The Mystery of Terry Southern
By Victor Bockris

From Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2000


Before the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, before the absurd cinema of Stanley Kubrick, before the Brave Gonzo World of Hunter S. Thompson, Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon, there was the legendary Terry Southern—author of the novels Candy (co-written with Mason Hoffenberg) and The Magic Christian, and screenwriter of Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider. The power of Southern's satirical prose made him the only wordsmith of the '60s who could have won a word fight with Lenny Bruce, but what distinguishes Southern's career is that these works, along with two other novels, Flash and Filigree and Blue Movie, a collection of short stories and journalism, Red Dirt Marijuana, and five other major films were all released between 1958 and 1970—after which Southern virtually disappeared. In fact, he continued writing for the next twenty-five years, publishing four more books and releasing at least one film credited to him, but the results never came close to the work of his great '60s period and are all forgotten.

However, as evidence of renewed interest in Terry Southern's work, in the second half of the '90s all four of his aforementioned novels have been republished by Grove Press, and a biography of Southern by Canadian film critic Lee Hill is forthcoming from Avon Books later this year.

"In 1967, The Beatles put Southern on the famous album cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band along with others, alive and legendary, of the Alternative Establishment. Terry is tucked in behind Edgar Allan Poe and Lenny Bruce. What a fortuitous and telling placement —next to the master of the macabre on the one hand and the great practitioner of black humor on the other."
—George Plimpton
Introduction to the Citadel Underground Edition of Red Dirt Marijuana, 1990

One night back in November 1989, I drove up to East Canaan in northern Connecticut to have dinner at the home of Terry Southern and his companion of twenty-five years, Gail Gerber. I had known Terry since meeting him via William Burroughs at the Bunker in 1978. And I was a great fan of his work.

He came out of the house to greet me with a bear hug. It was the first time I had seen him on his own turf. We went into the living room. There was snow outside, which made the interior of the pre-Revolutionary War house, complete with a roaring fire in the grate, all the more welcoming. We sat down and started smoking marijuana and drinking vodka in earnest. I told him that I wanted him to tell me how, where and when he had written each of his works. Grooving with my proposal, Terry started describing life in Geneva with his first wife, Carol, in 1958, writing his first novel, Flash and Filigree, in his early thirties. Now he was sixty-three. Terry had put on a lot of weight and had grey shoulder-length hair, but as he spoke of his early work the fat seemed to melt away, and for a moment I caught a glimpse of the ruggedly handsome young man who looked like Richard Burton in his prime on the back cover of Flash and Filigree.

We had been having a wonderful time for half an hour, when Gail announced that dinner was served. I followed Terry into the dining room, carrying my tape recorder, notebook and glass. In the dining room were a beautiful antique table, an exquisitely designed meal and flickering candles. "You'll find we know how to entertain our guests here at Blackberry Manor," Terry remarked. Then, turning to Gail, he quipped, "Vic thinks it's an elaborate setup for some weird intellectual sting."

Once seated, I started analyzing Terry's career via a financial lens, leading him to object, "What you are failing to realize, Victor, is that we're speaking within a framework of my never having any notion at all that there was any money to be made in writing. You're thinking of it as though my view is that of some professional, career-minded writer. I don't think writing is calculated. I don't think people write because they think, 'Oh well, I'm going to be published and then I'm going to be published again and again and again, and I'll attain my identity as a writer.' I have never thought of writing as an income. You're assuming that I was doing it for some kind of monetary response. It was all much less conscious and calculated. Are you saying that you can't comprehend creative work that isn't done to try to please somebody outside yourself? You seem to be, correct me if I'm wrong, ruling out any comprehensible stimuli other than psychological peer-group approval power, or just straightforward money. You don't think that some of these things just happen almost on the level of, say, doodling when you're on the phone? Kafka's best writing is in his Diaries, I think, and he didn't want them to be seen by anyone."

"I don't know, Terry," I replied, "all I can say is people want to know why they aren't reading books by you anymore," at which point he cut me off with a terse, "Oh, is this what this interview is about, the artist manqué?" The blood froze in the veins of my neck. Everything happened in slow motion. Suddenly I was studying the candlelight flickering on the surface of the red wine, wondering if I might have to leave in the next five minutes! That's how pissed off Terry was that I slapped him in the face with the fact that he hadn't written a single piece of work in the last eighteen years that had entertained people the way he had in the '60s.

Twenty-five years earlier, in the halcyon days of 1964, Terry Southern was the most famous writer in America. Candy was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Dr. Strangelove was No. 1 at the box office. As Norman Mailer wrote in his famous essay on the 1964 Republican Convention, "Our country was in disease... Our best art was Dr. Strangelove and Naked Lunch, Catch 22; Candy was our heroine." He was also the most appreciated by his peers. "Terry Southern is the most profoundly witty writer of our generation," wrote Gore Vidal. "Terry Southern writes a clean, mean, coolly deliberate, and murderous prose," attested Norman Mailer. "Terry Southern is the illegitimate son of Mack Sennett and Edna St. Vincent Millay," added Kurt Vonnegut. "Terry Southern was one of the first and best of the new wave of American writers, defining the cutting edge of black comedy," concluded Joseph Heller.

Rich, generous to a fault, and possessing a seemingly endless stream of ideas, he was the Lenny Bruce of the literary set, an American Graham Greene for the '60s. He flew with the coolest members of the jet set from Los Angeles to New York, London, Paris and Rome. Never seen in public without his black wayfarer shades, Terry became the minstrel of hip. The Beatles put him on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. He counted among his friends Charlie Parker, Samuel Beckett, Jackson Pollock, Robert Frank, Thelonious Monk, Ringo Starr, T. S. Eliot, Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Isherwood, Robin Williams, Lenny Bruce, Andy Warhol, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Anthony Burgess, Jane Fonda, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jean Genet.

At root, Terry was a satirist. His themes were the big ones—sex and death. According to the novelist William Styron, "One of the reasons we hit it off so well together was that we both viewed the Christian religion—at least insofar as we had experienced its puritanical rigors—as a conspiracy to deny its adherents their fulfillment as human beings. It magnified not the glories of life but the consciousness of death, exploiting humanity's innate terror of the timeless void. High among its prohibitions was sexual pleasure. In contemplating Americans stretched on the rack of their hypocrisy as they tried to reconcile their furtive adulteries with their churchgoing pieties, Terry laid the groundwork for some of his most biting and funniest satires."

Profiled in Life magazine that year, Terry came across as a determined crusader of the counterculture. "The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish." he said. "Not shock—shock is a worn-out word—but astonish. The world has no grounds for complacency. Where you find something worth blasting, I want to blast it." Asked if he was for or against America's intervention in Vietnam and how he thought the conflict should be resolved, Terry gave an example of what he meant: "'Intervention' would seem to me rather weak semantics for the bombing of civilians—the use of napalm and herbicides... the destruction of villages, schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, crops... the massacre of women and children. I should have thought a somewhat stronger term—like 'barbarism,' 'rape' or 'pillage'—more correct.

"As for how would I 'resolve the conflict,' there is only one conceivable way —and that is, with President Johnson at the fore, quickly, silently, and with great stealth, to slither out, on our stomachs. Anything less would hardly be in character with our grotesquely reptilian behavior, and our very sick motives."

I see Terry as the great, tragic athlete of writing, the Babe Ruth, the Ali, because he was a natural, the real thing, as blessed in his talents as they were in theirs. And, like them, once the players in his field saw a way of making a lot of money out of him, Terry's goose was, in a way, already cooked.

Up until 1962, nothing he had written had made much money. He was writing regularly for the big magazines, and international interest in Candy was growing. Then, one day as he was prowling around his recently acquired pre-Revolutionary War house in Connecticut, he got a phone call from Stanley Kubrick, who had read The Magic Christian. Kubrick invited Terry to join him in London and help him rewrite the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove. It turned out to be the most seductive introduction to screenwriting possible. The producers put Terry up in a first-class London hotel, from which each morning at 4 a.m. Kubrick would pick him up in a large, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. For the next two hours, as they drifted through the blackness on their way to Shepperton Studios, Terry would find himself grooving in a rosy creative glow in the back of the warm and luxuriously appointed car. Terry took apart and reassembled the script, transforming it into the classic black comedy of the decade, perhaps of all time. Best of all, Terry would see words he had written that morning at that night's rushes, and in the final cut. As Terry explained to an interviewer in 1972, "Compared to other forms of writing, screenwriting is highly rewarding, in the financial sense —and of course when things go as they should it is the most extremely satisfying creatively of all the forms, because it is much stronger than prose."

In 1963, Terry edited (in collaboration with Alex Trocchi and Dick Seaver) the anthology Writers in Revolt, a collection of the best revolutionary writing since World War II. Then, as if he'd done his duty on the Quality Lit front, he abandoned the page for the screen, throwing himself into a veritable orgy of screenwriting. From 1964 to 1967, he rewrote scripts of The Loved One, The Cincinnati Kid, Casino Royale, The Collector and Barbarella. Though they all made money, in some cases a lot of money, none of these works astonished anybody. Perhaps Terry had already lost sight of his original precept—to blast smugness, to astonish. Or perhaps he was just in tune with the zeitgeist. Because in 1967—the Summer of Love—he pulled it all back together again for another annus mirabilis. First he published Red Dirt Marijuana, which may not have had the extraordinary commercial impact of Candy but became an instant classic of New Journalism. That summer, Terry was working with Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim on Barbarella at Cinecita outside Rome, when he bumped into Peter Fonda. Out of their conversations grew the chance to write perhaps his penultimate work, the screenplay of Easy Rider.

Through 1967 and 1968, Terry worked with Fonda, who would produce and star in the film, and Dennis Hopper, who would direct and star in it, thrashing out the story he wrote into a script. He stayed on the picture through the shooting and editing. In the introduction to the published screenplay of Easy Rider, which is credited to Fonda, Hopper and Southern, Frederick Tutten observed: "Easy Rider is a conglomerate of so many basic impulses and myths in our culture that even while you move along with it, wonderingly, there is an abiding sense of a familiar terrain—the classic nineteenth-century American landscape, a violent pastoral...

"Much of the film's ebullience is in keeping with the image of this violent/pastoral America. Easy Rider has its origins in the fabric of the action-journey myth of our culture: Whitman's space-time flights in Song of Myself, Woody Guthrie's hobo-folk mystique in Bound for Glory.... The two riders in the film belong to no bike pack: They line up with the American pantheon of paired comrade heroes: Deerslayer and Chingachgook, Ishmael and Queequeg, Huck Finn and Jim, Sal Paradise and crazy Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's On the Road."

When it was released in 1970, Easy Rider was greeted internationally as "a lyric, tragic song of the road, a bold, courageous statement of life seldom matched in motion pictures, one of the most powerful movies ever made." And Terry's script was nominated for an Oscar. His final hit, the novel Blue Movie, published in 1970, eerily wrote into being the sexual ethos of the 1970s that ultimately led to AIDS, once and for all putting to rest the corpse of the counterculture.

From 1958 to 1970, Terry was the champ. No one else hit such big shots and kept them coming.

Terry Southern's work is embedded in the only tradition which has so far proved indigenous to the American culture, the tradition of romantic agony, which was in the process of being overhauled by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, as well as Terry Southern. "He invented his own idiom out of the '50s and '60s, his own language," marveled a brilliant contemporary, the screenwriter Buck Henry. "Garcia Marquez meets Dwight Eisenhower. It was a whole new chapter in black comedy and farce." Indeed. Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas rises from the pages of The Magic Christian. Terry's characters become part of our reference banks. His most memorable scenes, from the hunchback trying to enter Candy with his hump to Slim Pickens in Strangelove riding the bomb to its destination like a bucking bronco, are iconic.

In 1970, Terry stood on the brink of a new decade for which he appeared to be the perfect commentator. After all, it wasn't just that his fourth novel, Blue Movie, was published and that Easy Rider was in theaters across America. The first film he produced, End of the Road, starring James Earl Jones and Stacy Keach, and the film of his book The Magic Christian, starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, were also in general release. Meanwhile, Candy was being filmed, and all his books were in print and selling briskly. A number of them were already considered classics. They were also widely appreciated outside of the United States, particularly in England.

If one had had to bet on who was going to have a better output in the 1970s, Terry Southern or William Burroughs, one would have said Terry. And there was really no way we could have known how wrong we would have been, because Terry himself could not have seen what was bearing down on him at the dawn of the new decade. According to Terry's biographer, Lee Hill, "The last twenty-five years of Southern's life, 1970 to 1995, are a frustrating puzzle of grand projects and dead ends. The great mystery surrounding Southern's post-sixties career is why he had such difficulty in getting projects into production. There isn't a simple answer. Some say it was due to his excessive drinking and use of recreational drugs. Some point to a grey-listing of Southern because of his left-wing political activism. Still others argue that his brand of humor had fallen out of fashion."

It was not until the mid-1980s that Terry was able to get hold of government files on him through the then-new Freedom of Information Act. From these papers he would learn that the IRS harassment of him as early as 1966 had led to his being blacklisted as a Hollywood screenwriter. (All the films he wrote after 1966 were independent or foreign productions.) Furthermore, when President Nixon won his landslide victory in 1972, he instructed the FBI and IRS to put the heat on numerous artistic figures who had been outspoken against him or his previous administration. This was Nixon's hit list. Andy Warhol, one of its subjects, was able to pay the fines charged him and protect himself with a team of lawyers and tax accountants. Terry, who had made and spent a fortune in the '60s without keeping records of his expenses, had managed to hold onto only a tiny amount of what he had earned and was a sitting duck. According to Terry, as a result of IRS harassment, in 1972 he ended up in thrall to the IRS for the rest of his life.

For the next twenty-three years, he gave the impression of being constantly on the verge of making a comeback with a great new something, but the product that made its way to the consumer was a travesty of what was expected from a writer of his caliber. He was given two opportunities to write classic texts on the Rolling Stones, first from the perspective of touring with them, second to accompany a collection of the great Michael Cooper's photographs. In both cases, he produced an extremely thin text. Considering Terry's long-term relationship with the Stones, dating back to 1963 and continuing into the '90s, and his deep insights into the relationships between them, which could have led to a wonderful evocation of an age and its spirit, these books were great disappointments. Worse still was his long-awaited fifth novel, Texas Summer, published in 1991. In this book, Terry took the great short stories that made up half of Red Dirt Marijuana, wrote some connecting material between them, weakening them in the process, and published the resulting travesty as his "new" work.

The writer's mechanism—a combination of the precision of his brain, the emotional engine of his heart, his physical energy and psychic fuel—is delicate. Terry had lived large, worked hard, partied harder, and been a big drinker and daily user of Dexamyl (an amphetamine widely prescribed by American doctors in the '60s as an antidepressant). However, it is facile to write him off as a victim of substance abuse. American artists of all kinds have long histories of alcohol and drug addiction. Terry's friend William Burroughs had been a heroin addict for fifteen years, and an alcoholic all his adult life. Yet in 1974, at age sixty, he embarked on a highly successful, new period of his career. One has to look more carefully into the pivots of Terry's life to discover the real reasons for his dramatic halt in 1970.

According to George Plimpton, Terry's most striking characteristic, already in place as early as 1953, was the way he spoke. "Texas born," Plimpton wrote, "he developed a curious, mock high English complete with little harrumphs (What? What?) delivered in fits and starts, with words often abbreviated in hipster style (fab for fabulous) and marked with qualifying endearments such as 'Tip Top Tony' for Tony Richardson, the movie director—very unique and not unlike how Goofy would sound if born an earl." Add to this the famous T. S. Eliot quote Southern used as the epigraph for his fourth novel, Blue Movie, "Poetry is not an expression of personality, it is an escape from personality; it is not an outpouring of emotion, it is a suppression of emotion—but, of course, only those who have personality and emotions can ever know what it means to want to get away from those things." There was also the change in appearance he went through from 1958, when he appeared on the jacket of Flash and Filigree looking like a young Richard Burton, to 1967, when he had put on a good deal of weight and camouflaged his face with long hair, a beard and thick, black-framed glasses. Then you begin to realize that you are dealing with an intensely private man, who once told me, "You must keep in mind that on no account must we destroy the mystery of my existence. Otherwise I'm dead."

In my opinion, it was not the IRS that stopped Terry in his tracks, or the booze and pills, though they certainly contributed. I think it was a series of betrayals from within his own camp that hurt that delicate mechanism.

For example, when Candy was published in America in 1964, it went to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for eleven weeks, spending almost a year on the list, subsequently selling five million copies around the world. Terry did not get one cent of the royalties, approximately one million dollars in 1960 (ten million today). According to Terry: "What happened with Candy was a shocking and scandalous thing. They didn't tell us this, but when something is published in Europe but not in England or the U.S., in order to hold an American copyright you have to acquire what's called 'artificial copyright' which lasts for six months, and then even if a section of it is published in a magazine someplace, you have to renew this copyright every six months. So Candy, which was originally published in Paris in 1959, was not protected by copyright in the U.S. The publisher at Putnam knew that and so they had a clause in small print saying that if an unauthorized edition should appear within six months of theirs, they would withhold all royalties until assessment of damages. And an unauthorized mass paperback edition did appear. So the book's original publisher in Paris at the Olympia Press, Maurice Girodias, rushed over to New York and made some kind of deal for himself while the book was still number one. But the pirated edition caused Putnam to rush into print with their paperback edition, and meanwhile, because this happened before the six-month period stipulated in the contract was up, they withheld all royalties."

Another example: In 1970, Terry gave his "good friend" Dennis Hopper a screenwriting credit on Easy Rider. Because Hopper was the film's director and the Writer's Guild had firm rules against a director or producer leaning on a writer for such a credit, this was the only way Hopper could have gotten a writing credit on the film and published screenplay. In 1972, when Hopper was a millionaire several times over from the film's profits and Terry was fighting for his financial life, Terry, who had been screwed out of the single point in the film he was originally supposed to have, did a very uncharacteristic thing. Dropping the mask of the Earl of Goofy, he wrote Hopper a letter, touching on his problems and asking him, virtually begging him, if he couldn't see his way to giving Terry one point of the film's huge profits. While this point would have hardly made a noticeable dent in Hopper's fortune, it would have solved all of Terry's problems with the IRS, and probably gone some way towards saving his creative life. Hopper did not even have the courtesy to reply.

However tough a person you are—and Terry was plenty tough and proved it by his awesome ability to get up from losing a million dollars on Candy without losing his sense of humor—there comes a point at which you run out of ammunition or new ways to evade those forces that are trying to defeat you, whatever they might be. It happened to Ernest Hemingway in the '60s. It happened to Richard Brautigan in the '70s. Writing, after all, is largely a question of character once you've got your basic chops.

Unlike Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams, who drank and drugged themselves to death, unlike J. D. Salinger, who went into seclusion, Terry never complained and never explained. He was a writer, and, as Burroughs used to remind us, writers must write. Terry stayed true to his calling, keeping a regular schedule—getting up around 10:30 a.m., reading the paper and drinking coffee, starting to work around noon. Trying to maintain the habits and methods that had been so successful, he kept the car Gail drove him around in equipped with Scotch tape, pencil sharpeners and lights for night work, a poignant reminder of those magic rides to Shepperton Studios with Kubrick back in 1962.

After a regular day's work, he would usually drink and get high by himself, staying up until the early hours of the morning watching CNN, taking notes. According to his son, Nile: "People rarely came to visit, but even when the house was without guests, in the wee hours, it would often sound like a 'right rave-up' was going on. Terry would have the TV blasting, stereo going on and off, he'd be singing, shouting out lines of dialogue or Britishisms like 'Very well then' or 'Two can play at that game, Mister!' He constantly kept fires roaring in the house, sometimes maintaining four at once. His favorite way to revive them was with kerosene, and after a few drinks, he would let the flames dance away up from the fireplace..."

There is something both sad and beautiful in this image of Terry foraging around his house, roaring with laughter, talking back to the television set, trying again to hear the biting satiric prose that had once flowed from his brain onto the page and out into the world.