The Original Hipster
Why Terry Southern's Bad Boy Black Humor Is Making a Comeback
Quick: Which Texas writer or writers merited inclusion on the cover of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? (A) J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek; (B) Katherine Anne Porter and William Sydney Porter (O. Henry); (C) Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and Cabeza de Vaca; or (D) Terry Southern, looking a little stoned and wearing shades. If you guessed (D), friends, you're correct -- it is none other than that progenitor of Bad Boy Black Humor and personal leader of the early days of the sexual revolution in Paris, London, and Greenwich Village. What made him so au courant back in the summer of '67, when the Fab Four's collaged cover art made its splash? And now, six years after his death, why is Terry Southern suddenly hot again? And how did he escape from Alvarado, Texas, in the first place?
Much of Southern's recent acclaim appears to have to do with a particular story in Stanley Kubrick's obituaries. When the filmmaker died a couple of years back, Southern's name came up over and over again as the secret weapon in Kubrick's production of his most perfect film, the darkly hilarious Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The story goes like this: Kubrick had paid English writer Peter George $3,000 for his novel Red Alert, a thriller about an American air base commander who defies fail-safe protocols and sends B-52s under his command to bomb the USSR, thus initiating world-ending retaliation. The financing for the film was based on Peter Sellers playing multiple roles, and after Sellers passed on a copy of Southern's comic novel The Magic Christian to Kubrick, Southern was brought in to "lighten" the script a bit.
In actual time, Southern worked on Dr. Strangelove no longer than six weeks, and his working arrangement with Kubrick was eccentric. Kubrick's limo -- a Rolls Royce or Bentley -- would call for Southern at 4:30 in the morning, and as they were driven through the London fog to the film studio, they would go over the script in the back of the luxurious car with its fold-down writing surfaces. If the sun began to shine, Kubrick would lower the blinds. The resulting film was full of Terry Southern touches, from the names of the characters (Keenan Wynn played the memorable Major "Bat" Guano) to the prayer that George C. Scott delivers in the war room. Southern's Texas origins are particularly evident in the character of the American B-52 pilot played by cowboy-character actor Slim Pickens. Pickens' down-home delivery was perfect for the speeches he gave to the crew as they were flying:
Now look boys, I ain't much of a ham at makin' speeches. But I got a pretty fair idea that somethin' doggoned important's going on back there. And I got a fair idea of the kind of personal emotions that some of you fellas may be thinkin'. Heck, I reckon you wouldn't even be human beins if you didn't have some pretty strong personal feelings about nucular combat. But I want you to remember one thing -- the folks back home is a countin' on ya, and by golly, we ain't about to let 'em down. Tell ya somethin' else -- this thing turns out to be half as important as I figure it might just be, I'd say that you're all in line for some important promotions an' personal citations when this thing's over with. That goes for every last one of ya, regardless of your race, color, or your creed. Now, let's get this thing on the hump. We got some flyin' to do.
Just before the apocalypse that ends the film, our final view of Pickens is his ride on the nuclear bomb bare-bronc style as it falls, waving his cowboy hat and hollering "yee-haw," a Texan on a mission to take the rest of the world with him.
The memory of time before political correctness, when broad and powerful attacks on American political and sexual complacencies could be blithely performed and actually embraced both by the public and the critical establishment, is piquant, to say the least. The time is ripe for a general re-appreciation of one of the great American subverters, Terry Southern.
Lee Hill's new biography, A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern (HarperCollins, $30) provides a decent chronological skeleton on which to hang Terry Southern's story. His development in the Johnson County town of Alvarado, south of Ft. Worth, and in Dallas' South Oak Cliff appears to have been unremarkable, except for one episode that was formative in a literary sense. Hill tells the story of Southern's mother introducing him to the work of Edgar Allen Poe when he was in the fourth grade. Based on his reading of the Baltimore master's strange and beautiful tales and poetry, young Terry started writing parodies that featured his grade school classmates and their authority figures, who had an odd predilection for experiencing gruesome fatalities. He later told an interviewer that The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was an "extraordinary turn-on for a young western lout. Nine years old, and I was already hooked on weirdo lit. But in the best possible way, because if pot leads to cocaine, E.A. Poe surely leads to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautrémont, Joyce, Kafka, Céline, Faulkner, Nathanael West, Sartre, et cetera, et cetera, ad glorium."
After enrolling at SMU in Dallas, Southern, at the age of 19, joined the Army, and as an infantryman participated in the Battle of the Bulge. The war experience, perhaps more than his formal education, enlarged Southern's view of the world. He later told his wife Carol that the Jews he encountered in the Army were "the grooviest people I had ever met." After his discharge, he briefly returned to Dallas, but then left Texas for good, continuing his education in Chicago at the University of Chicago and Northwestern.
After Chicago, Southern joined the great influx of Americans moving to Paris. The GI bill made it possible for American veterans to enroll in the Sorbonne for practically nothing, and Southern lived there beginning in 1948, participating in the new expatriate life that featured jazz clubs and lots of weekend travel to places like Switzerland and Spain. The burgeoning literary scene was a fascinating mix of European survivors of the war and Americans ranging from experimental poets to an interesting group of recent graduates of Ivy League universities who had an idea to start a new literary journal. This cadre of upstarts included George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, and the journal they started was The Paris Review.
By the late Forties, Terry Southern was full of certainty about his literary ambitions, modeling himself after such mandarin English stylists as Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, and his favorite, Henry Green. There was little trace of his Texas origins at this point: At this point, Southern spoke in a clipped, almost British accent, but he expressed himself in a patois that was all his own. His talk was full of hip slang, and his own brand of nicknames. In his recent Harper's portrait of Southern, Plimpton stated that it was Southern's then-new short stories that created the tone and ambition of his journal. Indeed, the inaugural issue of the estimable literary quarterly included Southern's story "The Accident," taken from his novel-in-progress, Flash and Filigree. Other contributors to the first issue included Matthiessen, William Styron, Robert Bly, and, in the first of their notable literary interviews, E.M. Forster. Southern had embarked on what he called the "quality lit game."
So here you are in Paris in 1950, taking classes in existentialism by day and checking out Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk in some jazz cellar by night. What do you do to make ends meet, to buy the groceries? Why, write a dirty book, of course. Some of the most entertaining parts of Hill's biography deal with these contributions to literature for the randy. Terry Southern called them "dbs." The db man in Paris was the dapper Maurice Girodias, whose Olympia Press published a series called "The Traveller's Companion" -- little paperbacks in moss green covers with titles like Sin for Breakfast and Until She Screams. These two, as it happens, were cranked out by "Hamilton Drake" and "Faustino Perez," two of the noms de porn for Southern's new friend, Mason Hoffenberg. Girodias made most of his money in this series, but his Olympia Press also published some very high end "quality lit," such as Vladimir Nabokov's shocking masterpiece Lolita. Hoffenberg and Southern spent evenings together in Paris, eventually concocting an idea for a parody of a db that would make fun of the genre but still be a dirty book itself. This became, many years later, the surprise bestseller Candy.
By 1952, Southern had married the French model Pud Gadiot. The following year they moved to the next place that was happening in the bohemian arts scene: Greenwich Village. Gadiot became a much-in-demand model and worked with Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. It was during this period that Southern hooked up with the generation of American beat writers and artists that included poet Allen Ginsberg, painter Larry Rivers, and novelist and calculating-machine heir William S. Burroughs. At the same time, he maintained his Paris Review friendships, and through Jean Stein, a writer on the journal's staff, became friends with William Faulkner, who had a real regard for Southern's work and encouraged him to mine his Texas background. In the mid-Fifties, Gadiot and Southern broke up, and he quickly fell in love with Carol Kauffman, a beautiful painter from Philadelphia. Southern was widely published by this time, writing both fiction and nonfiction, but in order to achieve the peace and quiet to finish some work in progress, the now-married couple returned to Europe, settling in the quietness of Geneva.
While Carol taught in a UN nursery school, Southern endeavored to finish his three best known books, Flash and Filigree, Candy, and The Magic Christian. Hill describes Geneva as the couple's "clean-well-lighted place," yet Southern managed to subvert some of the Swiss orderliness, particularly when he threw an old portable typewriter down a chute that served as a garbage disposal for their apartment building. After a horrendous series of crunching noises, the management posted a polite note requesting that inappropriate trash not be placed in the disposal. Although the idea for Southern's collaboration with Hoffenberg for Candy was a bit stale by this time, the charming pornographer Girodias came to call with the promise of $1,000.
In response, Southern wrote a brief outline that demonstrates something of his deadpan approach to black humor:
A sensitive, progressive-school humanist who comes from Wisconsin to New York's lower East Side to be an art student, social worker, etc., and to find (unlike her father) "beauty in mean places." She has an especially romantic idea about "minorities" and of course gets raped by Negroes, robbed by Jews, knocked up by Puerto Ricans, etc., -- though her feeling of "being needed" sustains her for quite a while, through a devouring gauntlet of freaks, faggots, psychiatrists and aesthetic cults.
After the publication of Candy (Southern made little more money than Girodias paid him), the outlandish scene in which the "pert" (one of Southern's favorite words) Candy gives herself to a hunchback became so popular that Southern would regularly be greeted at parties with the scene's memorable punchline, "Give me your hump!" When the book was published in the U.S. six years later, it was on the bestseller list for 11 months, but the copyright was hopelessly snarled because of its origins as a Parisian db.
In 1959 Southern finished The Magic Christian, a fable about a rich man named Guy Grand who uses his millions to "make things hot for people." This most acclaimed novel of Southern's career is episodic in structure, and it follows Grand as he rigs championship boxing matches, enters a vicious panther into a dog show, and finally sets up an enormous vat of excrement into which he pours a million dollars in ones, so that he can see the resulting chaos.
By the time Dr. Strangelove gathered rave reviews and became a hit, Southern had made it large (but not financially) as the bestselling author of Candy, and perhaps too much credit was given to his work on the film, for which he shared screenwriting credit with Kubrick and Peter George. This attention to Southern appeared to drive Kubrick a little crazy, as he took out full-page ads in the show business trade papers reminding everyone that it was his film and no one else's. After that, all of his works were identified as "a film by Stanley Kubrick."
Dr. Strangelove pretty much ended any remaining inclinations Southern had toward "quality lit," and the rest of his career was devoted to writing for the screen. His movie credits include the script for Tony Richardson's film of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, adaptations of John Fowles' novel The Collector and John Barth's The End of the Road, and original scripts for The Cincinnati Kid (Sam Peckinpah was replaced by Norman Jewison as director) and for the Jane Fonda Sixties cult-favorite Barbarella. In these and in lesser films, Southern modestly stated that his screenwriting gift was for "brightening and tightening." By the middle and late Sixties, Southern was a counterculture icon both in swinging London and in Hollywood, hanging out with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Peter Sellers, and London photographer-about-town Robert Fraser. Southern's hipster beatification came with the Sergeant Pepper's album cover. His particular friend in the Beatles was Ringo.
Toward the end of the Sixties, Southern's two notable screen projects were an adaptation of his own The Magic Christian and an independent film starring his pal Jane Fonda's brother Peter and the wannabe film auteur Dennis Hopper. This turned out to be Easy Rider, perhaps Southern's greatest hit and biggest financial failure. Southern's original connection to the film came through his Texas actor friend Rip Torn, who was originally cast in the lawyer role finally played by Jack Nicholson. The script credits for Easy Rider may be in litigation to this day, but in summary, the film was a surprise success of enormous proportions, and Southern's role as writer was not acknowledged by Hopper and Fonda. George Plimpton reports that Easy Rider was thought to have made more than $50 million and that Southern's total payment was $3,900, with perhaps a hundred dollars a year in royalties. As for The Magic Christian, Southern got to the set too late and the mercurial Peter Sellers, who played Guy Grand, had changed the story so that much of Southern's subtle subversion was converted into crass comedy. The film was deservedly a flop.
Most of the Seventies and all of the Eighties were not good for Terry Southern's career; by his death in 1995 he had a plump portfolio of never-finished projects and finished scripts that somehow never got filmed. Always beloved by his old friends, many pitched in to help out after he got in tax trouble and then suffered a slight stroke in the early Nineties. His son Nile has done the most to advance his reputation -- earlier this year he and his friend Josh Alan Friedman (Bruce Jay Friedman's son) brought out a sort of sequel to a 1967 compilation of Southern's work, Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes -- i.e., a grab bag of what was left unpublished after Southern's death. To characterize the new collection, Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern, 1950-1995 (Grove, $25), as uneven is an understatement. Among the welcome oldies are Southern's report from the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago that he covered for Esquire along with Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, and the interview of Henry Green that he conducted for The Paris Review in 1958. About half the contents are ephemera, made up of reviews of jazz records or performances by his friend Lenny Bruce or, in some cases, some of Southern's letters. At least one of these, written to the editors of Ms. Magazine, on the topic of women's liberation, demonstrates that, at least in 1972, Southern still had it in him to make things hot for people:
Since the letters you see free to print are so flagrantly and one-sidedly selective ("self-serving" is, I believe the expression), I doubt this will find its way into those columns; we shall see. In any case, during your own quest for the truth, libbywise, you might consider the following suggestion: namely, that it is naïve in the extreme for women to expect to be regarded as equals by men (despite all lip service to the contrary), so long as they persist in subhuman (i.e., animal-like) behavior during sexual intercourse. I'm referring, as you doubtless know, to the outlandish panting, gasping, moaning, sobbing, writhing, scratching, biting, screaming conniptions, and the seemingly invariable "Oh my god ... oh, my god ... oh, my god" all so predictably integral to the pre-, post-, and orgasmic stages of intercourse.
There is no indication that Ms. ran the letter.
These snippets of Southern are better than none at all, but they do remind us of his small output, and of the rather narrow focus of his satire -- he pretty much targeted cold warriors, pert Midwestern blond girls who mean well, pomposity in all its guises, and bluestockings of both sexes. It was his very gift for generosity and collaboration, both in books like Candy and in his screen work, that helped obscure his contributions, and once his moment had passed, he hadn't cashed in on his own talent.
As for his Texanness, this hepcat with British airs did return to the state, both in his final novel, Texas Summer, published in 1991, and in person, when he read at the Dallas Museum of Art in February 1993. The format allowed Southern to read a bit from The Magic Christian, and then Dr. Strangelove was shown. The handsome auditorium at the museum was packed with a dressed-up Dallas crowd, some women sporting tight slacks and chinchilla jackets to accompany some pretty serious diamonds. In the pre-reading buzz, many seemed to be recounting the recent Super Bowl, a Dallas triumph. When Southern walked out into the spotlight, wearing a weathered tweed jacket, he peered out at the crowd over his reading glasses, and then sardonically commented "How 'bout them Cowboys?" The crowd ate it up.
Nile Southern bravely helped manage his father's late career and also maintains TerrySouthern.com, a recommended site for those needing a fresh infusion of hipster attitude. To enter the site, you have to pick out Southern's picture from the Sergeant Pepper's album jacket, somewhat to the left and down from his old hero Edgar Allen Poe. After you click his sun-glassed face, a circle surrounds his head, something like a halo.