Terry Southern – A Grand Guy: Part 1

❉ Andy Murray looks back on the career of the cult writer.

“Southern had a particular gift for making text leap off the page, even visually. He was very fond of deploying short sentences and paragraphs, plenty of speech, sudden bursts of italics and a whole flurry of punctuation, not least a vast proliferation of exclamation marks. His prose simply pops.”

Dennis Hopper, left, and Terry Southern in Manhattan in 1971. (Pic: NY Times)

Don’t look round, but the chances are that Terry Southern is lurking somewhere in your house right now. He’ll be there on the cover of Sgt Pepper, sandwiched inbetween Dylan Thomas, Dion, Lenny Bruce and Stockhausen. Of all the 61 people featured on it, he’s the only one cool enough to be wearing shades. This year, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the ubiquity of Sgt Pepper, its cover image and Southern thereupon have never been greater. So who exactly was he? How did he come to be on that cover in such esteemed company, and what happened to him afterwards?

Born in Alvarado, Texas in May 1924, the boy Southern became enraptured by literature and yearned to become a writer. His was no overnight success, though. He spend many years struggling to find his own style and get published. After serving as a lieutenant in the American army during the war, he spent years living in Paris, befriending fellow would-be writers and developing a love of cinema, Beat existentialism and the jazz scene. Then, via a spell in Switzerland, he eventually moved back to the States. Along the way, some of his early short stories found a home in the more adventurous literary magazines of the day, but still, it wasn’t exactly a living.

Then, towards the end of the ’50s, things finally started to happen for him. By that point he was already onto his second marriage, with parenthood not far off.

His first novel, Flash and Filigree, the barmy tale of an eminent LA dermatologist driven off the rails by a mischievous patient, saw publication in 1958.

The same year also marked the emergence of Candy, an uproarious and downright filthy comic novel about a young woman’s sexual misadventures, credited to one ‘Maxwell Kenton’. In fact, it had been co-written by Southern and his friend and fellow author Mason Hoffenberg, purely for the enticement of hard cash.

During Southern’s Parisian sojourn, the pair had fallen in with rogue publisher Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, who oversaw the *cough* ‘Traveller’s Companion’ series – essentially, erotic novels with envelope-pushing content. It was a neat arrangement: Olympia Press got a steady stream of new titles from the city’s community of wannabe writers, who were happy enough to get paid and published. In the event, Southern took almost three years to complete his book for Girodias, eventually enlisting Hoffenberg to help finish it off when he fell behind with the deadline.

Flash and Filigree had some limited impact, but Candy became a real sensation, cherished and banned in almost equal measure. Much like Nabokov’s Lolita, another Olympia Press job, it was a saucy book that the chattering classes could feel comfortable discussing over dinner. Later, there was much wrangling about who deserved a share of the considerable profits, which was to become a recurring theme in Southern’s career.

“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 for complacency. The Titanic couldn’t sink, but it did. When you find smugness, you find something worth blasting. I want to blast it.”  – Terry Southern

1959 saw publication a long-nurtured Southern project, the novel The Magic Christian, an episodic comic work concerning billionaire Guy Grand, who loves nothing more than spending his fortune playing elaborate practical jokes on avaricious members of public.

It won Southern a legion of new fans, not least Peter Sellers, then a major comedy star coming to the end of his time as a Goon and with a flourishing film career on the go.

By 1963, Southern’s writing career was starting to lean more towards journalism than fiction, but a stroke of sheer luck gave him a second wind. Sellers was working with Stanley Kubrick on a serious drama film about the threat of nuclear armageddon, but Kubrick began to think that comedy was the way to go. The whole subject was inherently loopy, so why not run with that and present it as a satire?

Sellers put a copy of The Magic Christian Kubrick’s way with a warm recommendation, and soon after, Kubrick brought in Southern, who had actually met and interviewed the director not long before, as scriptwriter on the project. Effectively Southern was reworking an already much-modified script, loosely adapted from Peter George’s entirely straight-faced apocalpytic thriller novel Red Alert. Scriptwriting hadn’t really been Southern’s thing, but the end result, the none-more-black satire Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was perfectly judged and quickly became a modern classic (Mind you, Kubrick, credited as co-scripter, came to be niggled by the assumption that the tone was all down to Southern.)

Suddenly, Southern became an in-demand scriptwriter, and all of his novels were optioned as films. He co-wrote Tony Richardson’s irreverent film version of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. He buffed up the existing scripts for William Wyler’s The Collector and Norman Jewison’s The Cincinatti Kid and was one of many hands put to work on the sprawling Bond spoof Casino Royale. Similarly, he ended up being the final (and only credited) writer on Roger Vadim’s big-screen adaptation of Barbarella. It was only fitting: in many ways, Barbarella’s exploits resembled a space-faring equivalent of Candy.

“The important thing is to keep in touch with the youth of whatever culture you’re in. When you lose them, you can forget it. When they’re no longer surprised or astonished or engaged by what you say, the ball game is over. If they find it repulsive, or outlandish, or disgusting, that’s all right, but if they just shrug it off, it’s time to retire.” – Terry Southern

All told, Southern swiftly became the quintessential satirical Sixties screenwriter. 1967 saw publication of Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes, a collection of Southern’s short fiction and journalism, much of it dating back to the Fifties. Undoubtedly spawned by his new-found popularity as a scriptwriter, it’s a fantastically appealing assortment.

It takes in the likes of toe-curling race relations comedy You’re Too Hip, Baby; outlandish drug yarn The Blood of a Wig; The Sun and the Still-Born Stars, a striking slice of magic realism in which an old farming couple are confronted with an unearthly monster; and Twirling at Ole Miss, a piece of reportage looking at civil rights and bigotry in Missisippi through the curious prism of a baton-twirling contest. No less an authority than Tom Wolfe credited the latter as marking the birth of so-called ‘New Journalism’.

Southern had a particular gift for making text leap off the page, even visually. He was very fond of deploying short sentences and paragraphs, plenty of speech, sudden bursts of italics and a whole flurry of punctuation, not least a vast proliferation of exclamation marks. His prose simply pops. Obviously, that’s a style that’s hard to translate into a screenplay, but his film work does manage to convey the same heightened sense. That was simply his shtick. In an interview for Life magazine in 1964, Southern suggested: “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 for complacency. The Titanic couldn’t sink, but it did. When you find smugness, you find something worth blasting. I want to blast it.” But in spite of Southern’s laser-guided sense of satire, there’s something really joyous about his work, too. His main characters are often child-like innocents at large in a corrupting world, who nevertheless maintain a wide-eyed, likeable quality.

Southern’s appearance on the Sgt Pepper cover around this time was just the icing on the cake, then. It came about when the four Beatles were asked to list their heroes, alive or dead, to be present at an imaginary concert. Southern is said to be one of Ringo’s suggestions (though by other accounts Ringo demurred and let the other three decide). At this time, the Beatles were all around their mid 20s whereas Southern was 43. He was just about old enough to have fathered the lot of them. To Southern, though, tuning into the wavelength of young people was vital. In a 1967 interview with writer Maggie Paley for The Paris Review, he declared: “The important thing is to keep in touch with the youth of whatever culture you’re in. When you lose them, you can forget it. When they’re no longer surprised or astonished or engaged by what you say, the ball game is over. If they find it repulsive, or outlandish, or disgusting, that’s all right, but if they just shrug it off, it’s time to retire.”

Southern worked with Jane Fonda on Barbarella during late 1967 and knew her younger brother, the actor Peter Fonda, from around the Hollywood scene. In conversation around this time, the subject came up of a film idea that Peter had been developing with his pal Dennis Hopper. Southern liked the sound of it, and when the producers managed to raise the modest budget, he agreed to write the script for industry scale, a tiny fraction of his usual fee. The end result, which Southern named Easy Rider, was released in 1969 and proved to be an epoch-making hit that was instrumental in changing the face of Hollywood movie-making.

The exact matter of who deserved the writing credit was disputed. Hopper always claimed that Southern did little more than transcribe the ideas that he and Fonda had worked up, though it’s said that draft scripts by Southern still exist which show that he wrote every line, however improvised they might appear on screen. In later years, a cash-strapped Southern wrote to its makers to suggest that he might be more fully reimbursed for his contribution, only to be rebuffed

The very fact that he had to ask at all is rather tragic, though. For many years, Southern’s career had been on an upward trajectory. Now, it was about to lose momentum and take an almighty wobble…

❉ Join us for the second and final part tomorrow…


❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for TelevisionHe’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

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