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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
By John Berendt

Chapter One: An Evening in Mercer House

He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features: a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning sliver at the temples, and eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine - he could see out, but you couldn't see in. We were sitting in the living room of his Victorian house. It was a mansion, really, with fifteen-foot cellings and large, well-proportioned rooms. A graceful spiral stairway rose from the center hall toward a domed skylight. There was a ballroom on the second floor. It was Mercer House, one of the last of Savannah's great houses still in private hands. Together with the walled garden and the carriage house in back, it occupied an entire city block. If Mercer House was not quite the biggest private house in Savannah, it was certainly the most grandly furnished. Architectural Digest had devoted six pages to it. A book on the interiors of the world's great houses featured it alongside Sagamore Hill, Biltmore, and Chartwell. Mercer House was the envy of house-proud Savannah. Jim Williams lived in it alone.

Williams was smoking a King Edward cigarillo. "What I enjoy most," he said, "is living like an aristocrat without the burden of having to be one. Blue bloods are so inbred and weak. All those generations of importance and grandeur to live up to. No wonder they lack ambition. I don't envy them. It's only the trappings of aristocracy that I find worthwhile - the fine furniture, the paintings, the sliver - the very things they have to sell when the money runs out. And it always does. Then all they're left with is their lovely manners."

He spoke in a drawl as soft as velvet. The walls of his house were hung with portraits of European and American aristocrats - by Gainsborough, Hudson, Reynolds, Whistler. The provenance of his possessions traced back to dukes and duchesses, kings, queens, czars, emperors, and dictators. "Anyhow," he said, "royalty is better."

Williams tapped a cigar ash into a sliver ashtray. A dark gray tiger cat climbed up and settled in his lap. He stroked it gently. "I know I'm apt to give the wrong impression, living the way I do. But I'm not trying to fool anyone. Years ago I was showing a group of visitors through the house and I noticed one man giving his wife the high sign. I saw him mouth the words 'old money!' The man was David Howard, the world's leading expert on armorial Chinese porcelain. I took him aside afterward and said, 'Mr. Howard, I was born in Gordon, Georgia. That's a little town near Macon. The biggest thing in Gordon is a chalk mine. My father was a barber, and my mother worked as a secretary for the mine. My money - what there is of it - is about eleven years old.' Well, the man was completely taken aback. 'Do you know what made me think you were from an old family,' he said, 'apart from the portraits and the antiques? Those chairs over there. The needlework on the covers is unraveling. New money would mend it right away. Old money would leave it just as it is.' 'I know that,' I told him. 'Some of my best customers are old money.'"

I had heard Jim Williams's name mentioned often during the six months I had lived in Savannah. The house was one reason, son, but there were others. He was a successful dealer in antiques and restorer of old houses. He had been president of the Telfair Academy, the local art museum. His by-line had appeared in Antiques magazine, and the magazine's editor, Wendell Garrett, spoke of him as a genius: "He has an extraordinary eye for finding stuff. He trusts his own judgment, and he's willing to take chances. He'll hop on a plane and go anywhere to an auction - to New York, to London, to Geneva. But at heart he's a southern chauvinist, very much a son of the region. I don't think he cares much for Yankees."

Williams had played an active role in the restoration of Savannah's historic district, starting in the mid-1950s. Georgia Fawcett, a longtime preservationist, recalled how difficult it had been to get people involved in saving downtown Savannah in those early days. "The old part of town had become a slum," she said. "The banks had red-lined the whole area. The great old houses were failing into ruin or being demolished to make way for gas stations and parking lots, and you couldn't borrow any money from the banks to go in and save them. Prostitutes strolled along the streets. Couples with children were afraid to live downtown, because it was considered dangerous." Mrs. Fawcett had been a member of a small group of genteel preservationists who had tried since the 1930s to stave off the gas stations and save the houses. "One thing we did do," she said. "We got the bachelors interested."

Jim Williams was one of the bachelors. He bought a row of one-story brick tenements on East Congress Street, restored the whole row, and sold it. Soon he was buying, restoring, and selling dozens of houses all over downtown Savannah. Stories in the newspapers drew attention to his restorations, and his antiques business grew. He started going to Europe once a year on buying trips. He was discovered by society hostesses. The improvement in Williams's fortunes paralleled the renaissance of Savannah's historic district. By the early 1970s, couples with children came back downtown, and the prostitutes moved over to Montgomery Street.

Feeling flush, Williams bought Cabbage Island, one of the sea islands that form an archipelago along the Georgia coast. Cabbage Island was a folly. It covered eighteen hundred acres, all but five of which lay under water at high tide. He paid $5,000 for it in 1966. Old salts at the marina told him he had been duped: Cabbage Island had been on the market for half that sum the year before. Five thousand dollars was a lot of money for a soggy piece of real estate you couldn't even build a house on. But a few months later phosphates were discovered under several coastal islands, including Cabbage Island. Williams sold out to Kerr-McGee of Oklahoma for $660,000. Several property owners on neighboring islands laughed at him for jumping at the bait too quickly. They held out for a higher price. Weeks later, the state of Georgia outlawed drilling along the coast. The phosphate deal was dead, and as it turned out, Williams was the only one who had sold in time. His after-tax profit was a half million dollars.

Now he bought far grander houses. One of them was Armstrong House, a monumental Italian Renaissance palazzo directly across Bull Street from the staid Oglethorpe Club. Armstrong House dwarfed the Oglethorpe Club, and, according to local lore, that was very much its purpose. George Armstrong, a shipping magnate, was said to have built the house in 1919 in response to being blackballed by the club. Although that story was not, in fact, true, Armstrong House was a lion of a house. It gloated and glowered and loomed. It even had a curving colonnade that reached out like a giant paw as if to swat the Oglethorpe Club off its high horse across the street.

The outrageous magnificence of Armstrong House appealed to Williams and to his growing appetite for grandeur. He was not a member of the Oglethorpe Club. Bachelors from middle Georgia who sold antiques were not likely to be asked to join - not that it bothered him. He installed his antiques shop in Armstrong House for a year and then sold the house to the law firm of Bouhan, Williams and Levy and went on about the business of living like, if not being, an aristocrat. He made more frequent buying trips to Europe - in style now, on the QE2 - and sent back whole container loads of important paintings and fine English furniture. He bought his first pieces of Faberge. Williams was gaining stature in Savannah, to the irritation of certain blue bloods. "How does it feel to be nouveau riche?" he was asked on one occasion. "It's the riche that counts," Williams answered. Having said that, he bought Mercer House.

Mercer House had been empty for more than ten years. It stood at the west end of Monterey Square, the most elegant of Savannah's many tree-shaded squares. It was an Italianate mansion of red brick with tall, arched windows set off by ornate ironwork balconies. It sat back from the street, aloof behind its apron of lawn and its cast-iron fence, not so much looking out on the square as presiding over it. The most recent occupants of the house, the Shriners, had used it as the Alee Temple. They had hung a neon-lit scimitar over the front door and driven around inside on motorcycles. Williams set about restoring the house to something greater than its original elegance. When work was completed in 1970, he gave a black-tie Christmas party and invited the cream of Savannah society. On the night of his party, every window of Mercer House was ablaze with candlelight; every room had sparkling chandeliers. Clusters of onlookers stood outside watching the smart arrivals and staring in amazement at the beautiful house that had been dark for so long. A pianist played cocktail music on the grand piano downstairs; an organist played classical pieces in the ballroom above. Butlers in white jackets circulated with silver trays. Ladies in long gowns moved up and down the spiral stairs in rivers of satin and silk chiffon. Old Savannah was dazzled.

The party soon became a permanent fixture on Savannah's social calendar. Williams always scheduled it to occur at the climax of the winter season - the night before the Cotillion's debutante ball. That Friday night became known as the night of Jim Williams's Christmas party. It was the Party of the Year, and this was no small accomplishment for Williams. "You have to understand," a sixth-generation Savan- nahian declared, "Savannah takes its parties very seriously. This is a town where gentlemen own their own white tie and tails. We don't rent them. So it's quite a tribute to Jim that he has been able to make so prominent a place for himself on the social scene, in spite of not being a native Savannahian and being a bachelor."

The food at Williams's parties was always provided by Savannah's most sought-after cateress, Lucille Wright. Mrs. Wright was a light-skinned black woman whose services were so well regarded that Savannah's leading hostesses had been known to change the date of a party if she was not available. Mrs. Wright's touch was easy to spot. Guests would nibble on a cheese straw or eat a marinated shrimp or take a bite of a tomato finger sandwich and smile knowingly. "Lucille . . . !" they would say, and nothing more needed to be said. (Lucille Wright's tomato sandwiches were never soggy. She patted the tomato slices with paper towels first. That was just one of her many secrets.) Her clients held her in high esteem. "She's a real lady," they often said, and you could tell from the way they said it that they considered that high praise for a black woman. Mrs. Wright admired her patrons in return, although she did confide that Savannah's hostesses, even the rich ones, tended to come to her and say, "Now, Lucille, I want a nice party, but I don't want to spend too much money." Jim Williams was not like that. "He likes things done in the grand style," Mrs. Wright said, "and he's very liberal with his money. Very. Very. He always tells me, 'Lucille, I'm having two hundred people and I want low-country food and plenty of it. I don't want to run out. Get what you need. I don't care what it costs.'"

Jim Williams's Christmas party was, in the words of the Georgia Gazette, the party that Savannah socialites "lived for." Or lived without, for Williams enjoyed changing his guest list from year to year. He wrote names on file cards and arranged them in two stacks: an In stack and an Out stack. He shunted the cards from one stack to the other and made no secret of it. If a person had displeased him in any way during the year, that person would do penance come Christmas. "My Out stack," he once told the Gazette, "is an inch thick."

An early-evening mist had turned the view of Monterey Square into a soft-focus stage set with pink azaleas billowing beneath a tattered valance of live oaks and Spanish moss. The pale marble pedestal of the Pulaski monument glowed hazily in the background. A copy of the book At Home in Savannah - great Interiors lay on Williams's coffee table. I had seen the same book on several other coffee tables in Savannah, but here the effect was surreal: The cover photograph was of this very room.

For the better part of an hour, Williams had taken me on a tour of Mercer House and his antiques shop, which was quartered in the carriage house. In the ballroom, he played the pipe organ, first a piece by Bach, then "I Got Rhythm." Finally, to demonstrate the organ's deafening power, he played a passage from Cesar Franck's "Piece Heroique." "When my neighbors let their dogs howl all night," said Williams, "this is what they get in return." In the dining room, he showed me his royal treasures: Queen Alexandra's silverware, the Duchess of Richmond's porcelain, and a silver service for sixty that had belonged to a Russian grand duke. The coat of arms from the door of Napoleon's coronation carriage hung on the wall in the study. Here and there around the house lay Faberge objects - cigarette cases, ornaments, jewel boxes - the trappings of aristocracy, nobility, royalty. As we moved from room to room, tiny red lights flickered in electronic recognition of our presence.

Williams was wearing gray slacks and a blue cotton shirt turned up at the sleeves. His heavy black shoes and thick rubber soles were oddly out of place in the elegance of Mercer House, but practical; Williams spent several hours a day on his feet restoring antique furniture in his basement workshop. His hands were raw and callused, but they had been scrubbed clean of stains and grease.

"If there's a single trait common to all Savannahians," he was saying, "it's their love of money and their unwillingness to spend it."

"Then who buys those high-priced antiques I just saw in your shop?" I asked.

"That's exactly my point," he said. "People from out town. Atlanta, New Orleans, New York. That's where I most of my business. When I find an especially fine piece furniture I send a photograph of it to a New York dealer. don't waste time trying to sell it here in Savannah. It's not that people in Savannah aren't rich enough. It's just that they're very cheap. I'll give you an example.

"There's a woman here, a grande dame at the very apex of society and one of the richest people in the Southeast, let alone Savannah. She owns a copper mine. She built a big house in an exclusive part of town, a replica of a famous Louisiana plantation house with huge white columns and curved stairs. You can see it from the water. Everybody goes, 'Oooo, look!' when they pass by it. I adore her. She's been like a mother to me. But she's the cheapest woman who ever lived! Some years ago she ordered a pair of iron gates for her house. They were designed and built especially for her. But when they were delivered she pitched a fit, said they were horrible, said they were filth. 'Take them away,' she said, 'I never want to see them again!' Then she tore up the bill, which was for $1,400 - a fair amount of money in those days.

"The foundry took the gates back, but they didn't know what to do with them. After all, there wasn't much demand for a pair of ornamental gates exactly that size. The only thing they could do was to sell the iron for its scrap value. So they cut the price from $1,400 to $190. Naturally, the following day the woman sent a man over to the foundry with $190, and today those gates are hanging on her gateposts where they were originally designed to go. That's pure Savannah. And that's what I mean by cheap. You mustn't be taken in by the moonlight and magnolias. There's more to Savannah than that. Things can get very murky." Williams stroked his cat and tapped another ash into the ashtray.

"We had a judge back in the nineteen-thirties, a member of one of the city's leading families. He lived one square over from here in a big house with tall white columns. His older son was going around town with a gangster's girlfriend. The gangster warned him to stop, but the judge's son kept right at it. One night the doorbell rang and when the judge opened the door, he found his son lying on the porch bleeding to death with his private parts tucked under his lapel. The doctors sewed his genitals back on, but the body rejected them and he died. The next day, the headline in the paper read FALL FROM PORCH PROVES FATAL. Most members of that family still deny the murder ever happened, but the victim's sister tells me it's true.

"It doesn't end there. The same judge had another son. This one lived in a house on Whitaker Street. He and his wife used to fight. I mean really go at it, throw each other across rooms and that sort of thing. During one of those fights, their three-year-old daughter came downstairs unnoticed, just when the husband was getting ready to fling his wife into a marble-topped table. When the woman hit the table, it overturned and crushed the little girl. They didn't find out about it until an hour later when they were picking up the debris from the fight. As far as the family is concerned, that incident never happened either."

Williams picked up the decanter of Madeira And refilled our glasses. "Drinking Madeira is a great Savannah ritual, you know," he said. "It's a celebration of failure, actually. The British sent whole shiploads of grapevines over from Madeira in the eighteenth century in hopes of turning Georgia into a wine-producing colony. Savannah's on the same latitude as Madeira. Well, the vines died, but Savannah never lost its taste for Madeira. Or any other kind of liquor for that matter. Prohibition didn't even slow things down here. Everybody had a way of getting liquor, even little old ladies. Especially the old ladies. A bunch of them bought a Cuban rumrunner and ran it back and forth between here and Cuba."

Williams sipped his Madeira. "One of those ladies died just a few months ago. Old Mrs. Morton. She was a marvel. She did exactly as she pleased all her life, God bless her. Her son came home for Christmas vacation one year and brought his college roommate with him. Mama and the college roommate fell in love; the roommate moved into the master bedroom with her; Daddy moved into the guest bedroom, and the son went back to college and never came home again. From then on, Mr. and Mrs. Morton and the roommate lived in that house under those circumstances until the old man died. They kept up appearances and pretended nothing at all outrageous had happened. Mama's young lover served as her chauffeur. Whenever he dropped her off and picked her up at her bridge parties, the other ladies would peer out at them through the venetian blinds. But they never let on that they were interested, because nobody, nobody ever mentioned his name in her presence."

Williams fell silent for a moment, no doubt reflecting upon the recently departed Mrs. Morton. Through the open window, Monterey Square was quiet except for the rasp of a cricket and the passing, now and then, of a car unhurriedly negotiating the turns around the square.

"What do you suppose would happen," I asked, "if the tour guides told that sort of story to their busloads of tourists?"

"Not possible," said Williams. "They keep it very prim and proper."

I told Williams that as I was coming up the walk earlier I had heard the guide on one of the tour buses talking about this house.

"Bless their boring little hearts," said Williams. "What did the guide say?"

"She said that the house was the birthplace of the famous songwriter Johnny Mercer, the man who wrote 'Moon River,' 'I Wanna Be Around,' 'Too Marvelous for Words,' and other standards." "Wrong, but not completely off base," said Williams. "What else?"

"That last year Jacqueline Onassis offered to buy the house and everything in it for two million dollars."

"The guide gets C minus for accuracy," said Williams "And now, I'll tell you what really happened:

"Construction of the house was begun in 1860 by the Confederate general Hugh Mercer, Johnny Mercer's greatgrandfather. It was unfinished when the Civil War broke out and after the war, General Mercer was imprisoned and tried for the murder of two army deserters. He was eventually acquitted, largely on the testimony of his son, and released from a jail a broken and very angry man. He sold the house, and the new owners completed it. So none of the Mercers ever lived here, including Johnny. Late in his life, though, Johnny used to drop in when he was in town. In fact, he taped a Mike Douglas show in the front yard. He once offered to buy the house, but I told him, 'Johnny, you don't need it, you'll end up playing houseboy to it just as I have.' And that's as close as he came to ever living here."

Williams leaned back and sent a thin stream of cigar smoke ceilingward. "I'll come to Jacqueline Onassis in a moment," he said, "but first I want to let you in on another piece of history that the tour guides never mention. It's an incident I call 'Flag Day.' It happened a couple of years ago." He stood up and went over to the window. "Monterey Square is lovely," he said. "In my opinion, it's the most beautiful of all the squares in Savannah. The architecture, the trees, the monument, the way it all fits together. Moviemakers love it. Something like twenty feature films have been shot in Savannah in the past six years, and Monterey Square is one of their favorite shooting locations.

"Every time filming begins the town goes wild. Everybody wants to be an extra and meet the stars and watch from the sidelines. The mayor and the city councilmen think it's wonderful because the film companies will spend money here, and Savannah will become famous, and that will help tourism.

"But it really isn't so wonderful at all. The moviemakers pay local extras the minimum wage, and Savannah doesn't get publicity after all, because the audiences usually haven't the vaguest idea where the movies have been shot. In fact, the costs to Savannah turn out to be greater than the return.

© 1994 John Berendt

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