Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, p.1John Berendt
MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL
“Uproarious … a rich, irresistible mix of snobbery, mayhem, sex, mind-boggling parochialism and mildewed magnolias. …A glorious vanity fair of human folly.”
—The Boston Globe
“One of the most unusual books to come this way in a long time and one of the best…. There is every reason to celebrate [t]his surprising, wonderful book.”
—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
“The best nonfiction novel since In Cold Blood and a lot more entertaining…. Berendt’s book has everything going for it—snobbism, ruthless power, voodoo, local color, and a totally evil estheticism. I read it till dawn.”
“Raunchy, witty, urbane and scandalous … a romp through many worlds—high and low…. For a good time read this book.”
“Berendt works up his material like a chef on a devilish mission. The result is a feast all right…. He has the old money down as dead-on as the new—as the no money, for that matter. And here is the highest praise I can muster: Wish I’d written the damn thing.”
—Gregory Jaynes, Esquire
“Rip-roaringly funny and compelling….A veritable Bent-Spoon River of oddballs, hustlers, sociopaths and historic preservationists.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN
OF GOOD AND EVIL
John Berendt has been the editor of New York magazine and an Esquire columnist. He lives in New York.
1. An Evening in Mercer House
2. Destination Unknown
3. The Sentimental Gentleman
4. Settling In
5. The Inventor
6. The Lady of Six Thousand Songs
7. The Grand Empress of Savannah
8. Sweet Georgia Brown’s
9. A Walking Streak of Sex
10. It Ain’t Braggin’ If Y’Really Done It
11. News Flash
13. Checks and Balances
14. The Party of the Year
15. Civic Duty
17. A Hole in the Floor
18. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
19. Lafayette Square, We Are Here
21. Notes on a Rerun
22. The Pod
24. Black Minuet
25. Talk of the Town
26. Another Story
27. Lucky Number
29. And the Angels Sing
For my parents
AN EVENING IN MERCER HOUSE
He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features: a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning silver 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 ceilings 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 silver—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 silver 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, but there were others. He was a successful dealer in antiques and a 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 falling 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 para
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 Fabergé. 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 Savannahian 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 César Franck’s “Pièce Héroïque.” “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 Fabergé 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.
“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 of town. Atlanta, New Orleans, New York. That’s where I do most of my business. When I find an especially fine piece of furniture I send a photograph of it to a New York dealer. I 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.
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