My Lunch With Terry Southern


Terry Southern Month

Photograph by Pud Gadiot

As most editors eventually learn to their chagrin, encounters with one’s literary heroes usually end up as disappointing and deflating experiences. But in the early eighties, I had a lunch with the great Terry Southern that was sheer perfection on every level.

As a sixties adolescent of the standard issue sort I had my psyche and to some extent my erotic imagination comandeered by Southern. There was Candy, of course, one of the great dirty books (or “dbs,” as Terry called them) of our time. Oh, how my idiot friends and I enjoyed repeating lines like “Give me your hump!” and “When I was in Italy, I got so much hot Italian cock that I stopped menstruating and started minestroneing.” into the ambient Brooklyn air at an inappropriately loud volume. But even better, to me, was The Magic Christian, wherein the multimillionaire prankster Guy Grand oh so grandly and ingeniously sends up the stupid adult world in ways I could only dream about. I must have read it in its Bantam paperback edition a dozen times. And mirabile dictu, when I became an editor at Penguin in the early eighties, I discovered that both of these books were out of print (wtf?) and was able to repay Terry Southern the favor by arranging to reissue them in trade paperback.

Soon after the deal for the two books was agreed on I arranged to lunch with Terry. We met, for the first time, in the basement of the now extinct O’Neal’s on 57th Street and Sixth Avenue, and while we were waiting to be seated in this rather crepuscular restaurant, we somehow got onto the subject of race and my teenaged envy of black guys for their superior basketball skills, their superior dancing moves, and, I had to believe, their superior sexual abilities. Which last launched Terry—by that stage in his life a fairly disheveled being—into the following monologue, delivered in a broad Texas drawl: “That reminds of a story about old Jim Brown. You know who Jim Brown was, don’t you?” I assured Terry that I did. “Well, back in the early sixties I was dating this model poon, and when we got back to her apartment, her roommate, who was also a model poon, was on the phone telling someone all about her date the night before with the football player Jim Brown. And I wasn’t listening very hard until I heard this model poon say, quite clearly, ‘And it was so big I couldn’t get my mouth around it!’” Deeply dirty and appreciative chuckle. “Jim Brown.”

That set the tone for one of the most bibulous lunches of my publishing career, little of which I remember. But two hours and five bourbons apiece later we stumbled up the stairs into the bright summer sunlight. And as we strolled in a thick and pleasant alcoholic fog along 57th and then up Madison in the direction of the Penguin offices I looked across the street and noticed a handsome and very athletic looking black man walking in conversation with a smaller white man. The black man was built like some sort of superbly fashioned logging tool, wide at the shoulders and narrow at the waist, a leather jacket hanging off his muscular frame. He was wearing tight blue jeans as well, so tight that they left little doubt that this man’s love muscle was as developed as all the rest. And there was something familiar about this guy. Very familiar . . .

And so I turned to Terry and declared to him delightedly, “Look over there, Terry. See that black guy? My God, do you know who that is? That is . . . JIM BROWN!”

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York City.