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Unearthing Terry Southern

Prop Thtr goes retro with a multimedia look at the life of a rebel screenwriter logo

Terry Southern
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.

Terry Southern (center)
with his pals, The Beatles
The 1960s began with Southern back in the U.S., living the life of a struggling but increasingly comfortable freelance writer. For a time he lived in Greenwich Village--where he had lived off and on in the '50s, when he wasn't in Paris--but in 1960, he bought a home in East Canaan, Connecticut, and began to live the life of the respectable suburban American.

That didn't last long.

In 1962, an interview with Stanley Kubrick for Esquire culminated in Southern being invited to help write the screenplay for Kubrick's next film, Dr. Strangelove. How much Southern contributed to this classic '60s satire remains a matter of dispute, with Kubrick arguing that Southern's contribution was minimal. Still Southern received a writing credit for the film, sharing it with Kubrick and Peter George, who wrote the novel, Red Alert, on which the movie is based.

The '60s turned out to be an insanely great period for Southern, whose dark wit fit the iconoclastic decade like a glove. In 1964, Candy was finally published in the U.S. and became an instant bestseller and Book-of-the-Month Club alternate. For a time, he continued to write for magazines, but he also began working on various film projects, among them an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's bitter look at the funeral industry, The Loved One, Southern's own adaptation of The Magic Christian, and even, for a while, an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.

Other film offers followed. The list of movies Southern was involved in reads like a Who's Who of swinging '60s-era cinema: The Cincinnati Kid, Casino Royale, Barbarella, culminating in that great coda to the decade, Easy Rider. At the same time, Southern became a fixture in hip circles, befriending Larry Rivers, the Beatles, Peter Fonda, and the Rolling Stones.

Southern's unraveling may have had its source in those heady days. Drugs and alcohol undid a lot of '60s survivors, and Southern could booze and pop and toke with the best of them. But if drugs and alcohol were involved in his decline, they took longer to do him in than many of his younger, more illustrious cohorts.

But there were other factors in Southern's professional downfall. It didn't help that he had an almost mystical ability to slight friends and turn them into virulent enemies. Kubrick, once his ally, was by the end of the '60s so furious with Southern he first snapped up the rights to a book he knew Southern had worked hard to adapt, A Clockwork Orange, and then wouldn't even look at Southern's adaptation before starting his own.

Likewise, the once friendly counter-culture collaboration between Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Southern ended in the kind of acrimony and money-grubbing that would have amused Guy Grand. Happy to share an Oscar for the screenplay of Easy Rider, Fonda and Hopper were less anxious to share the profits from this phenomenally successful film. Hopper began to spread rumors that Southern had had little or nothing to do with the movie, that he wasn't a finisher, and that he and Fonda had done Easy Rider using the barest of outlines.

As Hopper chipped away at Southern's reputation, the bitch goddess fortune, sister to fame, was turning the wheel against the writer. The decade turned, and a different sensibility came in vogue in the 1970s. Southern's mordant wit was suddenly out of fashion. His adaptation of The End of the Road was released the same time as the film version of The Magic Christian. The End of the Road tanked. A month later, Southern's novel Blue Movie, his first published since Candy six years earlier, failed to achieve the dizzying success of his earlier works.

It was all downhill from there.

It would be wrong to say Southern stopped writing. He continued to turn out screenplays, magazine articles, and short stories but he never again achieved the level of success he'd had a decade earlier. "At the time that he died," Charles Pike tells me, "he had 40 unproduced film scripts in his closet, including a sequel to Barbarella and a sequel to Easy Rider. He wrote every day. This idea that he wasn't a finisher is just bullshit."

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