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Southern Discomfort

Writer Terry Southern helped shape a generation. Now his son is fighting for his legacy.

Nile, testing the patience of his wife, Theodosia, has put his own career as a writer and filmmaker on hold while he tries to find a home for his father's archives, which take up dozens of boxes and are estimated to be worth $200,000--more than enough to pay off the debt. But there are no takers, not yet. And each day, the debt keeps growing, like an amoeba about to sprout legs.

"In the beginning, after Terry passed away, these things had to be dealt with," says Theodosia. "But then, when it started dragging on and on, I questioned what he was doing. I now realize that unless Nile brings the whole project to a satisfactory end, he will never feel free to really focus on his own writing."

In a last-ditch attempt to find someone interested in bailing out the estate, Nile sent out help-me fliers to twenty of Terry Southern's old friends, hoping someone might pitch in enough money to help rid the estate of its bills and donate the archives to some library more capable of dealing with the voluminous collection. Among the mailer's recipients were Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, some old writer buds, and Peter Fonda, the only one of the twenty to respond.

That is why this phone call to Fonda--the man whose youthful arrogance helped push Terry Southern down a well from which he could never crawl out--means everything to Nile. Maybe he might be able to pitch in something, anything, to help get the weight of the archives off Nile's thin shoulders.

It is now 4 p.m., time to make that call.
Nile anxiously dials the phone, hoping he finds a savior on the other end. Instead, it's Fonda's voice mail. He is not home. Nile leaves a message instead, telling Fonda to give him a ring as soon as possible...

"...so we can get things kick-started, to use an apt metaphor," Nile says, forcing a small chuckle at his motorcycle reference.

He hangs up and says something about how this is a "pivotal moment for the estate." He shrugs and exhales as though he has been holding his breath for a lifetime. "Luckily, I'm a patient guy."

The look of disappointment on his face could reduce the Rocky Mountains to gravel.

On October 25, 1995, Terry Southern collapsed as he tried to make his way up the stairs leading into Columbia University's Lewisohn Hall. His heart, already frail, attacked the man one final time. He did not linger on his deathbed too long--just enough for Nile to go to New York to visit, to read his father letters from old friends and fans and to bid him farewell.

Terry wondered why he hadn't died already. "What's the delay?" he asked his son. He was an old man, heavy and slow. He had already undergone surgery for colon cancer, already suffered a stroke and an earlier heart attack--which seemed linked, at least in time, to IRS vultures swooping down on him...again.

Southern was ready to get out of this world and on to the next: What's the delay? Even at the end, he was writing perfect dialogue, crafting the impeccable scene.

Terry Southern died on October 29 at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City. But in some ways, he was long gone by then, a great writer reduced to teaching students about filmmaking, screening 1964's Dr. Strangelove over and over, as though it were the only thing he had ever done. It must have been like walking through a graveyard time and again, being reminded of what he had been rather than looking forward to what was yet to come.

Far too often these days, when you mention the name Terry Southern to someone, all they can offer is a blank stare and a stupefying who? Southern's last book, 1991's Texas Summer, a collection of sweet, semi-autobiographical tales about his young life in Alvarado and Dallas, went out of print almost as soon as it went on sale, disappearing without much of a trace. Terry Southern, it seems, did not fare much better.

Yet to recount his life's story is to meet the most famous and the most fab figures of the last half of the twentieth century. They are the literary icons who counted Southern among their closest friends and influences: Paris Review founder and editor George Plimpton, for whom Southern often wrote in the 1950s; William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet, with whom Southern covered the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; and Hunter S. Thompson, who created an entire career standing on Southern's shoulders. They are the rock stars, directors and actors for whom Terry was a touchstone of ultimate hip: Peter Sellers, who, it is said, was never so comfortable on screen as when he was reciting Southern's dialogue; Ringo Starr and Keith Richards, who found in him a sympathetic soul; and Stanley Kubrick, who knew Dr. Strangelove needed Southern's whacked-out wit in order to make it fly.

To recount his life's story is to visit the dusty prairie town of Alvarado, which lies 45 miles southwest of Dallas. Terry was born there in 1924, to a druggist and a dutiful Irish housewife. Later moving to Dallas, he attended Sunset High School, where a thirteen-year-old Terry wrote his first short story based on Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. When the piece scared all hell out of his classmates, he realized even then that Texas was too small a place for him. He visited the Central Track whorehouses in Deep Ellum, where he claimed to have lost his virginity, smoked his first weed, heard his first jazz. He enrolled at Southern Methodist University for a short while, then joined the Army in 1943 and traveled to Europe. In 1945 he returned to Chicago, then attended the Sorbonne in Paris in the late '40s, where he began writing for such publications as New Story, Merlin, Zero, and the brand-new Paris Review. Later came moves to Geneva, New York, Hollywood, then finally to Connecticut...and every point in between.

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