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3:AM Cult Hero: Terry Southern

“The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish. Not shock – shock is a worn-out word – but astonish.”

Hip godfather to the Beats (along with Gregory Corso he hustled William S. BurroughsNaked Lunch into print) and purveyor of intelligent satire, Terry Southern is heralded as the inventor of New Journalism (both Tom Wolf and Hunter S. Thompson lined up to doff their caps).

When the The Magic Christian was published in 1959, Southern was already a fixture in Parisian literary scene and had appeared in the inaugural issue of George Plimpton’s Paris Review. The novel, about billionaire prankster Guy Grand who believes everyone has a price, is a series of outrageous escapades concocted by Grand to expose human greed, buying people off for his own amusement.

Filmed in 1969, and transposed to swinging London, The Magic Christian starred Peter Sellers and other future stars of British comedy, though it deviated from the book to cast Ringo Starr as Guy Grand’s adopted son. Southern’s brush with Sellers led him to scripting Dr. Strangelove for Kubrick, co-writing Easy Rider with Fonda and Hopper, touring America with the Rolling Stones in 1972 and writing for Saturday Night Live in the 1980s. But it was in the Sixties that Terry Southern’s flame burned brightest, propelled by the reception of The Magic Christian and immortalized on The BeatlesSgt Pepper album cover, stood beside Dylan Thomas, the epitome of cool in his shades.

First posted: Thursday, February 4th, 2010.

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