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 Lifemagazine 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.
When and how did you decide to be a writer?
I never “decided” to be a writer. I used to write a lot, then show it to my friends—one or two of them anyway—with the idea, more or less, of astonishing or confounding them with the content of the pages. I knew they had never seen anything like this before—I mean, the weirdest thing they could possibly have read before was Poe or one of those little cartoon fuck-books, as they were called, whereas my stuff was much weirder and more immediate. I used the names of teachers, classmates, et cetera. These productions were well received by the two or three people—no girls—who read them, but finally I went too far and alienated one of the readers, my best friend, by using his sister in a really imaginative piece, perhaps the best of this period. That slowed me down for a while, in daring, but finally I learned not to care too much and would write wholly for an imaginary reader whose tastes were similar to my own.
And this is, of course, is the only way to work well.
Life magazine claims that you once lived on a barge hauling rocks from Poughkeepsie to Jones Beach. Is that true?
Yes, I lived on a barge. I was captain of the barge. This is the lowest form of organized labor in the country—except possibly circus roustabouts—and it comprises winos and layabouts, persons of such low account they have been kicked out of the longshoreman’s union, and it pays one dollar per hour. Alex Trocchi got me the post. There was a period when these positions came into favor with young drug addicts, also persons of creative bent who needed robot-type jobs—like those people in fire towers, lighthouses, et cetera—which would not take much time from the real work in hand. There were few or no duties—just catch the line, actually a big rope, thrown from the tugboat and put it around the capstan, a stumpy post, and off you go. Later, release the rope, called “letting go the mainsail” or similar, and secure to moorings.
George Plimpton can explain barge life to you, since he used to take young girls out on Trok’s barge and try, as he said, “to get them.” Suffice it to say that this is a pleasant enough way to spend a summer, though I wouldn’t really want to be in the position of recommending it.
Was writing movies something you always wanted to do?
Yes, but there was never any possibility of it. They just weren’t making movies I could have worked on. I did get a letter one time from Jerry Wald, saying, “I have read your story in Harper’s Bazaar, and I think you have a very good cinematic quality, would you be interested in writing for the screen,” and blah blah blah. And then it went on to say, “Too many serious writers dismiss the potential of the screen as commercial, however may I point out to you that only recently such outstanding literary personages as Mr. William Faulkner,” and so on.
I showed this letter to a friend of mine, Harold Meeske, who said, “Don’t even answer the letter. The thing to do is to write a screenplay and send it back, like, ‘Am I interested? Dig this!’ ” I said, “Okay, what’s the story?” and he said, “I’ve got it. This friend of mine is just coming out of Sing Sing. America’s number-one jewel thief. He’s getting out Friday, and we’ll write a script based on his adventures. His name”—well, we’d better leave out his name. He’s making it in Hollywood now, as a screenwriter.
Anyway, he comes to Harold and Marilyn Meeske’s. So there was this guy, America’s number-one jewel thief, and he moved in with them, and I moved in with them, and the four of us worked on this screenplay, and then we sent it in to Jerry Wald. No response. Nothing. Later I found out that this letter I’d gotten, although it wasn’t mimeographed, was in fact a form letter he had sent, you know, to Herbert Gold and Philip Roth—everybody got one of these letters. That was my first brush with the Film Capital.
And your next was working in London with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove. What was that like?
It was the first time in my life that I’d gone anywhere with a sense of purpose. I mean, I’d always traveled, I’d made about ten trips back and forth, but just aimless, with no justification except having the G.I. Bill and using it as a means to be there. It was the first time I’d gone anywhere and been paid for it. It was very satisfying, very interesting, and almost unbelievable to be moving about like that.
Stanley himself is a strange kind of genius. I’d always had a notion that people in power positions in movies must be hacks and fools, and it was very impressive to meet someone who wasn’t. He thinks of himself as a “filmmaker”—his idol is Chaplin—and so he’s down on the idea of “director.” He would like, and it’s understandable, to have his films just say, “A Film by Stanley Kubrick.” He tries to cover the whole thing from beginning to end. Including the designing of the ads. He’s probably the only American director who works on big-budget pictures who has complete control of his movies.
Strangelove was originally conceived as a melodrama, not a comedy. Did you work with Kubrick to restructure the whole thing, or were you able to just insert the jokes?
I knew what he wanted. It was a question of working together, rewriting each line, and changing the tone.