Fame is a bitch goddess. Novelist, satirist, screenwriter, and quintessential 1960s hipster Terry Southern knew this as well as anyone.
"He f**king helped write two of the great films of the '60s," notes playwright Charles Pike, referring to Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider. Pike and Southern's son Nile have written a biographical play entitled Now Dig This...The Terry Southern Show!, which is receiving its world premiere at the Prop Thtr New Play 2000 festival. The show includes excerpts from Terry Southern's writings and video segments compiled by Nile Southern and Jim Sikora; it runs through May 14 at the Garage at Steppenwolf.
Born into comfortable obscurity in Alvarado, Texas, the son of a local doctor and dressmaker, Terry Southern attained a life of fame and fortune by his early 40s, things he could only have dreamed of back home. His novels were best sellers. His screenplays were made into films. And in his extra-curricular life, Southern palled around with some of the brightest lights of the '60s--the Beatles, the Stones. (His face graces the cover of the Beatles' seminal Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.)
And then the bottom fell out. Director Dennis Hopper claimed that Southern's co-writing credit for Easy Rider, for which the writer had shared an Academy Award, was fake. Other projects Southern was working on, most notably the controversial film End of the Road, adapted from John Barth's novel, tanked (mostly due to an X rating it received from a graphic abortion scene at the film's end.). Others never got off the ground. The last 25 years of his life were as full of disappointment and failure as the first 45 had been full of hope and achievement. By the time he collapsed in the mid-1990s at age 71, many thought he'd been dead for years.
Looking over Southern's life, it is hard to tell where things when wrong. He had begun writing when he was 11, doing his own rewrite of Edgar Allen Poe's gothic horror story, "The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym." But he might not have become a writer if the Second World War hadn't interrupted his pre-med studies at Southern Methodist University. Southern served in the Army signal corps, landing in France three days after D-Day. He also had the dubious honor of being one of the soldiers in the notoriously bloody Battle of the Bulge.
After the war, Southern had no interest in resuming his pre-medical studies. He enrolled in the University of Chicago, then in the midst of Robert Maynard Hutchins' experimental Great Books Program, then transferred to Northwestern where he got his B.A. in English.
But the real changes in Southern's life didn't begin until he moved to France in 1948 to study at the Sorbonne and hang out in the expat American writers' scene. Southern's friends from this era include men and women who became the leading writers of the upcoming decades: George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, Mavis Gallant, Mordecai Richler, and James Baldwin.
Southern spent his free time writing and sending his work out to various avant-garde literary magazines. Of these, the most significant was The Paris Review, which by the early 1950s regularly published Southern's short stories. He also contributed interviews, including a noteworthy one with Chicago writer Nelson Algren.
As the '50s progressed, Southern's work began to appear in more and more prestigious magazines: Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, The Nation, Esquire, The New York Times Book Review. He began and abandoned several novels before finishing Flash and Filigree, which was first published in England. His next novel, Candy, was written on a lark for the notorious Paris-based Olympia Press, which also published such scandalous authors as Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita was first published in an Olympia Press edition.)
Southern loved to recount how he and his friend Mason Hoffenberg wrote Candy, their 20th century, erotic updating of Voltaire's Candide, as a kind of joke. In the novel, Southern and Hoffenberg skewered every sacred cow they could think of--academia, virginity, American womanhood, even the expectations of erotic literature. In one of the most famous--and grotesque--scenes in the book, the ever-sexy innocent Candy mounts a hunchback, caressing his hump lustily as he pushes her on to climax. (Hardly the sort of stuff the men in raincoats expected when they picked up the book.) A year later, an English publisher released Southern's grotesquely funny satire, The Magic Christian, about a filthy rich philanthropist, Guy Grand, who spends his insanely decadent days proving to the world how venal, shallow, and money-obsessed it really is. At the climax of the book, Southern has some of its greedy denizens bobbing for Grand's dollars in a pool of feces and urine.