Terry's Trove 

How Steven Soderbergh kept the Terry Southern tale from turning tragic.

March 21, 2003 was the day Nile Southern had been waiting for longer than he cared to remember. On that day, he went into the Chelsea Mini-Storage facility on Manhattan's West Side, grabbed the largest dolly he could find, and began piling box on top of box on top of box, till the scene looked like something out of Citizen Kane. A friend had come along to videotape this moment, because Southern had wanted to document the happy ending to what had become a long, torturous story that began October 29, 1995 when Nile's father, a famous writer of infamous tales, died and bequeathed to him a massive, messy mountain of memories and an equally enormous pile of debt beneath which Nile once thought he might suffocate.

In those boxes were piled the typewritten and hand-scribbled remnants of a legendary career -- the unmade screenplays and unpublished essays and unfinished novels of Terry Southern, writer of bawdy, scabrous novels (among them Candy and The Magic Christian) and ribald, satiric films (Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider, Barbarella) and the man who, perhaps more than any other, thrust the Beat Generation 1950s into the Beatles' 1960s. Nile was moving them to their new home, the New York Public Library, which on March 21 welcomed Terry to join such roommates as Vladimir Nabokov and Jack Kerouac, whose archives also rest there. This was where the Texas-born-and-bred maker of trouble and giver of shit belonged. Nile delivered the boxes and felt, for the first time, that his old man was safe.

Nile, a filmmaker and writer himself, had spent years allowing his father's estimable shadow and debt to stunt his own artistic growth. He tried to find a taker for his father's archives, hoping someone would pony up enough dough to purchase the legacy for safekeeping and help vanish $70,000 worth of debt. The estate had been valued by an appraiser of rare books and manuscripts at $200,000, yet those who were the slightest bit interested wanted it gratis. And those who owed Terry money or even their careers -- such as Peter Fonda, who, with Dennis Hopper, would claim credit for writing Easy Rider when ample proof exists Terry penned the screenplay -- failed to open their checkbooks. When I spoke with Nile in January 1999, he was waiting for the one call that would save the estate, from God knows who.

"I was doing the best I could," he says now. "I was writing letters to Ringo Starr, did a shout out to Terry's old friends. I used the metaphor of [a boat] adrift out at sea and it needed help, and Terry's archives were adrift and about to sink and could they help. No one did. Maybe my message was too confusing: 'Fuckin' boat, what's that about?' Maybe I made mistakes, but I did what I could to make things happen."

And then something did -- two years later. Elliott Gould, the star of M*A*S*H and an old friend of Terry's, was about to shoot Steven Soderbergh's heist film Ocean's Eleven, and on March 5, 2001, he phoned Nile at his home in Boulder, Colorado. He left the following message, which Nile has preserved: "Nile, I am so glad I found you. Mr. Soderbergh wants to help you. Specifically, he wants to do something about the archive." At last, Nile had a savior, and he happened to be an Oscar-winning director with his own production company, impeccable credentials, and a deep-felt love for the works of Terry Southern.

"He was just one of those iconic figures that somebody like me will always have a weakness for," Soderbergh says. "What makes him timeless is his gift for satirizing pomposity, and that's always timely." He laughs. "I just think he does that better than anybody. ... He was a literary figure in his own right, and I'm hoping to be part of a campaign to bring him out of cult status and try and get more people exposed to him. I wish I could have met him. I feel like Terry was somebody who I would've just gotten a huge kick out of. But, fortunately, he left behind a lot -- both in the literal sense and in the sort of spiritual sense."

Though no one will reveal the price tag, Soderbergh donated to the New York Public Library a sizable hunk of money that was then used to purchase the archives and help rid the estate of its massive debt. As part of a separate deal, he will be allowed, for a year, exclusive rights to dig through the archives to look for any property he might want to turn into a film -- as director or producer. Then, for a time after that, he will have first-look rights: If someone approaches the estate about making a movie from a Southern property, they will have to run it by Soderbergh, who could choose to get involved or step aside and let the estate deal with it exclusively. It's a deal that allows for "maximum flexibility," the filmmaker says. Nile says most issues will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

The rest of Southern's archives -- the letters and scribblings, the manuscripts and business transactions -- will be made available as soon as the library can sort through and catalog them, which may take as long as three years. Says Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the library's Berg Collection of English and American literature, there's just too much there to make it available quickly, and too many other recent acquisitions first in line that need to be processed. But, he says, if someone were working on a project and needed to look at something very particular, he would try to locate it. "We would probably work something out," he says.

Soderbergh came riding to the rescue after reading the story I wrote in January 1999, which chronicled how Terry's exuberant generosity -- whether it was waiving his profit percentage in Easy Rider and giving Hopper and Fonda screenplay credit, against the wishes of the Writers Guild of America, or paying for friends' cab rides when he had no money in the bank -- led to the amassing of such "monstro" debt, as Nile calls it. The man was involved in the writing of two of the most influential films of the 1960s (Easy Rider and Strangelove), wrote several scripts made and dozens more unfilmed, practically invented New Journalism, worked for a brief time on Saturday Night Live, published four novels (two of which, Candy and The Magic Christian, were made into films), became such a titanic icon he appeared on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and still managed to die without pennies enough to cover his eyelids.


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