The master of “black humor,” inspiration for New Journalism and all things gonzo and hip, was also friends with the Beatles, Keith Richards, William Burroughs, Peter Sellers, among many others, not to mention co-author of one of the classic books of softcore pornography
The writer and man-about-town Terry Southern (1924-1995) was hip before hip was a thing, gonzo before Hunter S. dreamed up the term. Tom Wolfe credited his 1963 Esquire article “Twirling at Ole Miss” with tossing the first stone for New Journalism. At the very least, Terry Southern had a hand in crafting what was cool for a generation or two.
The bona fides speak for themselves. His Academy Award-nominated screenplay for Dr. Strangelove did more to define the Cold War than the combined speeches of Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and Curtis LeMay (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room!”).
Typical Southern humor: The fate of the world hangs in the balance and all for want of some spare change:
He also fashioned scripts for cultural touchstones like The Cincinnati Kid, Barbarella and The Loved Ones. And, without him, Easy Rider would have devolved into a bunch of stoned, mumbled one liners from Peter Fonda (Wyatt) and Dennis Hopper (Billy). He also wrote the novels Flash and Filigree and The Magic Christian (adapted for a Hollywood film, starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr), a novel that seems to have prophesied the eventual arrival of Donald Trump.
Southern rescued Easy Rider with the creation of the George Hanson character, the role that broke Jack Nicholson to a wide audience.
Southern was friends with a who’s who of the counterculture: William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, James Grauerholz, Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce, Peter Sellers, Jean Genet, the Paris Review circle (Styron, Plimpton, Matthiessen), not to mention Keith Richards and the Beatles (who included him in the cover montage of their Sgt. Pepper‘s album). In homage to him, the Paris Review now gives out an annual Terry Southern Award for Humor.
Arguably, however, the thing he’s best known for is a book that did not, when it was first published, carry his byline. Candy. An entire generation (maybe two or three) of adolescent American boys read this porn parody written by Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, flipping the pages until they found the dirty parts. The lithesome Candy Christian, who just wants to give herself to those in need or those who suffer, was the ultimate sex fantasy in the late 1960s (though the novel was published in 1958). Eventually, Southern and Hoffenberg came out from behind their joint pen-name, Maxwell Kenton, to claim proud ownership of later editions of the novel.
Southern and Hoffenberg’s novel was adapted, by Buck Henry, for the film Candy (1968), its title character played by the gorgeous former Miss Teen Sweden, Ewa Aulin. An all-star cast tried for two hours to get in Candy’s pants; her suitors included Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, John Huston, James Coburn, Charles Aznavour, as the Hunchback (“Give me your hump!”), and Ringo Starr, as the Mexican gardener Emmanuel. Adding to the film’s hip cachet, Anita Pallenberg played the role of Nurse Bullock.
The trailer to Candy:
And, now, Grove Press has reissued Candy in a handsome 60th-anniversary trade paperback edition, which should be on every hipster’s beach reading list this summer.
Terry Southern was ill-served by his contemporaries, particularly Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who cut him out of royalties from Easy Rider, which cost $400,000 to make and, to date, has grossed $60 million. And his work, which practically became a genre all its own known as “black humor,” has been unfairly neglected since his death in 1995. Perhaps, then, this reissued Candy will jumpstart a Terry Southern revival. He may, in fact, be the perfect writer for the Age of Trump.
Terry’s son, Nile Southern, is the longtime executor of the Terry Southern Estate and Literary Trust. He has also edited a fine, representative collection of his father’s work (Now Dig This) and a selection of Terry Southern’s letters, Yours in Haste and Adoration (2015); and has written an informative and engaging chronicle, The Candy Men: The Rollicking Life and Times of the Notorious Novel Candy (2014) and the upcoming CHICAGO ’68, The Whole World is Watching (Hat & Beard Press). He is working on a documentary about his father tentatively called Dad Strangelove.
PKM talked with Nile Southern recently about his father.
PKM: Were you involved with the 60th-anniversary reissue of Candy by Grove Press?
Nile Southern: Yes, I manage all of my father’s literary properties and work closely with Grove. I had been pushing for reissues, and started promoting them about the anniversaries many years ago. I’m hoping Grove can do more in the academic market—but with political correctness so dominant on campus, Terry’s triggers might send people into spastic fits! It’s ironic, because it used to be the whole point was to be offensive and bubble busting, but now it’s like ‘oh, I feel uncomfortable…help!’ Surely the pendulum will swing back somewhat and when it does, Terry will be the mad hunchback, swinging on the bell of incorrigibleness. Was fun dreaming up possible intro writers and consulting with the Southern Literary Messengers (a group of steadfast TS fans) on their picks. They’re a hard to please, consummate lot!
PKM: When I was young, I like millions of other teens read Candy for the dirty parts. Now, as I reread it, I find myself laughing loudly (a rarity with a book these days) at all the stuff that I totally missed back then. It’s a classic of satire, the entire premise is brilliant-riffing off Voltaire’s Candide, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Goethe’s Faust, etc.
Nile Southern: Yes—while it may seem to be structured as an antidote to formulaic porn—it’s actually a series of gags and Lenny Bruce-type ‘routines’ satirizing different aspects of American culture that, at the time, were supposed to be so awesome: psychiatry, live television, advertising… Terry was attuned to the promulgation of cliches and then inverting them into surrealist patter, rhythm, and humorous, human nuance—often revealing the cliched truth (old ones) behind the cliches—such as man’s carnal and base instincts. I think Candy is a metaphorical invention—sort of like a female Christ—bringing out the ‘true nature’ of those around her. She’s not so much dumb as dumbfounded.
PKM: What did your father think about the odd success of Candy as opposed to the reaction to work he really labored over that didn’t register as well with popular tastes?
Nile Southern: It wasn’t so much an odd (or surprising) success—though the sustained and kind of exponential effect of it was indeed surprising. Terry (and Mason) weren’t able to earn any $$ from Candy—it was part of their US publishing deal that if a pirate edition came out (and dozens did)—they would not be paid. Rather unfair from Putnam’s—although their $5 hardcover had to compete with 75-cent knock-offs (which followed the French edition by ‘Maxwell Kenton”)—but Putnam’s sold millions nevertheless… Terry and money were fickle friends—he didn’t see much more than a modest weekly salary on Easy Rider—despite being an early producer on the film… Sure, I wish it were different—I’d probably have a lot fewer gray hairs by now, if we’d had some of those liquid gold streams. Hell, Terry might even be alive today! Though that’s probably way overstating it…
PKM: Did you get to know Mason Hoffenberg at all? Did he and your father remain friends over the years?
Nile Southern: No, and not really. I’m in touch with his kids—who are my age. Success (after Candy) kind of put them into different orbits—particularly when Terry started writing for the movies. Mason wasn’t really geared for demanding writing, and was skeptical of Hollywood and free-wheeling collaborations—plus he had a heroin addiction.
PKM: Where did you spend most of your childhood? In Connecticut? NYC?
Nile Southern: I lived in Canaan, Connecticut until I was 5, then from 5 until 15 in New York City (with my mother, visiting my father on weekends and over summers); and then back to Canaan at ages 16-18 while attending Berkshire School as a day student.
PKM: I was just looking through the two volumes of selected letters of Hunter S. Thompson and only found a couple of mentions of TS. That surprised me. I would think Thompson would have considered TS to be one of his influences and one of the first of the “gonzo” journalists. Did Terry Southern ever talk about Hunter Thompson’s gonzo journalism?
Nile Southern: Google the Henry Allen remembrance in the Washington Post on Terry Southern: