Friday, June 10, 2005

The Second Coming of Terry Southern

Rediscovering TS has been one of the surprises of this year so far, triggered off by finding Lee Hill’s ‘A Grand Guy: The Art And Life of Terry Southern’ [Harper Collins 2001]

Once upon a time Terry Southern was the coolest of the cool, the hepcap of the hips, the Grand Guy. Novelist, screenwriter, first-class raconteur, by all accounts Terry was one of the funniest men you’d ever wish to meet. For a time he ruled, networking with a number of stellar groups of movers and shakers on several continents during the 50s and especially the 60s, Terry helped define the times and then fell from grace. No more Chateaux Marmont. He couldn’t get hired. He died broke in 1995 and now if you bring his name up in conversation people, depending on their age, will either look wistful or blank. Who he? Hence the need for the Second Coming of Terry Southern.

In brief: Born in 1926 in Texas, a state of mind he never completely shrugged off, Terry fought in the Battle of the Bulge, then enrolled at the University of Chicago and later Northwestern before moving to Paris in the 1950s where he wrote his first novel ‘Flash and Filigree’ (1958) followed by the infamous ‘Candy’ with Mason Hoffenberg (1960), later made into ‘The Erotic Adventures of Candy’ in 1978. Then came London in the Swinging Sixties and Big Bad Hollywood.

Terry S. wrote the screenplay for ‘Barbarella’ and co-wrote ‘Doctor Strangelove’ with Stanley Kubrick and ‘Easy Rider’ with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda (which he also named). How about that for credentials. He also co-wrote The Loved One with Christopher Isherwood and The Cincinnati Kid with Ring Lardner Jr (starring Steve McQueen).

He turned his novel The Magic Christian into a screenplay for a movie that starred Peter Sellers and Ringo. His novel Blue Movie has proved as yet unfilmable but it’s vision of a mainstream porno film is slowly coming to pass. Later he worked on the legendary US tv series ‘Saturday Night Live’.

You can find him wearing sunglasses (in the second to back row at left, just above Tom Mix’s big white cowboy hat) on the cover of ‘Sergeant Pepper’ (Interesting article on the cover at

He was a first class journalist for Esquire, covering the 1968 Chicago Riots alongside William Burroughs, John Genet and Norman Mailer. A collection of fiction and reportage is contained in ‘Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes’.

Perhaps the best single introduction to his work, apart from the novels themselves, which are all now back in print, is ‘Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern’, an excellent anthology edited by his son Nile Southern and Josh Alan Friedman, which contains one of the best pieces on William Burroughs I have ever read.

It is easy to see now that TS was one of the great experimenters and stylists who anticipated New Journalism before there was such a term. He certainly anticipated the gonzo of Hunter S. Thompson. he has also been termed The Father of Contemporary Black Comedy, which is also true. He was way ahead on many levels.

His humour was refined but saturated with lurid and unacceptable thoughts which he expressed in a manner that is completely politically unacceptable. If you want to experience it raw then try and get hold of ‘Give Me Your Hump: The Unspeakable Terry Southern Record’ which features, amongst other things, a bravura reading of an extract from ‘Blue Movie’ by Marianne Faithful. [2001. Paris Records. KOC-CD-8299]

Hope this inadequate summary gives you some sense of the man and intrigues you enough to check him out. You won't be disappointed.


Check Terry’s full movie credentials at:

One of the single best sites on TS and his work Don’t miss in particular the long essay by Charles Zigman ‘Adventures of an Ultra Fab Prof: Terry Southern at Columbia University.

An excellent collection of articles on his life and work from the ‘New York Times’

Interesting review of the two biographies from The Texas Observer

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