Southern Discomfort

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

So Nile has taken it upon himself to reclaim his father's rightful place in literary history: In 1996 he worked a deal with Grove Press to reissue Flash and Filigree, Candy, The Magic Christian and Blue Movie.

In the next few weeks, Nile hopes to sign a deal with Grove-Atlantic for a Terry Southern reader, likely to be called The Quality Lit of Terry Southern--so named for his father's sneering term for "serious writing." Assisting him in sorting through and paring down his father's letters, screenplays and short stories is Josh Alan Friedman, whose father, novelist Bruce Jay Friedman, was friends with Southern during the 1960s, when both men lived on Long Island, New York. The younger Friedman, now a Dallas-based writer, published some of Southern's work during his editing tenure at High Times magazine in the late 1970s. They remained close friends until Southern's death.

"I love his work--I love him," Friedman says of Terry. "I wish that sensibility and what he stands for were known by more millions of people, because I think it would be a better world."

One of the future projects Nile feels most optimistic about is a cinematic version of Terry's final book, 1991's Texas Summer, the coming-of-age tale about twelve-year-old Harold Stevens and 23-year-old C.K., the black farmhand on his daddy's ranch. The book--which features chapters lifted wholesale from Southern's 1967 Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tales, a sadly out-of-print anthology illuminating some of his journalism and fiction--wasn't really a "new" novel when it was published. Rather, it was culled from pieces in the archives.

Those who did review it wondered what had become of the insurgent, the heretic, the fab Southern who seemed to have disappeared when the 1960s turned into the 1970s. The New York Times treated Texas Summer as a minor release, accusing Southern of trying to "pad" his old stories without expanding them.

But Nile talks with great enthusiasm about a Texas Summer screenplay written by a young Pittsburgh-born film student named Robert Kimmel--a script Nile liked so much he read it to Terry as he lay on his deathbed. Nile didn't even know whether his father heard him--by then, Terry was nearly gone--but reading it gave Nile a connection to his father. In recent weeks Nile has entered into negotiations with the Hollywood-based agency Industry, headed by Nick Wexler--who, Nile says, has long kept a copy of Red-Dirt Marijuana on the bookshelf in his office.

Susan Schulman, the New York-based agent Nile has charged with finding new outlets for Terry's archived works, will not say whether any of these projects are a go. "Nothing," she says, "is ever definite in the film business."

Schulman explains that there is much work to be done, but she remains optimistic. "It's a dream to be able to represent Terry Southern's work," she says. "It's so important. His was one of the strongest literary voices of my formative years. My passion is to protect it. I knew that the estate needed direction...and I lobbied for the estate. I went after it, invited all the problems in. And so we have begun."

There's no mystery as to how it happened--how Terry Southern died penniless, owing so much to so many. There are perhaps no fewer than a dozen reasons behind such a tragedy as this one. Blame it on Hollywood--producers, directors, actors. Blame it on the accountants and lawyers and agents. Blame it on the booze Southern drank until his death. Blame it on Southern's legendary generosity, his fondness for picking up the check even when his wallet was full of lint. Blame it on his failure to turn in books when promised. Blame it on greed, jealousy, lies. Blame it on the 1960s.

It's quite a long, dirty list full of guilty parties. Den Hopper (as Terry used to call him, even in the days after their falling-out) sits somewhere in the middle of it, no more or less culpable than perhaps even Southern himself.

Still, Nile figures his father's financial problems began around the time of Easy Rider. By 1967, Southern had already worked on a handful of successful films and was living the high life. His were the extravagances of success--the fast cars, the good booze, the primo drugs. He and Rip Torn even shared a boat off the coast of Long Island: The Bay O' Peeg, a thirty-foot sloop.

So when Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda came to Southern asking that their names be put on the screenwriting credit for Easy Rider--this, despite the fact that Terry believed "they can't even write a fucking letter," as he would say later--he was happy to help them out. The spirit of the '60s and all that bullshit. He would forever regret it: What was supposed to be a three-way split on the proceeds quickly became a 50-50 deal, with Hopper and Fonda dividing the loot with the production company run by their friends Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who were already rolling in dough, having "invented" the Monkees.

A defensive Hopper, just a few months ago, when speaking at an exhibit at New York's Guggenheim Museum, was still taking credit for the film: "I flew to New York, and ten days later, I came out with a screenplay. And that was it. Why am I the whipping boy in all this?"

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