Terry Southern (1924–1995) was an American satirist, author, journalist, screenwriter, and educator and is considered one of the great literary minds of the second half of the twentieth century. His bestselling novels—Candy (1958), a spoof on pornography based on Voltaire’s Candide, and The Magic Christian (1959), a satire of the grossly rich also made into a movie starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr—established Southern as a literary and pop culture icon. Literary achievement evolved into a successful film career, with the Academy Award–nominated screenplays for Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), which he wrote with Stanley Kubrick and Peter George, and Easy Rider (1969), which he wrote with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.
Born in Alvarado, Texas, Southern was educated at Southern Methodist University, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He served in the Army during World War II, and was part of the expatriate American café society of 1950s Paris, where he attended the Sorbonne on the GI Bill. In Paris, he befriended writers James Baldwin, James Jones, Mordecai Richler, and Christopher Logue, among others, and met the prominent French intellectuals Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. His short story “The Accident” was published in the inaugural issue of the Paris Review in 1953, and he became closely identified with the magazine’s founders, Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton, who became his lifelong friends. It was in Paris that Southern wrote his first novel, Flash and Filigree (1958), a satire of 1950s Los Angeles.
When he returned to the States, Southern moved to Greenwich Village, where he took an apartment with Aram Avakian (whom he’d met in Paris) and quickly became a major part of the artistic, literary, and music scene populated by Larry Rivers, David Amram, Bruce Conner, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac, among others. After marrying Carol Kauffman in 1956, he settled in Geneva until 1959. There he wrote Candy with friend and poet Mason Hoffenberg, and The Magic Christian. Carol and Terry’s son, Nile, was born in 1960 after the couple moved to Connecticut, near the novelist William Styron, another lifelong friend.
Three years later, Southern was invited by Stanley Kubrick to work on his new film starring Peter Sellers, which became, Dr. Strangelove. Candy, initially banned in France and England, pushed all of America’s post-war puritanical buttons and became a bestseller. Southern’s short pieces have appeared in the Paris Review, Esquire, the Realist, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Argosy, Playboy, and the Nation, among others. His journalism for Esquire, particularly his 1962 piece “Twirling at Ole Miss,” was credited by Tom Wolfe for beginning the New Journalism style. In 1964 Southern was one of the most famous writers in the United States, with a successful career in journalism, his novel Candy at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and Dr. Strangelove a hit at the box office.
After his success with Strangelove, Southern worked on a series of films, including the hugely successful Easy Rider. Other film credits include The Loved One, The Cincinnati Kid, Barbarella, and The End of the Road. He achieved pop-culture immortality when he was featured on the famous album cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. However, despite working with some of the biggest names in film, music, and television, and a period in which he was making quite a lot of money (1964–1969), by 1970, Southern was plagued by financial troubles.
He published two more books: Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes (1967), a collection of stories and other short pieces, and Blue Movie (1970), a bawdy satire of Hollywood. In the 1980s, Southern wrote for Saturday Night Live, and his final novel, Texas Summer, was published in 1992. In his final years, Southern lectured on screenwriting at New York University and Columbia University. He collapsed on his way to class at Columbia on October 25, 1995, and died four days later.