A Grand Guy

March 21, 2003--though he never knew the precise date, it was the very day Nile Southern had been waiting for longer than he cared to remember. On that day, Southern went into the Chelsea Mini-Storage facility on Manhattan's West Side, grabbed the largest dolly he could find--it looked like a small boat with wheels--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In those boxes were piled the typewritten and hand-scribbled remnants of a legendary career--the unmade screenplays and unpublished essays and unfinished novels of Terry Southern, writer of bawdy, scabrous novels (among them Candy and The Magic Christian) and ribald, satiric films (Dr.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 opened its doors and welcomed Terry to join such roommates as Vladimir Nabokov and Jack Kerouac, whose archives also rest with the library. This was where Terry, the Texas-born-and-bred maker of trouble and giver of shit, belonged--in the company of other "quality lit" immortals, not a sterile, climate-controlled purgatory. 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--a damned eternity to him and his wife and two little girls--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, for a story that appeared in the Dallas Observer and our now-defunct sister paper in Los Angeles, he was waiting for the one phone call that would save the estate, from God knows who.

"I was doing the best I could," Nile 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, Soderbergh 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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky