A Very Heavily Negative Scene

The squandered genius and countercultural misogyny of Terry Southern.

Illustration by Emily Flake

In her editor’s note at the start of Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern, Brooke Allen—who co-edited the book with Southern’s son Nile—mentions that her own father was a friend of Southern’s and a frequent recipient of his famously extravagant correspondence.* “While his friendship with my father remained firm,” she writes, “my mother had less patience with his vagaries and she banned his visits after he set fire to our apartment in the early 1960s. I very much regret not having known him better.” No further mention is made of the incident, either in Allen’s note or in the letters that follow, but it’s an instructive remark—in the casual absurdity of such an anecdote appearing in an editor’s note, certainly, but also in the suggestion that setting a host’s apartment on fire was not an especially big deal, and more or less the sort of thing you’d have to expect if you invited Terry Southern over to stay for a bit.

Because if the evidence of these letters is anything to go by, having the screenwriter, comic novelist, and gadfly Terry Southern over to stay for a bit was sort of a mixed blessing. In a 1982 letter to the actor George Segal, for instance, Southern thanks him for his hospitality during a recent stay in his Beverly Hills home. After whetting Segal’s appetite for a screenplay he’s about to send him—his best work, he claims, since his 1960s heyday with Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider—he then goes on to briefly apologize for 1) inadvertently leaving Segal’s house with Segal’s Sony microcassette tape deck, which Southern had used to record his own interview with a hardcore porn magazine; 2) making a complicated mess of looking after Segal’s garden; and 3) “borrowing” a large number of expensive dress shirts. His presence as a writer was, in a way, analogous to his presence as a houseguest: fun to be around, but also a catastrophe.

These letters span a period of four decades and portray several distinct versions of Southern: the Paris-based expat of the early postwar years; the Greenwich Village Beat hipster of the 1950s; the Hollywood medium-wig of the ’60s and ’70s; the aging, broke, and somewhat desperate figure of the ’80s and ’90s, going through a “very heavily negative scene” with the IRS. In some respects, the picture that emerges, over the course of the book, is that of a lifelong insider: He was in on absolutely everything, and a dear, dear friend of absolutely everyone. In Paris, through his good offices as a stopgap hash connection, he fell in with George Plimpton’s milieu and became a regular contributor in the early years of the Paris Review. He called around to Samuel Beckett’s gaff from time to time with kidneys to sauté and weed to smoke. He got shit-faced with Bertrand Russell and assisted him in developing his half-assed idea for inhalable aspirin. Peter Sellers, enamored of Southern’s amazingly funny novel The Magic Christian, convinced Stanley Kubrick to bring him in on turning Strangelove into a comedy. He was BFFs, variously, with Lenny Bruce, Henry Green, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Rip Torn, and William Burroughs. He got his mug on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (that’s him in the back, between Dylan Thomas and Tony Curtis, looking vaguely aggrieved in gigantic dark glasses). He wrote “Twirling at Ole Miss,” for God’s sake, one of the great examples of the art of magazine writing, which no less an authority on New Journalism as Tom Wolfe cites as a formative work of the movement.

And yet at the same time he was never anything but an outsider. He was absurdly well-connected, certainly, but one of the major undercurrents of his correspondence is his perpetual hustling to make good on those connections. In a nontrivial proportion of the letters collected here, he obliquely addresses his correspondent with the intention of soliciting a blurb for one of his books. He seemed to be constantly tapping up Mailer and Burroughs for some kind of endorsement. And there’s a series of brief notes to Philip Roth (“My dear ‘Fabulous Phil’ ”…) soliciting a quote for Southern’s erotic Hollywood satire Blue Movie, which become increasingly desperate as time goes on. “Well, Phil??” he writes, after six months of radio silence from Warren, Connecticut. “Must you always destroy the ones who love (and need!) you most?!?” Speaking of blurb-based woes, incidentally, the cover of Yours in Haste and Adoration features one of the all-time great examples of the weirdly ambiguous celebrity endorsement. “Among the greatest humor writers of our time, Terry Southern stands alone,” declares, of all people, Chevy Chase. “I can’t wait to read it and laugh my ass off!” This is the only blurb I’ve ever read in which the blurber flatly acknowledges not having bothered reading the book he’s blurbing. (It’s hard not to wonder whether, for old time’s sake, the publishers approached Fabulous Phil, and whether he, for old time’s sake, neglected to reply.)

But as a correspondent Southern was not, generally, all that preoccupied with things that were going on his life or his career. In writing to friends, he tended to be motivated by an almost helpless impulse to amuse, shock, titillate, and appall. The vast majority of these letters were written to male friends, and a great deal of creative energy went into conjuring absurd and often incredibly misogynistic sexual scenarios involving female acquaintances. To take an example almost at random: In a 1961 letter to the playwright Jack Gelber, Southern recounts a scene from a party at the Plimptons’ apartment during which Lillian Hellman, bereaved over the recent death of her lover Dashiell Hammett, got drunk and lost the sexual run of herself with a teenage girl. “Fortunately,” he writes, “I entered the room at the very highpoint of the scene—poor Mary cornered and lone, cowering like a dying rose, while LIL, her face a mask of grotesque desire, pressed forward, stiffly, almost woodenly, like a man on stilts, naked from the waist down, her monstro bull-clit throbbing and glistening in the halflight like the horn of an unborn rhino!” It shouldn’t come as any great surprise that the writer behind The Magic Christian and Candy would, in his private correspondence, take pleasure in grotesque flights of sexual fancy, but I still found myself wincing, every few pages, at how far Southern was willing to go to get a rise out of a single reader.

One of the craziest things in the book is not so much a private jest as a proposal for an actual public performance: a 1967 letter to Kenneth Tynan, in response to Tynan’s request that Southern pitch a sketch for inclusion in the soon-to-be-infamous theater revue Oh! Calcutta! Tynan—who was not just one of the most prominent critics of the day, but also one of the most prominent opponents of censorship (and by some accounts the first person ever to say fuck on the BBC)—intended the show to be filled with taboo-breaking provocations and had rounded up such high-end contributors as Harold Pinter, Edna O’Brien, Sam Shepard, and Samuel Beckett. Southern’s proposed sketch never made it to the stage. It is set on board Air Force One during the flight from Dallas to Washington immediately following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Long story short, it centers around Jackie Kennedy stealing away to take a private moment with the remains of her slain husband. But she interrupts a shadowy, hulking form in the act of feverish intercourse with the actual wound in JFK’s neck. The figure is soon revealed as none other than Lyndon Johnson himself:

Now then, Johnson, unsated, startled by the intrusion, whirls about, and with a howling Caliban rage and confusion, rushes for the door. A technical problem here, Ken: as he approaches the prone Jackie, he gets a full shot, natch, of her fabulous store. How to convey this to the gallery? My thought was to have projected on a screen the close-up (his POV) described above, i.e. lithe and shapely sheer-clad limbs, languorous in repose, the cute stocking tops and a sensual stretch of marble white thigh and, wham, the perfect honey-pot itself, above which the budding floral panty tummy just discernibly rises and falls in quiet breathing. Johnson, lurching drunkenly, salivating, wild-eyed, stops short, his features twisting into a nightmare grimace of anguish and lust. We are not entirely certain of his intention […] as he moves ape-like towards her, his grotesque stallion organ still jutting forth like some kind of monstrous poignard.

What’s weird and troubling about this fantasy, almost 50 years later, is not so much the presidential necrophilia stuff, which reads now like a sort of failed pre-emptive burlesque of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, but the misogynistic relish it takes in the sexual humiliation of the first lady. What is being attacked here—more than sexual taboo or political piety or bourgeois notions of what theater should and should not be allowed to depict—is the idea that a woman, even a woman distinguished by the height of her position and the depth of her grief, might be momentarily free of objectification, might be more than just marble white thighs and a perfect honey-pot. (See also: Hellman, Lillian; monstro bull-clit.)

The letters are full of this kind of stuff, and even for a fan of Southern’s writing—someone who laughed more reading The Magic Christian than maybe any other book not written by Flann O’Brien—there were moments when the booze and Dexedrine-fueled priapism of the letters became too oppressive to bear. Yet throughout I found myself trying, and failing, to make excuses for these extreme manifestations of routine midcentury hipster misogyny. I desperately wanted not be mad at Terry Southern, even though he’d set my apartment on fire and stolen all my expensive dress shirts. To read Southern now is to be reminded of how the 1960s counterculture’s idea of sexual liberation was so overwhelmingly about the liberation of straight male sexuality—of how female sexuality was an experience, a thing, to be consumed. The counterculture, in this sense, wasn’t so much countercultural as it was a radical intensification of convention, a triumphant revelation of the id previously kept in check by the superego of “the establishment.”

It’s difficult to conclude anything about Southern’s inner life from these riffs, or from his correspondence as a whole. There is almost always a strange paradox at work in any published collection of letters: The things that are being written about, and the people being written to, are very often not those most central to the subject’s life. (People, in other words, tend to write to those closest to them only during the periods when they are furthest away.) Amid the relentless hip name-dropping and comic scatting, Southern’s private life—the chronic addiction, the domestic difficulties, the ongoing financial strain—rarely shows up on the page. But when it does, it lands with an oblique poignancy.

In 1966, for instance, Southern wrote to his wife, Carol, from London. “My dear,” he writes, “I know I have been living in a kind of half mad dream world for a long time now but I hope not too long for you to try to begin to forgive me—because I am sure that I want us to be together—not just for Nile’s sake, but because I think we can be happy together as before.” A footnote informs us that, while working on the film The Loved One, Southern had begun an affair with Gail Gerber, a young actress on the film, and that “this would lead to the end of the Southern’s marriage,” with Carol and Nile staying in New York, and Southern and Gail beginning “a peripatetic period.” This is sad enough to begin with, but when you realize that it is more than likely Nile himself who is the author of this footnote, it takes on an almost Nabokovian level of ironic emotional resonance: an unspoken childhood loss acting like a contagion on the impersonal sterility of the scholarly gloss.

There is a lot of reading between the lines to be done with these letters, which allow only occasional glimpses of the life of which they were an epiphenomenon. Southern was undeniably a brilliant comic mind, but his brilliance was fitful, and many of its more notable manifestations—Dr. Strangelove, Candy, Easy Rider—were brought out in collaboration with other writers (Kubrick, Mason Hoffenberg, Dennis Hopper). To read through the baroque inventions of these letters offers a definite sense that Southern’s talent was, if not quite squandered, then certainly not fully realized. I found myself continually thinking of two other brilliant comic minds that were fatally stymied by addiction: Peter Cook and the above-mentioned Flann O’Brien. Southern may not have been a genius on quite the scale of those guys, but his comic energy was as volatile, and occasionally as forceful.

This sense of unfulfilled promise becomes almost overwhelming in the later pages of the book, as project after project fails to get green-lighted, as the IRS closes in, and as the decades of heavy drug use begin to take their final toll on his health. But Southern is laughing, and provoking laughter, until the literal end. In a valedictory note after the last letter, Nile writes that his father’s final words, in a hospital after a severe stroke, were a request for a derrick to hoist his incapacitated body out of the room to freedom. He never got the derrick, and he never got the freedom, but he did get a laugh, which was the hit he was chasing all along.

Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern. Edited by Brooke Allen and Nile Southern. Antibookclub.

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*Correction, Dec. 2, 2015: Due to an editing error, this post originally misidentified the title of the book of Southern’s letters as Yours in Haste and Admiration. It’s called Yours in Haste and Adoration.