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 great-grandfather. 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.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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