When we trimmed down authors for ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’, two thirds were back-burnered because of information overload; there was a general feeling that we’d have turned off readers. I reluctantly removed Terry Southern even though he was such an interesting candidate.
Few people now recall the name of Terry Southern, but he was the quintessential sixties cool guy, co-screenwriter of ‘Dr. Strangelove’, ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘Barbarella’, one of the most underrated comic writers of the post-war years, novelist, satirist and all-round hip dude. But satire fell from favour and when ‘hipness’ could no longer be conjured up by images of marijuana and jazz bars, Southern’s reputation faded.
Southern’s rise was tied to a happy confluence of the right times and places. Born in 1924, he was a Texan who smoked his first joint at ten and got into trouble for breaking segregation rules on buses. He read too much for a Texan, spent the war years in England, and had an affinity for British writers. His greatest respect was reserved for the emotionally detached British novelist Henry Green.
In Paris he metamorphosed into a seasoned bohemian, an existentialist whose attitude was governed by a key French hipster ethos, that popular success was incompatible with genuine artistic achievement. He was drawn to a slothful style of hanging-out. Many post-war expatriates were from America’s margins, ethnic, gay, communist bohemians seeking refuge from their country’s right-wing orthodoxy. Southern’s friends loved quality literature, jazz, café society, sex, and all too frequently, heroin, although Southern alternated between mellowing joints and speed.
He maintained a inscrutable presence in company, partially to cover his introspective nature, and preferred careful writing over the freeform flourishes of the beat poets. His short stories developed a peculiar style that harboured a sense of something unseen and sinister lurking on the periphery of the action, a wonderfully black, edgy humour. He felt that the atrocities of the 20thcentury had made naturalism obscene.
The years in Europe defined his hip persona. The emancipating influence of jazz marked his style. In Greenwich Village, Southern conspired against the squares while the rest of America accepted consumer culture and Cold War xenophobia. In Switzerland he wrote ‘Candy’ and ‘The Magic Christian’, both later filmed with stars like Peter Sellars, Ringo Starr and Marlon Brando.
Southern felt that great writing was an act of faith as much as the result of skill and practice. But this created meandering novels that played like chains of undisciplined sketches. ‘Blue Movie’ concerned the attempts of a celebrated director to make the first ‘artistic’ big budget hardcore movie. In dedicating the book to ‘the great Stanley K’, Southern prefigured ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and anticipated the emergence of porno chic.
Southern’s popularity-slide was linked to demographics. His counter-culture fans grew older, and the creeping infantilism of the next generation undermined his spirit of revolt. His collected pieces, ‘Now Dig This’, remain hilarious, unique and utterly tasteless. His straight-faced writing for MS. Magazine warned that women should make less noise during sex, avoiding “panting, gasping, moaning, sobbing, writhing, scratching, biting, screaming, and the seemingly invariable “Oh my god… oh, my god … oh, my god” if ever they were to be taken seriously by men. He was a scabrous satirist who wrong-footed those who took him too seriously.
It was inevitable that he should meet Lenny Bruce and join the a theatre of the absurd typified by Mort Sahl, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Jules Feiffer and Woody Allen. But there was a growing internal conflict between hipster idealism and the material possibilities of becoming a celebrity writer.
Screenwriting finally brought Southern fame and fortune. ‘It is inexcusable,’ he commented, ‘to write a novel which could or should have been a film.’ Kubrick found him perfect to rewrite ‘Dr. Strangelove’ as a black comedy, although Southern’s original ending, a military pie-throwing sequence, was removed. Fearing a flop, Columbia distanced itself from the film, which became a smash-hit.
Southern had long been supported by his wife Carol, but in LA he finally left her for a younger woman. The film versions of ‘Candy’ and ‘The Magic Christian’ were disastrous. Work on ‘The Collector’ and ‘The Loved One’ proved unsatisfactory. Southern co-wrote ‘Easy Rider’ – ‘Let’s make a modern Western with two hip guys on bikes instead of old movie stars on horses!’ – with a bickering Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, and failed to gain authorial control. Film, he felt, was the only medium that could capture the chaos and energy of life in America. Coke, gambling, girls and development hell beckoned, but the studio was picking up the tab.
It would be easy to say that Southern the cool-cat counterculturalist simply sold out, but the truth was subtler. He was desperate to keep in with youth culture, but it transmuted beneath his fingers. Southern’s style and image ossified in the eyes of the critics and the public. A hint of drugs was cool, but an amphetamine dependency was not. The IRS sucked cash from him, and he had lousy business sense, but having tasted the high life he could not leave it. His screenwriting style was crushed by the economies of a studio system in decline.
Much of ‘Red Dirt Marijuana & Other Tastes’ now feels dated and rather tame. Some pieces seem merely designed to shock but fail to do so, while others, notably ‘Terry Southern Interviews A Male Faggot Nurse’ are now offensively puerile. This is disappointing, because at the height of his fame Southern was bracketted with J. P. Donleavy and Andre Gide for his ability to write in a blackly humorous style. His best article, a study of the cheerleading college at Mississippi entitled ‘Twirling At Ole Miss’, is well-researched and interesting, but later pieces are lazily constructed, as though Southern has become bored with the whole process. His writing was always peppered with dope and jazz references, but as time passed these keynotes became as quaint as the slang used by one’s parents when they were young. This is the curse of every writer seeking to capture the zeitgeist, but it’s unfortunate that Southern’s own era preceded the greatest change to American culture, the rising rebellious spirit of a nation’s youth. Despite working on ‘Easy Rider’ he was left behind by the Hippy movement, even though he adapted his trademark beat clothes to include peace medallions, and was stranded even further by the Me-Generation’s move into aggressive capitalism.
For Southern, the inevitable downfall came after too many missed opportunities and unrealised projects, particularly a tantalising but clearly ill-fated adaptation of William Burroughs’ first novel ‘Junky’. You wonder if Southern could have achieved more lasting fame if he had spread himself less thinly. Ultimately, he was too conscious of his image to live by his own creed; to simply be yourself. It was one of the first times that a celebrity-writer’s image interfered with his output, a phenomenon we’re all too aware of in the current commercial climate. This is a timely, unsettling reminder that today’s media stars can quickly become yesterday’s heroes, no matter how talented they are.