From the March, 1996 issue of High Times comes Darius James’ ode to Terry Southern (1924—1995), who would have been 97 years old on May 1.
A Tribute to Terry Southern by Darius James
On the afternoon of October 25, 1995, author Terry Southern balanced himself on his cane and began the slow climb up the stairs to Columbia University’s Lewisohn Hall. Few, if any, of the young people who passed him knew that this fragile, white haired old man with the puckish gleam in his eye was one of America’s great counterculture saints who had affected their world in ways they were yet to realize, from smoking pot to appreciating African American culture.
In addition to his novels Candy, Flash And Filigree, The Magic Christian and Blue Movie and Red Dirt Marijuana (one of the funniest collections of short stories ever written), Southern was an Oscar-nominated screenwriter who wrote some of the most important films in the history of cinema among them Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb) and Easy Rider.
His career began in Paris in the 1950s where he kept company with the likes of Jean Genet, Albert Camus and Jean Cocteau, smoking opium with the latter. (Southern expounded on his pharmaceutical philosophy in a joint interview with William Burroughs in the February 1981 High Times.) He published his first short story in The Paris Review. As a result of a series of amusing letters he exchanged with writer Mason Hoffenberg, Southern published his first novel, Candy, with Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press.
His screenwriting career began after The Magic Christian had been enthusiastically reviewed by The Times of London. The late comic actor Peter Sellers read the review, purchased the book and fell in love with it. He then bought a box of 100 and distributed them to friends at Christmas including director Stanley Kubrick.
Then, on a winter’s morning in 1962, Terry received a phone call. It was Kubrick. He invited Terry to collaborate on a film about the end of the world, saying he suddenly realized that the failure to understand the dangers of nuclear war was too fantastic, too outrageous to be treated in any other fashion than “a hideous joke,” and that The Magic Christian showed indications that Terry might have the right comic vision for the job. Was Southern interested? The answer was yes, and the result was Dr. Strangelove.
By 71, Terry’s 40 odd screenplays and years of Hollywood experience had placed him in Columbia’s writing department, where be was teaching screenwriting. But before reaching the first of his classes, Southern collapsed on the steep stone incline. He had suffered a combined heart attack and stroke five years earlier, and the exertion proved too much for his heart. True to his Texan rebel soul, Terry Southern maintained his grand comic wit even in the face of death. As he drifted in and out of consciousness in intensive care, due to the heavy doses of pain relieving medication, he was asked by hospital staff. “Mr. Southern, do you know where you are?”
“I dare say I do!”
“How do you feel?”
“I’ll feel much better—when you people leave!” Frustrated by confinement, immobility and the tangle of respirator tubes, Southern, speaking through an oxygen mask, remarked to his son, Nile: “Let’s hurry this thing along and move on to the next stage!”
And at approximately 11:30 PM on Sunday, October 29, Terry Southern, last of the great Catdaddy hipsters, did just that. He checked out. With his Panama brim tilted on the side of his silvery white head, Terry made the next scene—steppin’ in two toned ‘gators.