander a rustic Texas setting. One of the book’s main components focuses on the older character teaching the younger how to dry-out “red dirt marijuana.” (This is also the title of a collection of short stories and essays from 1967.) Southern was always a lover of the juxtaposition of opposites, as here with the naive and pastoral jutting against the illegal and urbane. However the novel was not well received when published. One reviewer labeled the book a “coming-of-age valentine to the 50s Texas landscape.”

It had taken a few decades for Southern to have another look back at his home state and, with the exception of Texas Summer, one of the only contacts he made with his native land was a short talk he delivered at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1993 where he read from Magic Christian. Afterwards, Dr. Strangelove was shown to a prim audience.

It is not at all unusual for a writer to leave and forget his home. Sinclair Lewis famously made a hermit of himself in Rome while audibly ignoring anything Minnesotan. Terry Southern just appears to have followed wherever the action was. Or, perhaps it followed him. Whether Paris, London, Hollywood or New York, Southern was perennially at the center of the literary party. In interviews he rarely spoke of his Texas roots, preferring instead to concentrate on his work, but once he offered:

There was this wild story by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym.” I used to rewrite this story and try to make it wilder. And then once I showed it to my friend Big Lawrence. . . . ‘You must be crazy,’ he said. I think that’s when we began to drift apart–I mean, Texas and me.

Southern didn’t so much leave Texas as he felt some integral aspect of it had left him.

As my wife and I leave the library and drive through the old town of Alvarado, covered in thick, verdant foliage and lined with a few streets of nearly antique homes, we pass over a creek to the new Alvarado. Inundated by Taco Bell, McDonald’s and a Days Inn we look at each other.  I believe we are thinking the same thing.

Terry Southern’s hometown would be totally unrecognizable to him. The juxtaposition between the detritus of the old town and the disaster of the new couldn’t have been scripted better if Southern had written it himself.

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Author’s Note:  If ever there was a paper that offered an anemic portrait of an artist’s life, this is it. Terry Southern’s lifework can no more be summed up in 2300 words than the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire could have been contained in a single volume. Southern was as prolific a writer as this country has ever produced and, luckily, his son Nile Southern is making efforts to expose the work his father created in the latter couple of decades of his life. So, apologies to the relatives, scholars and fans, but maybe we’ve bred some new enthusiasts here.

To keep up with current scholarship and news on Terry Southern go to www.TerrySouthern.com. It is a site maintained by Nile Southern and contains just about everything one could hope for on the subject.