Southern, Terry Marion, Jr.
Southern, Terry Marion, Jr.
(b. 2 May 1924 in Alvarado, Texas; d. 29 October 1995 in New York City), satiric screenwriter, journalist, and novelist who wrote burlesques of the military, pornography, drugs, psychoanalysis, political leaders, and corporate culture that epitomized the antiauthoritarian spirit of the 1960s.
Southern was born on 2 May 1924 (although it is often reported as 1 May). He was the only child of Terry Marion Southern, a pharmacist, and Helen Simonds Southern, a dressmaker. In 1933 the family moved to Dallas, where Southern attended Sunset High School. Though outwardly conventional, playing football and baseball, at eleven he showed an interest in writing on unconventional subjects, revising an Edgar Allan Poe story “to make it wilder.”
Graduating in 1941, Southern began a pre-med program at Southern Methodist University, but from 1943 to 1945 served as a U.S. Army lieutenant in Europe. At the end of World War II, determined to become a writer, he entered the University of Chicago, but he soon transferred to what he later called “a groovier scene” at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. After earning his B.A. degree in 1948, he enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris.
In France, Southern joined the literary expatriates Mordecai Richler, Aram Avakian, William Styron, George Plimpton, and others. He wrote fiction, influenced by Franz Kafka, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and Nathanael West, for newly founded journals such as Merlin and Zero. His story “The Accident” appeared in the first issue of the Paris Review, and his later work helped define that journal as a venue for new fiction.
Southern returned to New York City in 1952. There he met Carol Kauffman, a nursery school teacher, whom he married on 14 July 1956. They had one child, a son named Nile. Habitually poor, Southern at one point worked as a barge captain, hauling rocks on the Hudson River. In 1955 he was advisory editor to Best American Short Stories, and he made his first film, collaborating with David Burnett on a nine-minute short called “Candy Kisses.” Also in that year he wrote “Twirling at Ole Miss,” an account for Esquire of his visit to a summer institute for drum majorettes in Oxford, Mississippi. The piece was hailed by the journalist Tom Wolfe as an example of a revolutionary kind of personal journalism.
In Geneva, Switzerland, where Carol found work teaching for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the couple entertained the British novelist Henry Green, whose work influenced Southern’s first novel, Flash and Filigree, published in England in 1958. The same year, the Olympia Press in Paris published his second novel, Candy. Written with Mason Hoffenberg and published under the pseudonym Maxwell Kenton, Candy is an exaggeratedly obscene version of Candide that sought, as Southern said of all his work, to “blast smugness” and “to astonish,” not simply “to shock.” Neither novel attracted the interest of American publishers, but in Britain Southern was commissioned to adapt Eugene O’Neill’s play Emperor Jones for the BBC.
The following year he published The Magic Christian, about the exploits of wealthy Guy Grand, mischievous but benign, who liked to “make it hot” for the greedy and pompous. Southern’s physician Jonathan Miller recommended the novel to the actor Peter Sellers, who gave a copy to director Stanley Kubrick. In 1962 Kubrick hired Southern to collaborate on a script that became Dr. Strange-love, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The film won the British Screenwriters Award and the Writers’ Guild Award for the best screenplay of 1964, as well as earning an Academy Award nomination.
In 1960 Southern moved to a farm outside East Canaan, Connecticut, which became his permanent home. His work appeared widely in Evergreen Review, Harper’s Bazaar, Argosy, Nugget, Playboy, and the New York Times. In 1964, while his notoriety spread with the American publication of Candy, he began a long-term companionship with actress and dancer Gail Gerber. They had no children. Southern formally separated from Carol in 1965, and they were divorced in 1972.
At age forty, with the success of Dr. Strangelove, Southern entered a period of intense screenwriting, usually in collaboration. Three of his films appeared in 1965: The Collector; The Loved One (written with Christopher Isherwood); and The Cincinnati Kid (written with Ring Lardner, Jr., and director Norman Jewison). He also published The Journal of “The Loved One, “an account of the production of that film, with photographs by William Claxton.
While contributing to the screenplay for Casino Royale (1967), Southern published the collection of essays and stories that became his most enduring literary work, Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes (1967). His status as a symbol of the 1960s was assured that year when he appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The following year, in addition to collaborating with Roger Vadim on the screenplay of Barbarella (1968), Southern went on assignment for Esquire with William Burroughs and Jean Genet to cover the Chicago Democratic Convention. There, he and the poet Allan Ginsberg found themselves in the midst of violence between demonstrators and police. That year he also published his infamous essay “Blood of a Wig,” a scurrilous fantasy of Lyndon B. Johnson’s behavior on Air Force One after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In 1969 Southern collaborated with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in writing a script for the film Easy Rider (1969). Although the creative contributions of all three have been disputed, the film brought Southern a second Academy Award nomination. Following this project, he collaborated on the screenplay of The Magic Christian (1969).
Southern’s fourth novel, Blue Movie (1970), was a satire of a Hollywood attempt to produce a “quality” pornographic film. Outside Hollywood that year, Southern worked with director Aram Avakian to adapt John Barth’s novel The End of the Road.
In the 1970s, as the social climate grew less tolerant of satire, Southern’s popularity declined. In addition, from 1970 to 1993 he struggled with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regarding payment of back taxes from the 1960s. Although he enjoyed intermittent periods of prosperity, he experienced financial difficulties for most of his remaining life.
Still Southern continued to write. He covered a Rolling Stones tour in 1972, worked with William Claxton on a teleplay (Stop, Thief, 1975), published The Donkey and the Darling (1977) with lithographs by Larry Rivers, and in 1981 and 1982 worked as a staff writer for Saturday Night Live. In 1988 Southern collaborated with songwriter Harry Nilsson to film The Telephone with Whoopi Goldberg. At his death, some forty of his screenplays remained unproduced. From the late 1980s Southern taught popular screenwriting classes at New York University and at Columbia University in New York City.
Although the 1990s found Southern in ill health, the period also saw a renascence of his popularity. He produced the text of The Early Stones: Legendary Photographs of a Band in the Making, 1963–1973 (1992); wrote a new semi-autobiographical novel, Texas Summer (1991); and finalized plans for the reissue of his four earlier novels. In the midst of promoting a new book, Virgin: A History of the Virgin Record Company (1996), he collapsed while walking to a screenwriting class at Columbia. He died of respiratory failure four days later, and his ashes were scattered over a pond near his home in East Canaan, Connecticut.
In his own eyes, Southern was, according to his son, “first and foremost, a political being.” Others, however, saw him primarily as an influential stylist, a writer whose satire—always painted in extreme colors—developed astonishing situations with a journalist’s ear for the colloquial.
One critic termed him “a serious, outrageously understated satirist and a quietly sophomoric Zen comedian.” His fondness for collaboration, which he called “the purest form of writing,” makes it difficult to assess his achievement. But he was unquestionably, as Dean Robert Fitzpatrick of Columbia said, “a truly independent voice and imaginative spirit and a generous mentor to young writers.” Looking back over Southern’s career, Brad Tyer in the New York Times Book Review observed: “From his vantage point as a literary hipster Mr. Southern used to cast a good-natured sneer at what he called the ’quality-lit game,’ even as his work redefined what literature could include.”
Terry Southern’s extensive personal papers are held by Nile Southern, who also maintains a web site devoted to his father’s work at www.terrysouthern.com. Links on this site include autobiographical reflections by Southern in Lee Hill, “Interview with a Grand Guy,” Backstory 3 (1997), and Mike Golden, “Now Dig This: An Interview with Terry Southern,” Smoke Signals (n.d.). For a brief appreciation of Southern’s journalistic writings, see Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson, The New Journalism (1973). William Claxton presents a vivid personal portrait in Photographic Memory (2000). Articles on Southern include Life (21 Aug. 1964) and New York Times Book Review (16 Feb. 1992). Retrospectives are in the New York Times (12 Nov. 1995); Village Voice (26 Dec. 1995); Time Out (London) (9 Apr. 1997); New Yorker (22 and 29 June 1998); and New Times (11 Feb. and 4 Mar. 1999). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Holly wood Reporter, and Daily Variety (all 31 Oct. 1995); and the Times (London) (1 Nov. 1995).