A Grand Guy

How Steven Soderbergh kept the Terry Southern tale from turning tragic

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 the archives, 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, adding that not even Soderbergh will have unlimited entrée.

"We can bring out particular boxes but not let someone sit in there and rummage through the boxes," Gewirtz explains. "[Soderbergh] donated the money to buy it, and we are responsible for it. It's not there to serve him, but to be there in perpetuity, so if anything goes missing, we're responsible, not him. But he won't have any difficulty getting what he needs."

Soderbergh came riding to the rescue after he'd read the story I'd written in January 1999 ("Odd Man Out"), which chronicled how Terry's exuberant generosity--whether it was waving 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.

Terry Southern and four other guys: Among those Nile Southern reached out to, and never heard from, was Ringo Starr.
Terry Southern and four other guys: Among those Nile Southern reached out to, and never heard from, was Ringo Starr.
Steven Soderbergh on making a Terry Southern film: "Oh, yeah. Absolutely."
Steven Soderbergh on making a Terry Southern film: "Oh, yeah. Absolutely."

"I read that article," Soderbergh says, "and thought, 'Well, that sucks. This is insane. Somebody ought to come in and help this guy. It sounds really, just, inexcusable.'"

Once Nile and the filmmaker got in touch, he told Soderbergh that the Library of Congress wanted the archives, but only if they were to be donated. He then suggested the New York Public Library, an idea Soderbergh embraced since he would soon be moving to Manhattan and could be close to the archives.

"This collection brings us into an area we haven't gone into archivally," Gewirtz says. "We have counterculture and large Beat archives--Kerouac, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs--but Terry Southern is interesting because he spans those two periods, the late Beat period and the countercultural movement of the '60s. He knew people in the literary establishment and the counterculture, so it's rare. There weren't many people comfortable in both worlds, so to have work that reflects both in writing and in cinema is something that will be of interest for some time."

But such enthusiasm would be tempered by the pressing legal matters. As late as last spring, the estate was still tangled in copious legal knots, chief among them how to set up a trust Terry had written about in his will without any specific instruction. The problem was, not only would any future deals have to include Nile, but also his mother and Terry's first wife, Carol, and his second wife, Gail Gerber. There was also the issue of to whom unmade screenplays belonged. Many of them were written with Joe LoGiudice, who met Terry in Chicago during the '68 Democratic Convention; LoGiudice figures they penned at least 10 scripts together between 1971 and 1984, including an adaptation of Terry's novel Blue Movie, which imagines a Hollywood porno in which big-name stars engage in "full-vage-pen," to use a Terry phrase. (Stanley Kubrick called the book "the definitive blowjob.")

Last year, probate hearings bogged down over squabbling between Nile and Gerber, so LoGiudice and Rip Torn, another old friend of Terry's, tried to smooth over their rough history. "It took some doing," says the Los Angeles-based LoGiudice. "I decided it had to come to an end. There had been so many misunderstandings that passed between Gail and Nile they couldn't talk anymore, so someone had to make that connection. I stuck with it for a while. They both wanted to do it, but they didn't know how to do it."

Now all is resolved: Nile and LoGiudice are co-trustees, with Gerber serving as trust secretary. Carol Southern has bowed out altogether, Nile says.

"She didn't want to be involved in the administration of Terry's copyright," he explains. "She's lived a life of her own--lucky woman--and Gail and myself, we really lived Terry's life more than our own, and I am trying to do something about that...Finally, we're starting a new chapter, literally and figuratively, in Terry's life, where his work exists within the trust and is maintained by these eagle-eyed and dedicated people. It's a new beginning for us with the involvement of Steven, which is such a godsend."

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