Flash and filigree; Terry Southern
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 April 2016)

There were times when people believed firmly that Terry Southern was the best writer of humour on earth. He wrote movies, novels and magazine pieces, displaying always a sensibility firmly grounded in the Sixties.

He wrote the funniest film of that era, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a wild satire on nuclear warfare. For Esquire magazine he wrote a brilliant account of champion cheerleaders in the South, Twirling at Ole Miss, a pioneer example of what was soon to be called New Journalism. Working in London for a while, he became a favourite of the Beatles and ended up among the ultracool celebrities pictured on the famous jacket of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

This season he makes a posthumous appearance with Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern, edited by his son, Nile Southern, and Brooke Allen, an author and literature professor. Its publisher, Antibookclub, has spent lavishly on a gorgeous-looking large-format book, priced at $65.

Old fans like me will pick it up with excitement, but the letters do nothing to enhance Southern's legend. He turns out to have been an ambitious correspondent, and a friend to everyone from Ringo Starr to Norman Mailer. He saw a keep-intouch letter as a chance to set down a surrealistic fantasy about mutual friends, full of obscene comments, often weirdly misogynistic. His penis jokes, never funny, soon tire.

As a friend, Southern could be something of a trial. He had to stop visiting one family because the lady of the house banned him for setting her apartment on fire. In a 1982 letter to George Segal, the actor, he thanks Segal for a recent visit to his home in Beverly Hills. He apologizes, briefly, for inadvertently leaving Segal's house with Segal's Sony microcassette tape deck and some dress shirts.

By the 1990s Southern wasn't on top of his game. He had run out of work, his patrons having been disappointed too often. He had trouble finishing a piece of writing. There's no record of a film producer or an editor calling him reliable.

In his last years (he died in 1995, age 71) he chose a striking epigraph for a novel he was trying to write, a quote from Arthur Miller: "There is no power on Earth that can break the grip of a man with his hands on his own throat." It might have been a book about himself. He defined the phrase "selfdestructive." His drugs were alcohol, speed and jokes. He was seldom attentive to the ordinary business of life.

He and Mason Hoffenberg collaborated on Candy, an elaborate rewrite of Voltaire's Candide with the central figure an innocent young woman. It was a popular best-seller but a mix-up over copyright deprived them of any payment, even when the book was turned into a deplorable movie with Marlon Brando. Southern wrote Easy Rider, a hit movie starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, but he believed he never got anything like a reasonable fee. The film grossed millions and Southern got a few thousand. He always felt "vicious greed" kept him from getting what he deserved.

Yours in Haste shows his desperation about money. He wants Whoopi Goldberg to let him write a film for her: "When, oh when," he asks, "shall such a grand showcase for your ultrafab talents present itself again?" He writes to Philip Roth requesting a blurb for something he had written. When he gets no answer he pleads, "Well, Phil? Must you always destroy the ones who love (and need!) you most?!?" Southern tries for a light tone but fails.

The collection droops to its most melancholy phase when the Internal Revenue Service joins the cast. A chronology at the front of the book shows the IRS role. First they have questions, then they turn urgent, then a happy phrase appears: "Settles with IRS." But a few years later Southern reports fresh trouble. The IRS "are on the verge, quite literally, of selling my house."

That was the Connecticut house where he lived while he worked one day a week teaching film writing at Columbia University while his longtime companion, Gale Gerber (a Vancouver actor and dancer) taught dancing to children. Those two jobs kept them alive but there was no money for the IRS.

The most engagingly tangled of the disputes HIM. Philosophers over Southern's work involved Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, a sensation of 1964.

It was based on a thriller about the US Air Force setting off nuclear explosions that exterminate the human race. When Kubrick decided to make it a black comedy he hired Southern to work up the script. Southern received a co-writer credit and his fans noticed his special genius filling all the best scenes.

That annoyed Kubrick, who wanted to be the film's single creator, or auteur. He put it about that Southern had made only a marginal contribution - just "icing on the cake," Kubrick claimed.

But we Southern fans knew our guy's material when we heard it. We heard it especially in every word spoken by Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the man whose insane mistake leads to catastrophe. He discovers a Communist plot to pollute the "precious bodily fluids" of Americans by fluoridating the water supplies. He tells Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) that the Commies are "preverts." He asks, "Mandrake, have you ever seen a Commie drink a glass of water?" He suggests that Mandrake is "some kind of deviated prevert." When Mandrake enters a phone booth to make a call that may save the world, Ripper says "If you try any preversion in there, I'll blow your head off."

Only Southern would have fixed on that bizarre pronunciation for "pervert." In 1964 it was little known. Today it's in the Oxford English Dictionary.

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