"But I gather you haven't been ostracized."
"Not at all. Six months after Flag Day, Jacqueline Onassis came to call."
Williams crossed the room and lifted the lid of a slant-top desk. "Twice a year," he said, "Christie's auction house has Fabergé sales in Geneva. Last year, the star item in the sale was an exquisite little jade box. It had been widely adver-tised, and there was a lot of excitement about it. The man in charge of those sales was Geza von Habsburg; he'd be archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire today if it still ex-isted. Geza's a friend of mine. I've attended those sales for years. Naturally, I flew over for this one, and I said, 'Geza, I'm here to buy that little box.' Geza laughed and said, 'Jim, quite a number of people are here to buy that little box.' I had visions of having to bid against Malcolm Forbes and his ilk, but I thought at least I'd have fun driving up the price. So I said, 'Well, Geza, let's put it this way: If somebody out-bids me and buys that box they're gonna, by God, know they bought a box!' The bidding started at the highest esti-mate. I finally bought the box for seventy thousand dollars. Then I flew back over the Atlantic on the Concorde and had a champagne cocktail with the little box sitting on my linen--covered tray.
"The very next morning, I was down in my basement workshop restoring furniture, jet-lagged and unshaven, when the doorbell rang. I sent one of my assistants, Barry Thomas, up to answer it. He came running back downstairs all out of breath and said a tour guide was at the door and wanted to know if I would show Jacqueline Onassis through the house. I thought, 'This is a bunch of bull,' but I came up anyway and there was the tour guide, and indeed she had Mrs. Onassis waiting in the car.
"I asked her to drive around the block a few times and give me a chance to shave and get the house pulled together. While she did that, I got myself ready and told the boys to do what we call a tour-of-homes lighting. It's a set routine that takes a full ten minutes of turning on lamps, opening shutters, emptying ashtrays and clearing away newspapers. Just as we were finishing, the doorbell rang again, and there was Mrs. Onassis and her friend Maurice Tempelsman. 'I'm awfully sorry I sent you away before,' I said, 'but I just got back last night from the Fabergé sale in Geneva.' With that, Mr. Tempelsman said, 'Who bought the box?' I said, 'Won't you come in and see?' Without another word, he took Mrs. Onassis by the arm and said, 'There it is. I told you we should have bought it.'"
Williams handed me the box. It was a rich deep green, about four inches square. The top was covered with a bril-liant latticework of diamonds punctuated with cabochon ru-bies. In the center, a white oval enamel medallion bore the cipher of Nicholas II in diamonds and gold.
"They were in the house an hour or so," said Williams. "They looked at everything. We went upstairs, and I played the pipe organ, and then we all played roulette. They were completely charming. Tempelsman had what I call a topside dye job. You take a man and dip him bottom side up in hair dye and stop right at the ears. He was an interesting man, very knowledgeable about antiques. In fact, they both were. They'd been traveling down the coast on his yacht, but Mrs. Onassis was very down-to-earth. She was wearing a white linen suit and didn't even bother brushing the dust off her chair when we sat down in the garden. She invited me to come visit her in her 'hovel' the next time I came to New York. When they left, she asked how to get to the nearest Burger King."
"What about offering to buy the house for two million dollars?" I asked.
"She did nothing as crass as that, but she apparently told Tempelsman in front of the tour guide--who reported it to the newspapers, of course--that she wished she owned the house and everything in it. 'But not Jim Williams,' she said, 'I couldn't afford him.'"
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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