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' 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' 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' 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' 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.
Excerpted from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Copyright© 1994 by John Berendt. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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