Sugar High

by Published on

The late Terry Southern was known for a lot of things, including doing much of the writing on the screenplays of the landmark films Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider. But for most it will always be his association with the supposedly racy 1960s best-seller Candy that comes to mind when his name gets mentioned. Southern co-authored the novel, and I must say right off that the subtitle of this book by his son Nile Southern saves the reviewer the chore of providing a working precis of its contents, also establishing the right mood for the entire offbeat tale: “The Rollicking Life and Times of the Notorious Novel Candy.”

Born in Alvarado, Texas and raised in Dallas, Southern studied some at SMU before serving in Europe in World War II. He apparently liked the image his Texas roots gave him with his literary pals in Paris, New York and Hollywood over the years. Actually, when I myself spent the better part of a few days with him in 1981 during his campus visit to UT-Austin, I don’t know how many times I heard him tell somebody even here that he was originally from—in his words and spoken with a relaxed Lone Star baritone—”Big D”; it was something that I, as a recently transplanted Yankee creative writing teacher from puny Rhode Island, got a kick out of, anyway. Like many others of his generation, he used the student-benefits GI Bill as more a less a ruse to set himself up as a writer in Paris, where he soon met a young poet with a drug problem, Mason Hoffenberg. Hoffenberg grew up in a rich New England family with money tied to the Buster Brown children’s shoe company, and like Southern he shuttled back and forth between Paris and the suddenly very swinging Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Both of them were trying to launch themselves as serious writers, usually flat broke and leading the boho life indeed.

To pay the bills, they signed on to write a novel together that became Candy, published under the pseudonym Maxwell Kenton. Southern seems to have done the bulk of the work. They produced it in installments and on a straight-purchase basis for the French publisher/bon vivant extraordinaire Maurice Girodias, who ran the Olympia Press in Paris. The press was mainly known for smutty, quickly written original novels in English, marketed in France to tourists and bound in the distinctive dull-green covers of the Traveller’s Companion series. Girodias himself thrived on the publicity of obscenity charges (his motto was said to be, “A day out of court is a day wasted.”). In the course of his publisher’s career he also brought out a few novels that no house in America or the U.K. would touch because of their sexual content, books on that same Traveller’s Companion list that later became acknowledged literary masterpieces: William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, and, most famously, Vladimir Nabokov’s broodingly beautiful prose poem telling of a middle-aged European professor’s obsession with a young American girl, Lolita. What happened in the cases of literary offerings from Olympia was often pretty much the same: at first various sticky censorship problems and then a drawn-out legal struggle by the author to wrench copyright back from a greedy Girodias and have the book published by a more established house.

With new access to letters from Olympia Press’s files, Nile Southern relates the Candy saga and its effect on the three principals involved—those two co-authors and Girodias, the “Candy men” of the title. The novel was loosely modeled on Voltaire’s Candide, about an innocent embarking on adventures in the dangerous real world. In this case the innocent is a wide-eyed, angelically lovely college co-ed named Candy Christian from Racine, Wisconsin. Candy has a selfless need to free humanity from the burden of sexual frustration. She repeatedly submits to roues who take carnal advantage of her, ranging from a goofy uncle to a sleazy Midwestern guru to a sadistic New York hunchback to a giant statue of the Buddha in Tibet (way, way too complicated to explain here); throughout it all, naive and idealistic Candy can only softly, half wondrously exclaim, “Good grief!”, which becomes the trademark happy mantra for this forerunner of the flower child. When the novel first appeared in Paris in 1958, its handling by Olympia proved quite typical. It emerged as an underground favorite, making more and more profits. Most of the money went to Girodias and always seemed out of reach to both Southern, now back in America and enjoying success as a regular contributor to Esquire and a big-time movie writer, and Hoffenberg, in and out of drug rehab and heading toward the oblivion of a dead-ending lifestyle on the fringes of the international rock-and-roll scene. There was extensive, expensive legal maneuvering among Southern, Hoffenberg, and Girodias concerning copyright and royalties, as well as the to-be-expected censorship difficulties.

Eventually number one on some U.S. best-seller lists and with literally millions of copies sold when it was at last published more legitimately in America in 1964 (and illegitimately, seeing that there were many pirated editions), Candy was also made into a confused and ultra-campy overbudget movie shot in Italy. The cast of the 1968 film included Richard Burton, Ringo Starr, and even Marlon Brando, who so freaked out the young Swedish actress who played Candy (not just because of his hitting on her, but also due to the weirdly surreal, shoulder-length wig he wore for the part) that it contributed to the starlet having a complete nervous breakdown. In the final settlement, capping years of litigation as complicated as anything in a Dickensian chancery, there was $9,000 of the book’s American profits left after lawyer’s fees, a pitiful sum to be divvied up among the three squabbling Candy men. Hoffenberg died chronically unemployed, Girodias lost his publishing house and died unsuccessful at any business attempt afterwards, and Southern, well past the peak of his literary celebrity and having spent the considerable money he made in Hollywood, collapsed on the steps of a Columbia University building in 1995, dying at the age of 71. He had lately been overextending himself by teaching two long, back-to-back workshop classes in screenwriting once a week to support himself and his second wife, the former movie and TV actress Gail Gerber.

The Candy Men is well-written, an engaging study. Any suspicions I had about Nile Southern getting the opportunity to write it only because he is Terry Southern’s son were soon dispelled. As the narrative starts gaining momentum, the reader is definitely taken in by the sense of pacing and overall structuring that spins the material out with valid suspense and solid dramatic import, even if some of the many reproduced letters from minor figures involved—especially the American editors and agents spouting boring business matters—gum it up a bit. The book prompted me to check a copy of Candy out of the library and reread it for the first time since an extremely well-worn paperback copy of it was being passed around my freshman dorm in 1966. I can subsequently report that Candy is by no means a major work of literature, and it shouldn’t be lumped with those masterpieces mentioned earlier that first saw the light of print with Olympia.

Choppy and looking decidedly patched together, as would be expected from a collaborative effort churned out episodically, the novel seems to show its real achievement in the general spirit of it: funny and irreverent and certainly more a laugh-out-loud satire on—or even parody of—erotic writing than anything vaguely close to the genuine article. The prose’s abundance of wild metaphors for things usually described by “dirty words” provides an ongoing verbal sideshow in itself. Candy captures the youthful, hiply exuberant mood of the times perfectly, a significant early poke at the American square life and much of its up-tight credo (i.e. outdated sexual codes and a country of censorship that was often ignoring the First Amendment with close to police-state smugness), prescient of the huge cultural changes of the sixties decade in earnest. Actually, the fact that it might not be in line with what sometimes feels like the puritanical correctness of today makes it that much more an object of that special era.

And maybe I should wrap this up with a little more on that visit Terry Southern made to UT in 1981. He flew down from his home in Connecticut. I don’t think he was getting much opportunity to go on the reading circuit by then, but you would never know it by his look and attitude. A barrel-chested, smiling sort with a dangling gray forelock and wearing a fine tailored silver suit and an open-collar dress shirt, Hollywoodish, he was supposed to speak to a writing class or two and give a public reading; plus, there was a big reception party scheduled out in suburban Westlake Hills at the posh home of some local restaurateur, a longtime fan of the writer’s work. In true Terry Southern tradition, the visit was not without controversy. A poster to advertise his reading had been designed by a UT staff publicity artist, who worked with a couple of us creative writing teachers who gave him info to build on for the design. The artist came up with a scene of a naked young woman, maybe Candy, as seen from behind and wearing only a floppy-brimmed hippie hat; she’s rising out of a Dr. Strangelove-style mushroom cloud decorated with marijuana sprigs, a string of balloons in her hand. The way I remember it, one UT dean at the time, a rather creepy citizen who reportedly once belonged to the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom on campus, saw the finished product before it was printed up for distribution and ordered that panties be affixed over the bare bottom—immediately! (I still have a copy in my office at UT as evidence, the added dark panties and all.) Southern loved the fact he had caused a stir, pleased that he could still rattle the hopelessly square world, as, by the way, he had been doing for years in noisy, hilariously expressed opinions in The Nation, a magazine for which he wrote throughout his career.

To repeat, I don’t think his phone was exactly ringing off the hook for decent-paying campus visits like this, and by 1981 he was largely ignored in mainstream literary circles. Nevertheless, upon arriving, he got the honorarium check for a thousand dollars, then headed directly across Guadalupe Street to find a bank and cash it. For the next few days he wouldn’t let any of us hanging with him shell out for anything, as he kept pulling the roll out of his suit pants pocket and smilingly peeling off the bills. In the course of the visit, he valiantly tried to flirt with—move in on?—a good-looking middle-aged secretary from the UT administration’s Main Building who somehow ended up at the Westlake Hills party, the author of Candy repeatedly assuring her she was “super-fab” (his vocabulary could be vintage Austin Powers and then some). And on his last night in Austin, with a bunch of us listening to off-key jazz at the Hole in the Wall bar across from campus, he tried to get the bar’s manager to sell him the Lone Star beer sign on the wall to take home to Connecticut with him, ready to lift a hundred bucks from the roll pretty thin by that stage. Luckily, we got him out of there and told him the thing wasn’t worth any more than 25. I think we drove to another bar downtown that night, the windows of my old Ford Fairmont station wagon rolled down in the balmy April air; blasting from the eight-track was a twangy Lefty Frizzell tape, which he had earlier found in the junk under the front seat and insisted be played whenever he got into the car. Believe me, this guy from “Big D,” one of Texas’ own, was plenty of fun.

And more than once while reading his son’s book about Candy now, with its documentation of contracts and legal actions and counteractions and, ultimately and always, money, I kept picturing that roll of crisp green bills—Terry Southern almost trying to spend it as fast as he could and possibly realizing full well that it didn’t really mean a hell of a lot to him, when all was said and done.

Candy, that loopy best-seller of the 1960s, is an icon for those times, all right. I personally like to think Terry Southern, the writer himself, was exactly that, too.

Peter LaSalle’s books include a novel, Strange Sunlight, and two story collections, Hockey Sur Glace and The Graves of Famous Writers. He teaches creative writing at UT-Austin.