Longform

Southern Discomfort

Page 4 of 8

Southern wrote some of the grisliest, darkest, funniest short stories imaginable: about men luring women into sexual con games for twisted kicks, about men convincing their hated co-workers to defecate on the snow-white carpets of royalty, about strange sex he had known. Among his most infamous pieces is "The Blood of a Wig," in which Southern and The Realist editor Paul Krassner, in the midst of a heated, drug-addled writeoff, try to one-up each other. Southern wins, crafting a scene on Air Force One in which Jackie Kennedy walks in on Lyndon Johnson standing over the corpse of JFK, "his coarse animal member thrusting into the casket and indeed into the neck wound itself." Jackie is, of course, appalled: "Great God, how heinous! It must be a case of...of...NECK-ROPHILIA!"

Like Burroughs, Southern believed the only way to make a point was to exaggerate it, to make it absurd, to take the madness toward its "informal conclusion." Such writing--over-the-top, delirious, fueled by drink and drug and the freedom found in such a "monstro" combo (to use one of Southern's favorite words)--made him a cultural hero. He was the link between the Beat 1950s and the Beatles 1960s, a man who found beauty in the grotesque and sanity inside deep madness. Southern was the writer as rock star, especially after he and Stanley Kubrick collaborated on Dr. Strangelove in 1964.

Nobody better personified the anything-and-everything-goes 1960s than Terry Southern. Which is perhaps why his legend remains there, stuck in the past like some time-warp prisoner.

"You think of the '60s as a really fertile time," Nile explains. "And Terry is like a gardener of that time...He was able to enter all these different scenes without an objective. I think he just wanted to produce work that was culturally significant."

I guess I first realized I was a foot-man--or 'piedo' as the French have it--on the occasion of my 13th birthday in Big D. Dal. Tex, at a beach picnic (family-style) on the torrid sands of White Rock Lake. For over a year I had entertained a torturously bitter-sweet infatuation for my beautiful drum-majorette cousin, a college sophomore 5 years (quelle eon!) older than myself...She was lying on her stomach and I on mine, and she was silently reading poetry (poetry!) for an English assignment. When I flopped down, she looked up from her book for an instant and smiled (be still, my heart!) then lowered her eyes to her book once more--and I mine to contemplate her body inch by inch, so to feed my prolific fantasies...until...I saw that something was missing--her perfect perfect feet! She had buried them--perhaps absently, perhaps in delightful caprice--and now I was lying on them--the point of contact, or near contact (I could have counted the grains between us!) being you may imagine where!

--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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky