April 27, 2011
By Denise Gee
DALLAS (SMU) — Those who recall the work of the late Terry Southern tend to think of two things: The brilliantly satirical dialogue he wrote for such cult-classic movies as “Dr. Strangelove” and “Easy Rider,” and the 1962 essay “Twirling at Ole Miss,” which helped usher in the no-holds-barred style of New Journalism.
What most don’t know, however, is that the screenwriter and essayist, raised in Dallas’ north Oak Cliff, attended SMU in 1946. It was during that time that an inspiring French professor sparked Southern’s passion for French culture and jazz — both of which led him to an extraordinary life.
That springboard point in Southern’s life is what most interests his son, Nile Southern, who will be here for a May 1 screening of “Dr. Strangelove” and follow-up Q&A session at Texas Theatre beginning at 7:30 p.m. Nile is hopeful that anyone who knew his father during that time, or who may want to help sponsor the documentary he is working on, will visit with him during and after the Q&A or contact him to share information.
After graduating from Sunset High School in 1941, Southern served in the U.S. Army during World War II, returning to Dallas to attend SMU. It was on campus that the budding writer was deeply influenced by professor Lon Tinkle, “an inspiring, highly literate teacher who first interested Terry in all things Parisian,” his son Nile says. Tinkle was a regarded Texas historian, author and longtime Dallas Morning News book critic. An SMU alumnus himself, Tinkle studied in Paris at the Sorbonne before returning to SMU to teach.
According to SMU records, Southern studied English, French, piano, German, history and economics while enrolled. And both inside and outside of French class, Tinkle exposed Southern to what would later shape the young man’s artistic sensibility: Jazz.
Recognizing Southern’s writing skills, Tinkle encouraged him to pursue the esteemed Great Books Program at the University of Chicago before he earned a degree in philosophy from Northwestern University in 1948. Using the G.I. Bill for financial assistance, Southern then left for Paris, where he studied at the Faculté Des Lettres of the Sorbonne. During his four years there, Southern became a key figure in the expatriate American café society of the 1950s while writing for the Paris Review.
Southern returned to the U.S. to live in New York City’s Greenwich Village, befriending such Beat generation artists as Robert Frank, Jack Kerouac, Nelson Algren and many jazz greats. He later wrote the books “Candy” and “The Magic Christian,” creating a fan in actor Peter Sellers, who connected Southern to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Together they worked on “Dr. Strangelove,” and Southern was catapulted to fame.
“Terry always maintained a bigger-than-life gregariousness and a gentlemanly quality that is particularly, well, Southern,” says son Nile. “I think his big-hearted generous nature, along with his keen intelligence and curiosity, is what endeared him to everyone, from the Beatles to Dennis Hopper and Peter Sellers.”
“My dad brought me up on our Connecticut farm in much the way he was raised when he’d visit his aunt’s chicken farm outside Alvarado,” Nile adds. “I learned to hunt, fish and mend barbed wire fences, shoot skeet and throw knives while playing mumblepeg.”
Southern’s love of Texas is evident in his early stories “A South Summer Idyll,” “Red Dirt Marijuana” and “Razor Fight,” all homages to growing up here in the 1930s. His last novel, “Texas Summer,” will be returning to print and be available as an e-book via Open Road Media, Nile says.
For more about Terry Southern, visit terrysouthern.com; to contact his son, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more about the Texas Theatre event, visit texastheatre.com.