Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Touring Mercer House
I’ve just recently returned from a few days in the port city, Savannah and my trip had me thinking about the movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The movie was based on the book of the same title written by author, John Berendt. I’ve visited this beautiful Georgia city several times over the years, including back in June 1995, the year after the book was published. In case you aren’t familiar, the city of Savannah is a planned city, designed by General James Oglethorpe. He designed the city around squares and ultimately it grew to have 24 picturesque squares, of which 22 still remain today. The squares make Savannah a unique and beautiful place to visit.
On that visit in 1995 I bought an autographed copy of the book in V. & J. Duncan Antique Maps, Prints & Books located on East Taylor Street which is on Monterey Square.
The V. & J. Duncan book store is located in the basement of this beautiful historic home and the owners (the Duncans) live in the home above.
After I purchased a copy of the book in their shop, Virginia Duncan autographed it for me on page 142 where she is mentioned in the book. Now my book had two autographs.
I would manage to get it autographed one more time during that 1995 visit by yet, another one of the real live characters of the book, Emma Kelly…you’ll meet her later in this post.
It was exciting and wonderfully strange experiencing the actual places and meeting the real people you read about in the book. It’s not often you get the opportunity to fall into the rabbit hole, talk to the characters, touch the places and live the story. And, quite the story it is! It’s all about art, antiques, parties, drag queens, voo doo, cemeteries, eccentric characters, murder and revenge.
During that long-ago 1995 visit to Savannah, we did the “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Book Tour” which you can still take today. The tour took us to all the places made famous in the book, and later in the movie released in 1997 starring Kevin Spacey, John Cusack, Jude Law and many of the town folk of Savannah. The movie was directed by Clint Eastwood.
During my visit this past week, I was able to tour Mercer House where much of the movie was filmed. Mercer House, previously owned by Jim Williams, a prominent art and antiques dealer, is now “The Mercer Williams House Museum.” It is currently owned by Mr. William’s sister, Dorothy, and is open for tours each day. Photography wasn’t allowed inside the home, but I’ve snagged a few pics from the movie to share. I asked about the furniture that’s in the home today and was told by our guide that much of it is the same as it was in the movie. Of course, some pieces have been reupholstered over the years.
When I visited and took this photograph in 1995, the exterior of this 7,000 sq. ft. Italianate home looked the same as it does in the movie released in 1997. Mercer House was designed by New York architect, John S. Norris for General Hugh W. Mercer who was the great grandfather of Johnny Mercer, the famous songwriter/singer. Construction of the house began in 1860 but it came to a halt during the time of the War Between the States. A gentleman by the name of John Wilder purchased the home and completed it in 1868.
When I visited again last week, I noticed very few things have changed since the movie was filmed here. (See pic below.) Gone is the heavy vine seen growing above the door in the movie. As you might expect, the palm on the right side is much larger, as are the shrubs lining the walkway. Other than that, the exterior of the house today is very much as it was in the movie. This photo below was taken last week.
The book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is based on a true story about Jim Williams. Of course, John Berendt added and embellished to make it more exciting. Mr. Williams bought Mercer house in 1969 after it had been vacant for over a decade. He restored it, as he did 50+ houses in Savannah during his lifetime.
Here’s a brief synopsis of the movie from Wikipedia:
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is atmospheric and Southern Gothic in tone, depicting a wide range of eccentric Savannah personalities.
The action that serves as a catalyst in the book is the killing of Danny Hansford, a local male prostitute (characterized as “a good time not yet had by all”) by respected antique dealer Jim Williams. Four murder trials resulted, with the final one ending in acquittal after the judge finally agreed to move the case away from the Savannah jury pool. The book characterizes the killing as the result of a lovers’ quarrel, not a pre-meditated murder. The death took place in Williams’ home, originally built by an ancestor of songwriter and Savannah native Johnny Mercer.
The novel also highlights many other residents of Savannah, most notably The Lady Chablis, a local drag queen and entertainer. Chablis provides both a Greek chorus of sorts as well as a light-hearted contrast to the more serious action.
The book’s plot is based on real-life events that occurred in the 1980s and is classified as non-fiction. Because it reads like a novel, it is sometimes referred to as a “non-fiction novel” or “faction”, a sub-genre popularized by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. (Booksellers generally feature the title in the “true crime” subsection.) It is among the most popular non-fiction releases of all time.
The title alludes to the hoodoo notion of “midnight”, the period between the time for good magic and the time for evil magic, and “the garden of good and evil,” which refers principally to Bonaventure Cemetery.
The famous Bird Girl statue, originally designed both as art and as a birdseed holder, was originally located at Bonaventure. A Savannah photographer, Jack Leigh, was commissioned to take a photograph for the cover of the book and created his now famous photograph of the statue. The Bird Girl was relocated in 1997 for display in the Telfair Museum in Savannah.
Let’s take a tour of this beautiful home as seen during the making of the movie.
Jim Williams was known for his elaborate and over-the-top Christmas parties. Savannahians eagerly checked their mailboxes each Christmas to see if they had made the cut and would receive a much coveted invite.
Last Sunday, I was standing in the same spot as John Cusack in this scene from the movie. I probably had the same gawking look on my face, too. The home is filled with amazing art and rare antiques. To be honest, I’m shocked they allow the public in to tour this house. There are many valuable paintings and antiques throughout the home. When our guide pointed out crystal candlesticks given by Martha Washington to her daughter when she married, I was stunned. They were literally 3 feet in front of me, just sitting on a sideboard unprotected and easily within arms reach. Visit the home now before they come to their senses and put everything in a museum behind locked glass and roped off rooms. The tile in this entry is still in beautiful shape. Really, the whole home is just beautiful. The walls are still painted the soft peach color Jim Williams so loved.
The tour guide told us the dining room table was turned in the movie (as shown below) to create more space for the party that takes place in this room. It was turned the other direction during our visit last week. Many of the characters in the movie are actual town folk and play themselves. I think that was the case for the caterers of the party, if I’m remembering correctly.
Emma Kelly, known as the “Lady of 6,000 songs” has a whole chapter of the book devoted to her. She got her nickname from Savannah-born songwriter Johnny Mercer, who challenged her to play numerous songs that he named. He estimated she knew at least 6,000 songs from memory. Emma always played for Jim Williams at his Christmas party each year and she played herself in the movie. She’s the other person from the book/movie who autographed my book back in 1995. When I met her, I found her to be a genuinely caring and generous soul. You can just tell by the sweet autograph/comment she wrote in my copy of the book. (Just scroll back up to read it.)
John Cusack plays a reporter by the name of John Kelso. I think John Berendt was channeling through Cusack. In the movie, he has been assigned to write a story about Jim Williams stunning parties, but he uncovers a much more interesting story along the way.
Prior to Jim Williams purchasing the home, the walls of three rooms upstairs were taken down to create one large ball room. In the movie, Jim takes John upstairs to show him a very rare gun that he keeps in the box he is unlatching here in this scene.
In the movie, Jim tells John about his neighbor’s (Lee and Emma Adler) dogs that bark and annoy him. To get revenge, he plays this organ in the ball room really loud.
It would rival some organs found in churches. John is stunned when the curtains roll back to reveal these giant pipes. The movie is full of crazy moments like this.
Here’s a picture I took of Lee & Emma Adler’s House when I was in Savannah in 1995 on the “book tour.” Their home is the one on the left and is across the street from Mercer House on Monterey Square.
While we are looking at other houses from the movie, here’s one more. In the movie, John Kelso also meets Mandy Nicholls (played by Alison Eastwood) and Joe Odom (played by Paul Hipp) when Mandy comes to borrow ice from the guest house where he is staying out back behind Mercer House. Mandy invites John back to a party in this house known as the Hamilton-Turner House. I took this photo of it on my trip in 1995. Not sure why it was decorated this way back then. I believe it was open for tours, though we didn’t go in.
The movie is truly filled with eccentric characters. One scene involving a character named Luther takes place in Clary’s Cafe, seen here in this photo I took in 1995. In the movie, Luther has a small bottle of poison that he carries around with him wherever he goes. Apparently, Savannhians are worried he will dump the poison into the river and poison them all one day.
As you can see in the photo I took last week, it still looks pretty much the same as it did at the time of the movie, except there’s a huge building behind it now. Clary’s Cafe is a popular tourist destination as you might imagine, but we didn’t have to wait long to be seated when we ate there in 1995 or last week. The food is quite good, too.
Back downstairs in Mercer House, Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) and John Kelso (John Cusack) are talking after the Christmas party. We get a few more views of the interior of Mercer House.
Jim is flattering John (buttering him up for the article he will write. John is trying to stay objective in his role as “reporter.”
After the party, Jim (Kevin Spacey) and Billy Hanson (played by Jude Law) who is living with Jim, get into an argument. Billy threatens Jim when he refuses to give him money that he’s demanding.
The argument escalates and a shooting (some would say murder) takes place that night after the party. Here investigators are questioning Jim Williams after being called to the home. Suddenly the party John Kelso is supposed to be writing about seems rather boring.
Jim Williams sits with his cat as the investigation is taking place. He has shot and killed Billy Hanson, and states it was in self-defense. He will be tried 4 times before ultimately being acquitted. Have you noticed how the furniture is positioned away from the walls in almost all the rooms. These beautiful old homes have windows on two, sometimes three sides and it forces you to NOT line up the furniture around the walls. I love that! Of course, the rooms are also nice and large so you have room to place furniture toward the center and still walk around behind it. I just love the way the furniture is positioned in the room…feels so free and open and so conducive to conversation, flow and movement.
Another view of the exterior as the body is being carried away in the movie.
This is the office where the shooting occurs. When we entered the office on the tour last week, the guide told us, “This is the room where Mr. Williams defended his life.” What a polite, southern way to say this is where Mr. Williams shot Billy Hanson. (In real life, Jim Williams shot Danny Hansford. The name is changed in the movie.)
They never mentioned on our tour that Mr. Williams dropped dead in this exact room a few months after being released from prison after his last trial. Some say it was Billy (Danny) getting revenge. Ummm…I’ll let you decide that.
Mercer William House Museum all lit up at night time. The chandeliers in Mercer House are stunning! If you tour this home, you’ll love the view looking up the curving stairway to the gorgeous ceiling several stories up. Apparently, Mr. Williams did the restoration work on the ceiling himself. The home truly is beautiful inside and a must see if you visit Savannah.
The Bird Girl statue (called this because she is actually a bird feeder) was originally pictured on the cover of the book. She stood for many years in Bonaventure Cemetery. Bonaventure is such a lovely, peaceful place. It sits along side the Wilmington River and is filled with Live Oak Trees dripping in Spanish moss. It is also just a few miles away from Wormsloe and beautiful Isle of Hope. If you have time, check out these two previous post. Wormsloe and Isle of Hope are absolutely beautiful places.
The Bird Girl eventually had to be moved to the Telfair Museum after the book and movie came out. Folks were vandalizing the sculpture. You can still see her if you visit the museum.
Of course, these days you can buy copies or near copies for your own garden. I’ve had one for many years tucked in among the daylilies along my front walkway. They are for sale all over Savannah, too.
Hope you enjoyed this tour of Mercer House. If you did, appreciate so much if you’d give it a Google +1 . Thanks in advance!
For additional Movie House Tours, click on the category heading Movie House Tours at the top of this blog or click, HERE.