He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features: a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning sliver 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 sliver--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 sliver 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, son, but there were others. He was a successful dealer in antiques and 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 failing 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."
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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