Do you have a favorite “city” book–a book that captures the essence of a particular city at a particular time?
I asked this question to no one in particular on the flight home from Savannah. I was trying to distract myself from the cold of the cargo hold where I’d been exiled for being overweight. Yes, I’d become a fat little traveling library, gorged with new-bought books and squeezed into a duffle bag along with LW’s shrimp-and-gritsy laundry.
I ignored the increasing smell of jet fuel as I considered my newest candidate for favorite city book: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. We had read and finished the book during the course of our trip. (To my new readers: As a library, I have a somewhat symbiotic relationship with my facilitator, LW, sort of like that described in The Dark Half by Stephen King, but with books). LW had been reluctant to get into Midnight when she bought the book years ago. The main character, Savannah antiques dealer and house restorer Jim Williams, came across to her as a charming but jaded s.o.b., and after a few pages she wasn’t sure that she really want to spend much time in his world. It took her 20 years and a second try to realize that she didn’t mind if she did.
For when she actually read past the first chapter, she found many things she likes in a book, such as:
▪ Excellent story telling with a southern flair;
▪ More stories per page than any book she could recall since Aesop’s Fables;
▪ An outsider’s fresh vision of a city (Example: Berendt’s observation of how the crescent moon takes on U-shape at Savannah’s latitude, which proved true our first night there);
▪ A wide variety of interesting real-life characters in a web of relationships;
▪ Gossip about these characters;
▪ An ongoing mystery;
▪ Encounters of the uncanny kind; and
▪ A house.
Let me emphasize that LW loves houses and books about houses, a topic I intend to explore in future posts. So the moment she discovered on our second day in Savannah that the late Mr. Williams’s mansion was open for tours, she was interested, intrigued, and in line.
Williams’s Mercer house is set at the heart of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It was originally built as a home for the Confederate general Hugh Mercer, a great-grandfather of lyricist and Savannah native Johnny Mercer of Moon River fame. The house passed through several more hands before enduring an unfortunate stint as the headquarters for the Savannah Shriners Alee Temple. It was in terrible condition by the time Jim Williams bought and painstakingly restored it. He filled it with antiques and treasures, turning it into a showcase for the glittering Christmas parties that became the highlight of Savannah’s social season.
The tour included only the backyard and the main floor of the home, but the guide pointed out so many interesting treasures and objects, that this stowaway was hard-pressed to later recall many of them on her own. LW’s trips always seem too brief, so she loves to find books that will add to and enrich her travel experiences even as she returns to her mundane routines. So as we left the house she stopped to purchase an autographed copy of Savannah’s Jim Williams and His Southern Houses, by his sister, Dorothy Williams Kingery.
When we finally arrived back home in New York and I was able to breathe again (in a matter of speaking), I was able to revisit the house through the Kingery book. For instance, the book recalled to mind the set of blue and white china LW had admired on the house tour. That china, salvaged in the 1980s from the wreck of a Dutch East India ship that sank over 230 years earlier, looked as if it had just come off the shelves of Bergdorf Goodman’s. The tour guide had said that Jim Williams actually used the china upon occasion, though his sister notes that “When you dine on the china it seeps salt.” [p. 152]
My favorite objects from the tour were two paintings, one hung above the other, that hang in Williams’s study where the “event,” as the guide called it, occurred. Each painting depicts one-half of a young military officer. The half with the legs clad in red breeches was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The top half (the soldier’s head and torso) is a recreation, the original portrait having been unattainable. The guide quoted Williams as saying that in the days of lower ceilings, paintings were often lopped off to make them fit into a given space. The divided paintings gave me the idea to some day, when I can be relocated to the Borgesian halls of my dreams, LW could hang my own series of half-portraits—perhaps of costumed deer or ducks or some-such–which could be mixed and matched on whim like the Surrealists’ game called The Exquisite Corpse.
To give you further flavor for the kinds of things Williams liked to collect, here is a partial list provided by his sister: “…a green leather Imperial portfolio with diamonds and a cabochon ruby set in gold and chased silver, a small Art Nouveau mushroom, an exquisite nephrite snuff box, clocks, picture frames, cigarette cases, a hat pin, a spray of Hawthorne in a quartz vase, an enameled table seal, a mustache comb, the handle for a riding crop, a large collection of cuff links, several miniature Easter eggs, and a salta game bearing the initials of the Dowager Empress.” [P. 149] (Of course, I’m sure there are LOTS of things in this world that bear the initials of the Dowager Empress—Dwight Eisenhower’s sheets and Duke Ellington’s towels, for example.)
Oh, it’s late, and the computer ate my post, and I’m being rather snarky on behalf of LW, who wondered if some of the more macho possessions of the late Mr. Williams (the prints of hawks eating their prey, the antelope heads, and the dagger “reputed to have been used by Prince Yusupov in Rasputin’s assassination” [p. 153], etc.) were posed rather than true expressions of the man’s heart. She suspects that he may have had more in common with Truman Capote’s character Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (as embodied by Audrey Hepburn in the movie), a sophisticated persona created by an insecure and wounded Southern country girl, than with the Clark Gable character (pick any) he seemed to have been imitating. She saw a hint of his “Holly” side in a paper wasps’ nest that he had saved from his grandparents’ farm at Turkey Creek, Georgia, the site of some of his best childhood memories. It reminded her a similar nest her sister had once found in the woods that surrounded their childhood farm in Maryland. She knows what those old home places mean to citified Southerners. As a child in recent exile from her own farm, she had swooned over “Moon River,” the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer song that Hepburn sang in the movie to express Holly’s bittersweet connection to home.
The wasps’ nest–and the book–leaves us wondering: Who was Jim Williams? What was it like to be a closeted gay man or an uncloseted one, for that matter, coming of age in rural Georgia in the 1940s and ‘50s? Or as a “bachelor” in Savannah in the 1960s and ‘70s?
LW wanted to dislike Jim Williams. I wasn’t so sure of Williams myself (spoiler alert: he KILLS somebody in that study with the divided portraits.) But we both appreciate the side of the man who wrote:
“Our completed collections are a desire to put parts together, an awareness of the mysterious appeal of the unknown object, unknown but desired—needed to form a new completed collection. It is fraudulent to purchase an entire collection, one would be buying a myth…The important thing is to buy one note from a collection of notes, then put them together in one’s own way.” [p. 155]
Jim Williams certainly put the Mercer House together in his own way, though he may have been selling some myths to himself and others.
Williams is but one of many intriguing characters that populate Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. John Berendt apparently did not have to look far in Savannah to find a few good eccentrics. I can’t describe them all here, but will note that some of their stories overlap. Their main connection, however, is the city of Savannah itself. Berendt’s book is also a collection, a collection of real-life characters that captures the essence of a city at a particular time and in his unique way.
I, of course, think Williams’s quote about collecting is all you need to know about composing one’s own library. But let me close with this photograph of the Moon River-like scene from the last evening of our trip, one of the reasons why Georgia is still on my mind.