The missus and I drove to Savannah last weekend and noted that — just like Charleston — it has undergone tremendous change over the past 40 to 50 years. When I first visited in the early 1970s, I remember thinking that it was a dump and had no real desire to go back. But I’ve returned multiple times over the years and found that it has slowly turned into a showpiece.
One of the interesting things about Savannah is that the people don’t really seem to give a hoot what anybody thinks about them. It’s their city, they do things their own way, don’t want too much attention, and if no one paid them any at all that would be just fine, too. The old guard families (not that I know many of them) are a credit to Southern manners, gentility and a bit of eccentricity, which is displayed without the slightest compunction or reservation. They are different from Charlestonians, who are somehow more aware of their eccentricities, and perhaps a bit more guarded about them — at least to the outsider.
I got to know several fine Savannah boys while a student at the old Aiken Prep School from 1967 to 1971 (grades 6 through 9). We were all there for the same reason — basically nice boys from good families who may have had some learning issues, lack of motivation, perhaps a little ADD (back in the days when it was not well understood), and who needed the kind of structure that an English-style boarding school and learning environment could provide. And for most of us the model worked.
A few of the boys were incorrigible and ended up getting the boot, but probably to no greater degree than most other places. One of the nicer boys from Savannah at the time was George Mercer. I never saw him after I left, but never forgot him — always pleasant, smiling and ready for a laugh or to tell an amusing tale, with his very relaxed and easy-going demeanor.
At any rate, for whatever reason, our trip to Savannah last weekend seemed to have deathly and morbid overtones. The weather was cold, rainy, blustery and dreary, but we nonetheless had a great time walking all throughout the historic district and taking in all the sites.
One of our stops, Mary Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home at Lafayette Square — they called her Mary Flannery when she was a youngster — she who would later become the queen of Southern Gothic literary art, whose short stories are famous for shocking and twisted surprise endings. You can’t be free as a writer, she said, unless you’re of the mindset to tell your readers to go jump in a lake. She herself was freed of this mortal coil at the age a 39, a victim of lupus, a dreaded autoimmune condition which back in her day was essentially untreatable.
And then, of course, we had to stop by the Mercer-Williams House at the southwest end of Monterey Square, the house which was the scene of the shooting death of Jim Williams’ assistant, Danny Hansford, which was retold in the blockbuster 1994 book by John Berendt titled “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
The book penetrates the darker psyche of upper crust goings on (not by any means unique to Savannah) as a murder case unravels. Part of the backdrop of the story involves the mysterious and nearly otherworldly beauty of Bonaventure Cemetery, where we visited early the next morning.
It was still rainy, cold and drizzly, which I guess set sort of an interesting ambiance for cemetery visiting. The grounds are a maze of live oaks, Spanish moss, azaleas and other flowering shrubs that edge a winding river and unending marshlands, and which are adorned with every conceivable type of tombstone and statuary of the highest caliber and made from the finest white marble, some of which tower 10 to 20 feet into the heavens, while other pieces hang lower to the ground and invite more personal inspection of their exquisite detail. The pieces resonate with feeling, peace, sometimes-eerie realism, and are ever so alive and spiritual in their silence and quietude.
We were walking around in stunned amazement when all of a sudden there it was — the Mercer family plot. Having known George back in the old APS days, I wondered if any of his people are buried here? Sure enough, there was a George W. Mercer III from an earlier generation. Right next to him was George W. Mercer IV, 1956-1980. I gasped and said, “My God, George, what happened?”
And then it came back to me a little — maybe I had blanked it out so many years ago — that this was the result of something terrible. Something involving kidnapping and murder, which I later corroborated with a heavy heart through an online search, which included the discovery of an article written in some detail by Calvin Trillin for The New Yorker back in February 1981, some 35 years ago.
I don’t really know why I mention it here, other than observing once again that something awful happened to someone good. We all know that story one way or another. And I say to my friend George, it has been a long time, but I remember you well and fondly, and know that you’re in a safe place among the spirits and palpable spirituality of beautiful Bonaventure.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.