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Shots rang out in Savannah's grandest mansion in the misty,early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Read more...
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- Date: Nov 2005
From the book
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...