Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern,
edited by Nile Southern and Brooke Allen.
Terry Southern collapsed on a bright Wednesday afternoon in 1995 while climbing a staircase on the campus of Columbia University, where he taught screenwriting. His girlfriend, Gail Gerber, was parked across the street and watched him stumble backward and fall, his glasses and backpack scattering around him on the steps. He’d recently suffered a mild stroke and a bout with colon cancer that left his hair white and his vision blurred. He walked with a cane. He was seventy-one years old, though Gerber would later write that he “looked like he was 140.”
Not long before, Southern had been forced to remortgage his farm in East Canaan, Connecticut, where he spent most of his days sleeping, eating meals in bed, and talking to his two orange cats. Gerber taught ballet classes to supplement their income—Southern hadn’t had a script produced since 1988’s The Telephone, starring Whoopi Goldberg (“As dull [as] it is exhausting to watch,” claimed the New York Times). Sometimes students would stop by as a kind of pilgrimage, and he’d sit on the porch with them and drink wine. In his last days, he’d also developed a compulsive hatred of flies and would stalk the house spraying them with Raid. Gerber had resorted to hiding the Raid cans under the sink, hoping he wouldn’t notice.
After the fall, Southern was taken to a hospital, where his ex-wife, Carol Kauffman, and their son, Nile, came to be with him. Looking over his X-rays, a nurse asked if Terry had ever worked in a mine or on an industrial farm. His lungs were calcifying. “As far as I know, he has never been off a bar stool,” Gerber joked. Nile sat by his father’s side, reading him letters from friends and fans whenever he found him awake. He remembers his father asking, “What’s the delay?” Southern died that Sunday, and his ashes were spread into a pond on his farm, which was almost immediately thereafter seized by the federal government. Gerber was given thirty days to vacate the property.
Screenwriter for Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider—one of the iconic faces from the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—Southern died owing approximately $30,000 to the I.R.S., to say nothing of his debts to friends, publishers, and local hardware stores. (“I guess I’m the only person he paid some money back to,” the actor Rip Torn told a Denver newspaper.) Partly in an effort to begin paying off these creditors, Nile volunteered to become his father’s literary executor, and he soon began the arduous process of locating and organizing his father’s work and belongings. The job presented a number of difficulties. “Terry’s notion of filing was cleaning off his desk,” Nile told one reporter, describing the imposing mess that constituted his father’s estate. “The rats had been nibbling on it.”
Nile spent the next several years chipping away at the project, eventually relocating the archive to a corrugated-steel locker on the third floor of a climate-controlled warehouse on the West Side of Manhattan. Here were forty boxes of unproduced screenplays, unpublished stories, unfinished novels. It was the detritus of his father’s life, arranged chronologically: pairs of glasses, files of research and arcana, magazine centerfolds, a manila envelope stuffed with losing lottery tickets. Nile walked every day to a nearby copy shop, where he’d Xerox papers and mail them off to old friends and agents and university libraries, hoping to interest someone in the archive’s contents. He heard from at least one of his father’s famous collaborators, Peter Fonda, who said he’d call back the following day but never did. To help place the estate, Nile enlisted a broker, who found that university libraries generally weren’t interested. “Each time,” the broker told a Dallas newspaper, “I have had the feeling that they did not consider Terry Southern a ‘serious’ enough writer to warrant such a large expenditure.”
While Nile waited, he sorted through his father’s things in an effort to make sense of his career, to shape a narrative out of something inherently shapeless. In his introduction to an academic monograph on Southern by David Tully, Nile described himself as “mystified” by his father’s “bewildering legacy.” No matter how much he read and investigated, Nile wrote, the work “did not resolve the unstated underlying puzzle: ‘Who was Terry Southern?’”
As readers and viewers, we are confronted with a similar problem. Southern was a faded celebrity and legendary stoner-raconteur, but he has also come to be recognized as a pioneer of the New Journalism, the New Hollywood, the New in all its breathless, 1960s guises. He thrived in low, discredited forms—magazine stories, pornography, Hollywood comedies—and cycled through success and failure until he finally lost interest in both. There are no masterpieces left untainted by poor taste or clunky, dated slang or disputes over authorship. This unfulfilled, indeterminate quality could be understood as his career’s defining feature: he is boldly, perpetually in-between, neither one thing nor the other. He is the archetypal “termite artist,” as defined by the critic Manny Farber—an artist whose work “goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
Elsewhere, Nile has written about a home movie he and his father made together in his childhood called Night of Terror, Day of Weird. They shot it outside by a riverbank one fall on a Super 8 camera. In one scene Nile played a painter, his father the subject of a portrait. Terry wore a mask they’d found at a magic shop in Boston, with a face that was half-handsome and half-grotesque, split down the middle. In the scene, Nile begins by painting the attractive profile, then asks, “Would you kindly turn this way?” The frame darkens and they cut to a close-up on his father’s face, which slowly turns to reveal the disfigurement. “Not a pretty sight,” Terry says, “is it, Mr. Portrait-Painter?”
Nile Southern first proposed a collection of his father’s letters in 1989, but Terry, at sixty-eight, “was not particularly interested in resurrections of his work, or his life,” Nile recently wrote. Today, we are more than a decade into the revival Nile had originally envisioned under the code name “Resurrection . . . NOW!” A thinly sketched biography, Lee Hill’s A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern, arrived in 2001, followed by a collection of Southern’s miscellany, Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern, in 2002. In 2004, Nile published his own book, The Candy Men, about the controversial publication and reception of Southern’s 1958 erotic novel Candy, and Gerber published a memoir of her partner in 2009, Trippin’ with Terry Southern: What I Think I Remember. In late 2015, the small publishing house ANTIBOOKCLUB released what might amount to the last piece of the puzzle, Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern.
The writer William Styron once predicted that a collection of Southern’s letters would be his “greatest book.” Southern might well have agreed with his friend. In Southern’s interview with the Paris Review, asked what he preferred of his own work, he mentioned short magazine pieces and “some stuff” from the novels. “Or maybe letters,” he went on, “some letters, never published, and unpublishable, I suppose.” The idea seemed to grow on him. “Letter writing is the best writing of all,” he added, “because it’s the purest. It’s like writing to yourself, but you’ve got an excuse to do it because this other person will dig it. And you can transmit information in a strange way, you can sort of mix things up, so they wonder, Well, is this true?”
If biographies offer the panoramic view of a life, letters allow for the hyper-specific experience, the texture of a minor moment. This seems particularly valuable for an artist who worked so firmly in the present and has often been reduced to a catalogue of his contexts—to the vibrant scenes he kept lucking into in Paris, Greenwich Village, swinging London. But the book also preserves a distance from Southern, to a degree that begins to seem as revealing as genuine self-revelation. “Matters of family, business, or the heart seldom, if ever, appear in his work, his letters, or his life,” Nile warns in his introduction, and the comprehensive harshness of that sentence is easy to miss on first read. There’s something cold about Southern’s persona, in other words—he’s always in character, always on. The letters come complete with scenes and dialogue—a voice that’s arch and faux-pretentious, recalling the comedian Lord Buckley—and his habit of signing them under false names only thickens the fog. Reading the book, I wondered whether Southern would have really wanted to see it published, or whether that matters. I wondered whether I even liked Terry Southern anymore, having read it. More than once, as he apparently intended, I wondered, Well, is this true?
The earliest letter in the book is from 1953, a mock-outraged complaint about the Paris Review’s mild censorship of his story “The Accident,” which appeared in the magazine’s debut issue. Most accounts of Southern’s life find their footing in mid-century Paris, as he rarely wrote or spoke at length about his upbringing. He was born in Alvarado, Texas, in 1924—his father was the town’s only pharmacist, his mother a dressmaker. (“In many ways a winning combination, though of course nothing is perfect,” he’d say of his parents in a letter to Nelson Algren.) He went to high school in Dallas, where he belonged to the Stamp Club and the R.O.T.C. He claimed to have smoked his first joint at the age of ten, and he often referred to an influential early encounter with Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction. In an interview with the writer Mike Golden, Southern dismissed the Texas of his youth as a “cultural desert.” It appears in his early stories—some of which were later expanded into the wan 1991 novel Texas Summer—as a dry, eerie backdrop of dirt-floor sheds, 15-cent movie houses, and fields of “barren pasture-land where the cows almost never went.” Between a brief stint at Southern Methodist University in the 1940s and a reading he gave in Dallas in the early nineties, he reportedly visited the state only once, covering the Rolling Stones’ 1972 U.S. tour for Saturday Review. “I love Texas,” he’d later tell a Dallas journalist. “It’s just by some unfortunate coincidence I haven’t been able to get back over the years; I just haven’t had the occasion.”
After a stretch in the Army and at two universities in Chicago, Southern moved to Paris in late 1948. (“The main effect of the war on me was the opportunity to travel,” he once claimed.) He lived in the Latin Quarter and fell in with the expatriate literary community centered around a handful of little magazines—their offices a network of dingy, claustrophobic Left Bank cafés like Le Chaplain, in Montparnasse, and the Old Navy, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. This was the crowd Tom Wolfe would later dub the Imitation Generation, for its nostalgia for Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s era. But Southern didn’t exactly belong to the Paris Review stratum, not really. He tended to be broke, for one thing. And he was a Texan, not a son of the New England upper crust. Styron describes him as being “shy and unboastful” in these years, and maybe this class distinction had something to do with it. Or it could have been the drugs—Peter Matthiessen would later recall that Southern was “rather cryptic, with very long gaps and pauses in his utterances, attributable to ingested substances.”
The 1950s were Southern’s apprenticeship years, and he spent them learning to write fiction, his lifestyle largely funded by the women in his life. The letters provide a collage of his Paris days: bar fights and rejection slips; the Moroccan café owner, Hadj, who served hashish pipes with his lemon tea; smoking opium at Jean Cocteau’s apartment and going to see L’Avventura with Charles Mingus and Miles Davis; the time George Plimpton tried heroin (“an Ichabod dandy,” Southern calls him, “but not a shitty rat-prick”). Southern married French model Pud Gadiot, and in 1952 they moved to Greenwich Village, where they seem to have subsisted mostly off Gadiot’s modeling work. Southern preferred to spend his afternoons getting stoned, listening to jazz records while he watched a muted television set through the glass of a tropical fish tank. His main correspondents during this period were Alex Trocchi, the Scottish founder of the cerebral literary journal Merlin—who went on to write the 1960 Beat classic Cain’s Book—and Mason Hoffenberg, James Baldwin’s roommate and Southern’s cowriter on Candy. Both would later endure ugly, decades-long struggles with heroin addiction. Southern watched many of his friends on the periphery of the Beat Generation drift out of the scene in this way, and even developed a kind of detached admiration for the addict’s ethos. “About the hippest anyone has gotten so far, I suppose, is to be permanently on the nod,” he later told Paul Krassner. “These people are prepared to risk sacrificing the positive emotions because the negative emotions are so painful.”
Southern divorced Gadiot in 1954, and two years later married Carol Kauffman. “When I first met him, his teeth were clenched,” Kauffman later related to a journalist. “I was a little afraid of him.” Trocchi got him a job on a barge, hauling rocks up the Hudson River. In a letter, he calls it a “sinecure post,” and apparently he was able to spend the majority of his time writing and fishing, playing Scrabble with Carol at night. “Conditions were elemental,” Kauffman told Lee Hill. “And it was lovely at dusk, sitting on the deck smoking Pall Malls, gliding along the Hudson.” By the end of that year, Kauffman got a job teaching at a school in Geneva, and so the two of them returned to Europe on a Norwegian freighter. Because of their relative isolation, their time in Geneva would prove to be one of Southern’s most productive periods—he was at one point working on three novels simultaneously—though he’d describe his life there as “not unlike a situation in a Kafka novel.” He rarely left his desk, which overlooked the courtyard of his wife’s school. “As it is now,” he wrote Hoffenberg in late 1957, “I get up later and later each day.” He claimed he consumed only milk and raw eggs, and went to sleep early “with a couple of amytals under my belt.” Oddly absent in the letters is the fact that both of his parents died during this period abroad—his mother of cancer, and his father, alone in a Miami hotel room, from drinking. Their funerals were held in Texas; Southern couldn’t make it.
In 1958, he published his first two novels, Flash and Filigree and Candy (printed in France under the pseudonym Maxwell Kenton, and promptly banned). The Magic Christian appeared the following year. The bulk of Southern’s reputation as a fiction writer rests on these books, which are short and antic and funny. If some of the early stories had been somber and oblique—“Quality Lit,” was his phrase—Southern emerged in the novels as a fully formed satirist. “You cannot have both . . . Joke and Art,” he had written in an early letter, though by the time of these books he had clearly decided otherwise. In Paris, he hadn’t been sure what kind of writer he wanted to be; now he knew. As with many writers pegged as humorists, he could be defensive about it. “Like the best of contemporary satire,” he’d write in a review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, “it is work of a far more engaging and meaningful order than the melodramatic tripe which most critics seem to consider ‘serious.’”
In his short stories, Southern largely wrote about his own milieu: a young veteran returning to Texas after the war, a white hipster in Paris desperate to ingratiate himself into the black jazz scene. His novels present caricatures of the straight world instead, following prestigious dermatologists (in Flash and Filigree) and eccentric billionaires (The Magic Christian). Over the course of these books, you watch him whittle away description and sensual detail in favor of pure, sharpened, comic scenarios; by The Magic Christian, all that remains is the raw, unencumbered joke. Anarchic only in his subject matter, Southern was a careful and self-conscious formalist. One of the fascinating moments in the letters is a back-and-forth with Allen Ginsberg (we get only Southern’s side of the conversation, a lonesome and frustrating feature of these types of collections), in which Southern can be seen to wrestle with the prose styles of Kerouac and the Beats. He doesn’t really trust their stuff, puts scare-quotes around phrases like “uninhibited expression” and “mind-flow,” and admits that he finds the whole first-thought-best-thought endeavor a “kind of subconscious cop out.” He quotes Eliot: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion.”
The main accomplishment of the novels is the perfection of the Terry Southern joke. The books introduced a sense of humor—deadpan, lewd bordering on grotesque (one of Southern’s favorite words), absurdist to an apocalyptic extent—that would diffuse widely and propagate and become more or less necessary to our understanding of the cultural narrative of the 1960s. (“The Put-On,” as the style was tagged by Jacob Brackman in a 1967 New Yorker essay hailing the new sensibilities of writers like Southern, Thomas Pynchon, and Joseph Heller.) There are many incarnations of the Terry Southern joke. One example is an early scene in The Magic Christian. The mischievous billionaire sociopath Guy Grand takes over the operations of a daily newspaper in Boston and begins to tinker with the format, introducing misspellings, mistakes, and foreign languages. He prints only straight facts for a while, then only opinions and offensive letters. The effect of the latter strategy is to divide the city into angry factions. “The paper was widely read and there were incidents of violence,” Southern writes. “Movements began.” The tension peaks with an enormous confrontation in the center of town, a squaring off between the various outraged groups. At this point, Grand strikes. “Hovering just overhead, in a radio-equipped helicopter,” he directs a squadron of skywriters to spell FUCK YOU in the air over the crowd.
The key here is subversion with no serious purpose, escalation with only chaotic, destructive consequences. Southern’s comedy depends on a “bedrock of reality,” as he put it in a 1961 letter to Barney Rosset, editor of the Evergreen Review. The scenarios “gradually get more outlandish and absurd” until they “reach a climax of slapstick, D-Day pratfalls, or, in short, genuine and recognizable farce.” It’s no accident that The Magic Christian would lead directly to Stanley Kubrick’s recruiting Southern for Dr. Strangelove, a film that takes “D-Day pratfalls” as its main subject. Nor is it an accident that the film ends with a Texan straddling a bomb hurtling toward the earth. Kubrick and Peter Sellers saw in Southern a writer who understood pointless, fatal catastrophe, who could make it work on the page. Southern had trained as a demolitions technician in the Army, and he periodically refers to nuclear disaster in the letters. “People in New York don’t think the end of the world is funny,” a studio executive supposedly told him on the Strangelove set, but Southern wasn’t from New York. He was from Texas; he found the end of the world hilarious.
What could Terry Southern show us about our own moment, were he still around? You can’t help but consider this question while thumbing through decades of his private correspondence. We learn that he admired Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersh, and Hillary Clinton—“Your patience and perseverance will ultimately win the day,” he wrote to the first lady in 1993—and that he was darkly fascinated by demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump, a figure whose lavish irreverence and huffed-up indignation make him seem increasingly like a character Southern invented. (In fact, Southern wrote an imaginary interview with Trump for Grand Street in the early nineties.) Maybe a quarter of the later letters—those that aren’t semi-incoherent inside jokes or erotic fantasies concerning the Viet Cong or canonical female authors (Carson McCullers, Lillian Hellman)—are explicitly, if prosaically, political: angry letters to the editor, concerned letters to friends. “I think we are doomed if George Bush gets elected,” he wrote Jean Stein in 1983, calling the future president a “devious A-hole.”
The majority of these letters, though, have to do with the labor and economics of writing. Southern and Kauffman moved back to the U.S. in 1959, purchasing an old neglected farm from the bandleader Artie Shaw, twenty-seven acres along the Blackberry River in northwestern Connecticut. He apparently intended to farm the land, writing to the Department of Agriculture for materials on seeding and irrigation. It was idyllic, but they were broke. Southern was nearly always broke. He describes his income, in one letter, as “extremely sporadic,” and in some ways, this is the major theme of the collection—where is the next check going to come from? Candy was a succès de scandale, but not a lucrative one; its publisher, Maurice Girodias, whose Olympia Press brought out Lolita and Beckett alongside a series dedicated to cheap, pseudonymous erotica, had run into rights issues and so the book was widely pirated. For The Magic Christian, Southern had earned around $750. Novel writing wasn’t going to be enough to keep up the farm, particularly after Nile’s birth in 1960.
The immediate plan was journalism. Southern wrote book reviews for the Nation, championing John Barth and William S. Burroughs, Lenny Bruce, and Nichols and May. He spent a summer filling in for Esquire’s fiction editor, Rust Hills. (Staffers recall him having holes in the knees of his suit pants; before one upscale lunch, he borrowed black ink from the art department and colored his knee to match.) He began contributing nonfiction pieces to Esquire, most notably the 1963 story “Twirling at Ole Miss”—ostensibly about the Baton Twirling Institute at the University of Mississippi—that would become the earliest entry in Tom Wolfe’s genre-defining anthology The New Journalism. The assignment came from a young associate editor, David Newman, who was a fan of Southern’s novels (and who would go on to cowrite Bonnie and Clyde). “I thought this was so in-and-of-itself instantly satirical,” Newman said to Lee Hill, “the idea that only in America would you go somewhere to learn to twirl a fucking baton.”
“Twirling at Ole Miss” goes unmentioned in the letters, though it’s widely regarded as one of the most incisive and enduring things Southern ever wrote—certainly his most interesting writing about the South. In retrospect, the term “New Journalism” probably confused more than it clarified. It’s not at all clear that Southern or his readers would have recognized his piece as marking any distinct break with tradition; the fact that it was an editor who thought the Twirling Institute could make for an entertaining first-person article should underscore this. The story fascinates, though, for the way Southern chooses not to write the assignment, but to write about the assignment. The hapless journalist becomes a character—distinguishable from the author, whom we sense behind the page—and his reporting (“dry, factual reportage,” he calls it, “mere donkeywork, in fact”) becomes an activity that can be invested with imaginative weight. This allows for fluid code-switching, not only between regional vernaculars (the “duly apprehensive” expat returning to the South and failing to speak and behave unobtrusively) but also between high and low cultural registers (the dizzying glide from the arrogant opening lines about “the complex of bureaucratic interdependencies” to a casual conversation with a cab driver about where someone could “get a drink of whiskey around here”). Many of the tonal tics and gestures attributed to other, later writers—Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace—are already intact here.
In the university’s library, Southern writes in the piece, he “carefully opened a mint first-edition copy of Light in August, and found ‘nigger-lover’ scrawled across the title page.” The story is full of these stark, damning juxtapositions that speak for themselves: the Deep South as a region that can accommodate both William Faulkner and baton twirling, both an exaggerated air of clean-cut civility and “Colored Only” drinking fountains. Faulkner’s presence isn’t merely obligatory; the two writers had been friends. Jean Stein, who had a relationship with Faulkner in the 1950s, has said Southern “was one of the few people that Faulkner liked to spend time with.” They bonded over drinking and their shared ambivalence toward the South, though it’s Faulkner’s preoccupation with the legacy of racism that makes him an ideal ghost to leave floating in the background of the piece, silently passing judgment. There are references to the lynching of Emmett Till and to James Meredith (“‘Live an’ let live!’ That’s how the people of Mississippi feel—always have!” one middle-aged white man tells him). Southern wrote occasionally about American race relations, but it was usually in a fatalistic, tongue-in-cheek, or patronizing way: “My first love, glorifying the American middle-class Negro (to spite my Texas lyncher childhood),” he wrote in a 1958 letter to George Plimpton. He disliked pieties and bigots, but usually preferred to subvert them absurdly, rather than depict them simply as painful. But here, possibly because the vehicle is nonfiction and the actual subject so trivial, he’s able to genuinely engage.
Southern’s late-career inclusion in the journalistic vanguard was a sort of happy accident. He wrote nonfiction for the rest of his life—memoiristic riffs, liner notes, profiles of Mickey Spillane and ZZ Top—though you get the feeling this wasn’t where he focused most of his creative energy. In the letters, he routinely deflects; he’s always a “hack” writing for “mags.” Like most writers of his generation, Southern considered journalism a secondary pursuit. Unlike most writers of his generation, he began to think of fiction in similar terms. “It has become evident,” he wrote in the Nation in 1962, “that it is wasteful, pointless, and in terms of art, inexcusable, to write a novel which could, or in fact should have been a film.” Influenced by his nights in postwar European movie theaters, Southern had grown increasingly drawn to film’s expressive and democratic possibilities. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, tectonic plates were shifting, old institutions crumbling. Southern needed the money, but he also believed he had something to contribute. “American films have recently had to undergo a categorical change in order to get people out of the house and away from the TV set,” he wrote to Nelson Algren in 1964, citing Dr. Strangelove as “an example of how different American films are becoming from what they used to be.”
Still, it’s hard not to wonder about the writing he could have produced had Kubrick not sent the telegram inviting him to London; had Strangelove not been an enormous critical and commercial success; had Southern not left Connecticut and his family for L.A. and a room at the Chateau Marmont. “Since we had absolutely no money, I was very keen for him to go,” Kauffman later said of his move to Hollywood. “Terry just never came back.”
In an interview for the 1973 anthology Movie People, Southern was asked whether film offered a “rewarding” form of work for a writer. “Yes and no,” he replied, “but mostly no.” Southern spent his Hollywood years living out of hotels, punching up scripts on international flights. Things seemed to accelerate—his income, his work ethic, his substance abuse. The amphetamine Dexamyl became his drug of choice, as it would be until his death. You can chart the larger shift in Southern’s lifestyle by the familiar names that appear in the letters: in a few months, he goes from begging better-known writers for blurbs to casually writing phrases such as “Ringo is fine and sends his best wishes.” Shortly after moving West, he met Gail Gerber on the set of The Loved One, an adaptation of the book by Evelyn Waugh. Gerber was a fixture in teen beach movies, in which she’d dance hypnotically behind Elvis or Brian Wilson. Soon after they met, Southern gave her a copy of Candy. “He wrote ‘I love you’ in tiny script on the inside corner of the cover,” she later wrote. “It seemed a bit hasty.”
Southern closed out the 1960s trying and failing to replicate the positive—which is to say, collaborative—experience of Strangelove. He worked on the scripts for films like Barbarella, Casino Royale, The Cincinnati Kid. “If a thing is actually funny, then it cannot be in bad taste,” he once wrote to his friend John Marquand. But much of his work in this period wasn’t actually funny. Or anyway, it wasn’t permitted to be. In the Movie People interview, he described the role of the Hollywood director as “wholly superfluous, an interfering parasite.” He often spoke of his frustration with directors and eventually became convinced that directing his own work was the only route to creative satisfaction, though there’s little evidence he seriously pursued it.
The greatest indignity of his career involved the making of Easy Rider. Conflicts over the movie’s authorship have been fought in print and in court for decades. It’s generally agreed that Southern supplied the film’s title, and he was originally its sole credited writer, but when asked by costars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, Southern agreed to petition the Writers Guild to divide credit among the three of them. Later, Hopper (who also directed the film) began to claim he himself had initiated or improvised most of the movie. This type of dispute was fairly common in the industry—Kubrick had also tried to downplay Southern’s contributions to Strangelove, telling the New York Times his role had been “icing on the cake.” (Southern would chalk this up to “Stanley’s obsession with the auteur theory.”) But in this case, the argument transcended the realm of ego, because, while Hopper and Fonda made millions from Easy Rider’s success, Southern earned something in the range of $3,500. Journalist Mark Singer wrote about the controversy in 1998 and found that most of the people who worked on the film were sympathetic to Southern’s version of events. Cinematographer László Kovács remembered Southern’s script, and Bill Hayward—a producer on the film, and Hopper’s own brother-in-law—said, “I always thought this thing never would have got written without him.” But Hopper denied even the existence of Southern’s screenplay for the rest of his life.
The letters add a tragic dimension to the debate. Southern wrote Hopper in the 1970s begging to be let in on the film’s financial windfall: “I’m very sorry to bother you, Den, but I’m in a terrible bind,” he wrote, “completely strapped, an inch, maybe less, from disasterville.” This was during one of the flare-ups of his tax troubles, what he’d describe in another letter as a “nebulous twilight-zone of Kafkasquerie.” In the letter to Hopper, he appealed to their “solid ancient friendship” and reasserted the importance of his own work on the film. It’s possibly the most sincere letter in the book, absent any gimmick or fictional invention. “Please consider it,” he wrote. “I’m in very bad trouble.” Hopper apparently denied his request.
The book makes it possible for us to imagine a parallel universe in which Southern was able to produce the films he actually wanted to make. At various points in the letters, he refers to adaptations of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, Harry Crews’s Car; films about Watergate, the international arms trade, a plot to the kill the pope, elephant hunting in Kenya; films with intriguing titles like Gator Hunt and Grossing Out. He mentions biopics of Howard Hughes and the famous jewel thief Albie Baker, scripts about pyramid power and shuffleboard, and a submarine comedy called Floaters. His wasn’t a failure of imagination. Judging by his correspondence, his taste in movies only became more adventurous and modernist over the years. (David Lynch’s Eraserhead was apparently a favorite.) But if the previous decade had opened itself up to Southern, granting him legitimacy and a degree of free rein, the 1970s represented the end of something—access, attention, creative license. One of the risks of embodying the zeitgeist is that the zeitgeist always moves on. “His importance was directly related to that spirit of revolt in the sixties,” Norman Mailer told Lee Hill. “And when that spirit ended, the love that a lot of people felt for Terry began to diminish. Which was about all he needed, with all his other problems.”
In the 1970s, Southern drank too much, gained weight, became difficult to reach. You can find him in Robert Frank’s notorious documentary about the Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues, snorting cocaine backstage with Mick Jagger and looking fairly rough. (“If you had a million dollars a week to spend on coke,” Southern says, “you could probably develop a habit.”) His only real screen credit in these years was a CBS teleplay about Boss Tweed called Stop Thief! Otherwise, he freelanced some for magazines like National Lampoon, worked on a children’s book with the artist Larry Rivers, and had a cameo in the David Bowie sci-fi film The Man Who Fell to Earth. For a while he worked on a novel called Double Date, which had an epigraph from Arthur Miller: “There is no power on Earth that can break the grip of a man with his hands on his own throat.”
Southern spent a season in the early 1980s writing for Saturday Night Live during one of the show’s lowest periods (Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had just left, as had Lorne Michaels). In the oral history Live from New York, he’s remembered mostly for running a wet bar out of his office. This isn’t entirely fair: He wrote ambitious sketches—one of them about a janitor cleaning the bloody podium after the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat—and brought Miles Davis on the show as a musical guest. But he’d remember the experience as “the best paying job, but the worst I’ve ever had.” His sense of humor didn’t fit the show, or the era.
Nothing he tried seemed to work. He wrote a letter to Kubrick pitching lines of dialogue for Eyes Wide Shut. (There’s no indication Kubrick responded.) He planned to collaborate on a video game with Timothy Leary. He scripted a sci-fi porn film called Randy: The Electric Lady. “By this time, Terry really didn’t give a shit as long as he had a payday,” his friend Nelson Lyon remembered. “In fact, I think he felt that writing had betrayed him.” He never stopped writing—the last letter in the book, from the fall of 1995, is about an online column he’d started four years earlier—but it seems to have gotten harder, rather than easier. The prevailing mood of his late career could be summed up in a letter he wrote to the actor George Segal in 1978, asking for work. He spoke of himself in the third person, claiming to have last seen Terry Southern “slouching along 8th Avenue, in tatters, eyes glazed.” He said he could hear him “muttering, almost inaudibly, ‘Mayday . . . Mayday . . . Mayday . . .’”
In 2003, the director Steven Soderbergh stepped in to pay for the New York Public Library’s acquisition of Southern’s archives. It’s where they remain today, filed away in 228 boxes: the “Terry Southern Papers, 1924–1995.” Online, you can find an itemized list of the boxes and their contents. It’s 108 pages long. There are early artifacts: an Army patch that reads, “For God and Country”; a snakeskin canteen; a Bible with an inscription from Southern’s mother, dated March 31, 1943. There are boxes of bank statements and revised proofs. Folders with fascinating, inexplicable labels: “Condom research,” “Toxic Waste,” “Miscellaneous clippings related to chess and Bobby Fischer.”
Also in the archives, there is something like vindication: a carbon copy of Southern’s original screenplay for Easy Rider, the one Dennis Hopper swore never existed. It’s there in box 38 for anyone who cares to read it. According to those who have, the language is detailed, even novelistic. And like the best Terry Southern jokes, the film ends in disaster. On their way to Florida, the bikers drive up alongside two Southerners in a pickup truck who produce a shotgun and kill them virtually unprovoked—a scene that might offer some possible, refracted insight into Southern’s decision not to return to Texas for most of his life. The script ends this way:
LONG SHOT from above as the old pickup turns around again and drives down the desolate highway leaving in the ditch the two bodies and the wounded chrome bike, which as distance lengthens, continues to burn with a small bright glow.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the magazine to read more.