Review: ‘A Grand Guy, The Art and Life of Terry Southern’

in 1957, scribe Terry Southern was on the brink of the most productive streak of his life, just before "an Olympian realm of glamour, money, constant motion and excitement," in the words of his fawning biographer, Lee Hill.

“My idea of pure sloth,” Terry Southern wrote to Mason Hoffenberg in 1957, “would be to weigh so much (say about 5,000 pounds) that one couldn’t move and also to have sleeping sickness.” That’s a surprising admission for a writer who, at the time, was on the brink of the most productive streak of his life. Hoffenberg was the co-author of “Candy,” the infamous comic novel about the sexual misadventures of proto-flower child Candy Christian — a book that proved too racy even for the Paris vice squad when it was first published by the Olympia Press one year later. The book appeared in the U.S. in 1964, the year Southern’s screenplay for “Dr. Strangelove” earned him the first of his two Oscar nominations (the second was for “Easy Rider”), catapulting Southern into “an Olympian realm of glamour, money, constant motion and excitement,” in the words of his fawning biographer, Lee Hill.

The picture Southern conjured of himself as too bloated to get out of bed is eerily prescient of his final years, when the author, with unkempt hair and white beard, ravaged by drugs and alcohol, was neglected by Hollywood and the literary establishment following 25 years of dwindling productivity.

It was a sad denouement for a writer who helped open a new vein in American satirical humor with books like “The Magic Christian” and screenplays such as “The Loved One” and “Barbarella.” He had told Life magazine, “Where you find smugness, you find something worth blasting. I want to blast it.”

Southern’s final chapter was an ironic one in the life of the jet-setting hipster who had an almost lifelong, Zelig-like ability to become part of the celebrity countercultures of New York, Paris, London and Hollywood (as exemplified by the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” in which Southern, in dark sunglasses, is flanked by the likes of Lenny Bruce and Dylan Thomas).

Southern’s career — meteoric rise, eventual burnout — that, on the surface, begs to be written about, and Hill is to be commended for setting down his account so dutifully on paper, having incorporated into his narrative a series of conversations and interviews he conducted with Southern before the latter’s death in 1995.

But Southern is a tricky biographical subject, having created just a small body of enduring work before fading into a fog of parties, aborted screenplays and unfinished books.

“A Grand Guy” is a voluminous record of grand ideas and dead ends, from Southern’s option on “A Clockwork Orange” in 1966 as a starring vehicle for the Rolling Stones to his adaptation of his own novel, “Blue Movie,” which was to be a “full-on erection-and-penetration movie using big-name stars,” according to Southern.

Hill is such unabashed a fan of Southern that he manages to find something nice to say about virtually all of the fragments of projects and stray ideas the writer generated in the last two decades of his life. Given the meagerness of Southern’s output, the book might have benefited instead from a sharply focused portrait of the glitzy, kaleidoscopic worlds through which he moved. Instead, Hill’s accounts of literary and Hollywood society often read like a “Who’s Who” of Southern’s celebrity friends.

Hill takes his title from the protagonist of Southern’s 1959 novel “The Magic Christian,” an ultra-rich prankster named Guy Grand whose droll sensibility and social polish were similar enough to the public mask Southern often projected as to provide a lifelong sobriquet for the writer.

Southern was cursed with a financial recklessness that left him in hock to the IRS for the last few decades of his life. So poor was Southern’s business acumen that he took no points on “Easy Rider,” earning a mere $50 a year in residuals, while the film’s other principals, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, saw millions from it. The man who helped invent the indelible erotic naif, Candy Christian, and “Strangelove’s” hapless president, Merkin Muffley, himself proved innocent enough about the need to preserve his own legacy that many people in Hollywood may have already forgotten him. “A Grand Guy,” its flaws notwithstanding, should help redress that injustice.

A Grand Guy, The Art and Life of Terry Southern

HarperCollins, 343 pp., $30


By Lee Hill
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