Issue 200, Spring 2012
Terry Southern was born in 1924 in Alvarado, Texas, the son of a pharmacist and a dressmaker. He was drafted into the army during World War II and studied at the Sorbonne on the G.I. Bill. In Paris he became friends with George Plimpton, H. L. Humes, and Peter Matthiessen, who published his story “The Accident” in the first issue of The Paris Review. Back in the United States, Southern was often associated with Beat writers like Burroughs, Corso, and Ginsberg, some of whose attitudes he may have shared, yet the elegant clarity of his prose—which Norman Mailer characterized as “mean, coolly deliberate and murderous”—situated him, aesthetically, as a player in the “Quality Lit Game” he liked to mock.
At the time of this interview (1967), Southern was famous as the coauthor of Candy, the best-selling sex novel, and as the screenwriter behind Stanley Kubrick’s dark antiwar, antinuke comedy, Dr. Strangelove. Both appeared in the U.S. in 1964 (a headline in Life magazine read “Terry Southern vs. Smugness”). By 1967 he could be spotted on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, standing between Dylan Thomas and Dion. Gore Vidal called him “the most profoundly witty writer of our generation.” Lenny Bruce blurbed his books.
Candy (written with Mason Hoffenberg) is loosely based on Candide. Its heroine is a delicious, perky, generous young woman; the joke is that she remains impregnably innocent in the face of one grotesque sexual adventure after another. The book attacks prudery, a particularly Anglo-Saxon vice, and yet, like Candy herself, its tone is appealingly sweet. The novel was first published in Paris by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press in 1958 (even after the 1960 Lady Chatterley case redefined obscenity, publishers here were unsure of the novel’s “redeeming social value”).
For Dr. Strangelove, Southern was hired by Kubrick to make a satire out of a screenplay originally based on the serious novel Red Alert. The movie takes us into the war room of a certain President Merkin Muffley, there to reveal a military culture gone berserk, as its leaders cheerfully prepare for death, destruction, and the imminent end of the world.
Even before these blockbusters made him a household name, Southern had attracted a passionate following. His first novel, Flash and Filigree (1958), the tale of a persecuted dermatologist, is replete with mad inventions (among them a TV game show called What’s My Disease?). In The Magic Christian (1959), his most brilliant sustained narrative, a billionaire prankster spends a fortune “making it hot for people,” unearthing hypocrisy as he goes. Southern’s essays and journalism were esteemed—and imitated—by other writers. “Twirling at Ole Miss,” a piece of personal reportage published in Esquire in 1962, is especially trenchant and funny. Its nominal subject is baton twirling; it’s really—or equally—about the mindlessness of racism in the South. Tom Wolfe called it the founding work of the New Journalism.
By the time this interview was conducted, Southern had also worked on Tony Richardson’s film The Loved One (1965), based on the Evelyn Waugh novel, and The Cincinnati Kid (1966), a drama about high-stakes poker, starring Steve McQueen, and had published Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes (1967), a collection of short fiction, journalism, and occasional pieces. He would go on to write or contribute to the screenplays of Barbarella(1968), Easy Rider (1969), End of the Road (1969), and The Magic Christian (1969). His only other credited script to make it to the screen, The Telephone (1988), starring Whoopi Goldberg, was a disaster. By the seventies, alcohol and drug abuse had slowed Southern’s productivity. He published two more novels, Blue Movie (1970) and Texas Summer (1992), and had a short stint in the eighties as a writer for Saturday Night Live. Later, he became a devoted and much-loved teacher of screenwriting at Columbia University. In 1995, he collapsed on his way to teach a class, and four days afterward died of respiratory failure.
On the day of our interview—meant to be the first in a series on the art of screenwriting—we met for lunch at the Russian Tea Room. The decor, then as now, was Christmas all year round, with red banquettes, green walls, chandeliers festooned with red Christmas-tree balls, and so on. Our waitress, a tiny Russian with a coronet of braids and a name tag that read “Nadia,” took a motherly interest in Southern—a rumpled man, with a long, beaky nose and a generous mouth—as he squirmed in his seat, answering questions. Nadia is what I remember best about the lunch, in particular the way Southern gently put her on (“Do you really think I should have the borscht, Nadia? If that is your name”), thus deflecting the spotlight from himself.
After the interview was transcribed, a copy was given to Southern (according to Paris Review custom) for him to revise as he saw fit. He never gave it back. Every so often I would ask him, on my own or at the prompting of George Plimpton, when the interview would be ready. “I’m working on it,” he would say. “It’s got to be tight and bright.” After a year or two, Plimpton stopped asking; I continued to question Southern about it but less and less frequently. When Southern died in 1995, his long-time companion, Gail Gerber, said to me, as a consolation of sorts, “Well, at least now that interview can come out.” But the interview—complete with Southern’s clarifications and emendations—got lost in a pile of papers. It emerged without its title page and fell into the hands of a Ph.D. student, who mistakenly attributed it to the biographer Albert Goldman. Since then, short excerpts have appeared, always under Goldman’s name. Thanks to the steadfast and remedial efforts of Southern’s son, Nile, the finished text is available here for the first time.