Southern Discomfort

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

--Terry Southern, unpublished, date unknown

The Chelsea Mini-Storage on the West Side of Manhattan is hardly the sort of place one would expect to find the collected works of one of the greatest contemporary writers. It's a barren sort of facility, its white walls and steel doors exuding a certain sterile chill despite the climate-controlled environs.

Yet it's here that Terry Southern's archives sit--45 enormous boxes in all, containing Southern's scripts for The Loved One and Dr. Strangelove, dozens of unpublished screenplays (including one based on William Burroughs's novel Junky), typed manuscripts covered in pencil corrections, half-finished fragments, letters to and from the famous, including Kubrick, Robert Redford, Larry McMurtry and Gore Vidal.

It's the collected refuse of a life spent writing nearly every single day. Indeed, Nile says, his father often sat at the table with guests and kept a pen and legal notepad at arm's distance, just in case he was moved to jot down a line of dialogue. Visitors were sometimes offended by such behavior, but Southern was too far into his craft to notice or care.

If nothing else, the archives disprove the myth that Southern became inactive after the publication of his 1972 novel Blue Movie, the story of a director trying to make the first big-budget Hollywood porno featuring big-name stars engaging in full-penetration sex. (Stanley Kubrick, who gave Southern the idea, said Southern had written "the perfect blow job!") There exist only scant traces of Southern's work after that: the cut-and-paste novel Texas Summer, a brief 1981 stint writing for Saturday Night Live, the breathless bio for the Black Crowes, his contribution to a book about the history of Virgin Records, the screenplay for 1988's Whoopi Goldberg fiasco The Telephone, the random porn pieces in spread-beaver mags. Anything to pay the bills. In a 1992 interview with the Dallas Observer, Southern called such writing "deadly, tedious, enervating work."

Some of what exists in the archives will never get past a researcher's sight. Other pieces will perhaps surface some day in one of myriad collections of Terry's work Nile hopes to get published. A few of these might be taken from the autobiography Terry never finished--or, to be more exact, never really started. The White Rock Lake piece--excerpted from three manuscript pages that Terry titled "The Footman" and that bear the note to "change to the 3rd pers."--likely comes from the "auto-bio," as Nile and Terry referred to it.

Nile--along with Carol Southern, Terry's first wife (and Nile's mother), and his second wife, Gail Gerber--would like to get these boxes into the hands of an academic institution that would cherish the never-seen writings of this man of letters. But Nile has had no such luck.

In 1996, Willis Van Devanter, a Maryland-based appraiser of rare books and manuscripts, estimated that Southern's archives were worth $200,000--not an unreasonable figure for such a collection. (Jack Kerouac's estate, still the subject of litigation, is valued at $10 million.) In his assessment of the collection, Van Devanter wrote that the material "represents a comprehensive history of American literature of its period" and concluded that "literary historians now, more than ever, recognize the importance of Southern as an influential and groundbreaking author and screenwriter [and] in my opinion, his stock will continue to rise." Van Devanter insisted that the acquisition of the archives "would be a major coup for any institution."

Yet there have been no takers. Bill Morgan, acting as broker for the Southern estate, has contacted eighteen libraries about buying the archives, and each has passed. Among those institutions that have rejected the archives are the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Texas at Austin, the Smithsonian, even Southern's old alma mater, Northwestern University. (SMU has not been approached.)

In 1996, the Library of Congress did express some interest. James Hutson, chief of the manuscript division, wrote a letter to the estate insisting that Southern's papers would fit in nicely alongside the early works of Truman Capote, William Styron and Philip Roth. Hutson also thought the film scripts would make "rich research sources" for film students. "With the film Dr. Strangelove on the National Film Registry," Hutson wrote, "it is most appropriate that the script drafts and correspondence also be available here."

There was only one stipulation: The Library of Congress wanted the estate to donate Terry's works--to make it a "gift," as Hutson called it.

Nile, of course, balked at the idea. He needs money.
"I have visited several of the libraries personally to talk to the librarians about the archive," Morgan wrote in a letter to Nile on March 24, 1998. "And each time, I have had the feeling that they did not consider Terry Southern a 'serious' enough writer to warrant such a large expenditure." Morgan said so many rejections were starting to look bad.

And they've left Nile feeling a little bitter. It is like being told, Your father wasn't important enough.

"They won't even go beyond the popular-culture aspect of Terry," says Nile. "He was a writer. He set out to be a writer when he was thirteen, in Texas. He knew that's how he could really get a rise out of people, and he never stopped doing it. But when these institutions look at him...maybe he's just too threatening for them."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help