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PORTRAIT OF JOHNNY: The Life of John Herndon Mercer. By Gene Lees. Pantheon, 360 pages, $27.50, hardcover.
‘Portrait’ reveals Mercer’s brilliance, flaws

Tolly G. Shelton
Special to THE DAILY

I chose to review this book for three reasons. The first and major one was that my son-in-law, Joe Mercer, is from Savannah, Ga. Because Joe and Johnny Mercer share a Savannah upbringing, Joe is constantly asked if he is kin to the famous Johnny Mercer. Though they share a love of Savannah, as well as a surname of French origin, nobody has found a common ancestor, or any reason to "claim kin."

The second reason I chose the book is that John Herndon Mercer, born Nov. 18, 1909, of Scottish, Irish, English, and middle European stock in the Deep South, was of the same kind of folks and was born in the same decade as my parents. Just like my parents, Johnny's ancestors were closely involved with events of American history: the American Revolution, the pros and cons of slave ownership that led to the Civil War, the taming of a vast wilderness, and the importance of successfully operating a business, whether it was banking, real estate, farming, or a profession. Johnny, like my parents, was thoroughly aware of his ancestry.

Parallel lives

His life paralleled theirs: an early childhood during World War I and the great flu epidemic that followed; adolescence during the days of prohibition and the age of the automobile; a young adulthood during the Great Depression; and an adulthood filled with the heady patriotism of World War II. The effects of religion, race, education, and social interactions on these people, who grew up in the South, are remarkably similar.

My parents and Johnny Mercer sang the same songs, fell in love and got married for better or for worse, and loved to drive automobiles and to drink because it was illegal. They believed in keeping a promise and in being generous.

My parents never did become famous, but Johnny Mercer's songs resonated for them as they do for me. We danced to tunes that had words that we sang under our breath.

The third reason I chose this biography was to find out which came first, the music or the words of a song. The author, Gene Leeds, also a lyricist of note, has written 14 books of jazz history and analysis, and several biographies of composers and lyricists. He ought to know.

Language and emotion

Language, Lees says, is structured specifically to convey information. You can be moved, however, only by words in a language with which you are familiar. One's own language has a power that no acquired language can probably ever have.

Emotion, however, is conveyed by pitch, and inflection and sonority, and that is what music is made of. Music, therefore, can communicate before it is understood. It works directly on the nervous system. Another critical factor in good lyric writing is that the intervals of the melody line must be close to the intervals that would occur in natural speech.

Lees said Johnny Mercer was reluctant to write lyrics first. In general, Lees says, good lyricists are better at hearing the words in music than composers are at hearing the music in words. A song is unique among literary forms, and by far the most exacting. "It has the function of retarding emotional time, so that the listener can experience the feelings it is attempting to convey with the same intensity. This is one reason a song can move you to tears."

Started in 1997

Gene Lees was asked by Johnny Mercer's daughter, Amanda Mercer Neder, to write this biography in 1997. At first he was asked to reconstruct an autobiography that Johnny had begun. After working on it for several months, he asked some of Johnny's closest friends to read it. They asked him not to continue nor to let the manuscript be published because it clearly showed the darkness of melancholy and the effects of heavy drinking.

Lees remembers well the date he first met Mercer — Feb. 8, 1966 — because it was his birthday and he was invited to a Hollywood party. "I had the most immense respect for Johnny Mercer. Every lyricist I have known considered him the best of them all and the volume of his output of great lyrics, at all levels, from the outright commercial ('Goody Goody') to the reaches of high art ('Once Upon a Summertime,' 'One for My Baby') over four decades is awesome. In 1942 alone he wrote for motion pictures 12 major standard songs that are still performed around the world.

"In addition, he was the man who founded Capitol Records that had a huge impact on American culture. Capitol was a fresh wind in popular music and jazz, and its artistic direction was set almost completely by Mercer."

Lees had an interview with Amanda's first husband, Bob Cowan, who said, "Johnny was a very, very complex man. Your categories would be talent, generosity, frailties, ethics and quirks."

For his research, Lees used the above-mentioned autobiography. He made copies of the manuscript, which he gave to Johnny's daughter, his son Jeff and one which he kept for himself. I suppose that writing shows too much of the complicated man that his closest friends never understood.

After Johnny died, his wife, Ginger, donated his papers to the Special Collections section at Georgia State University. He was a prolific letter writer and many photos and personal letters are included in this collection.

Lees' source of information for the Mercer family background includes a great many interviews and access to family photos given by Nancy Keith Gerard, daughter of Johnny's sister Juliana.

John had an idyllic childhood surrounded by loving family, including his three half brothers and his uncle. He married Ginger Meehan — her real name was Meltzer and she was Jewish — in 1931 in the Chantry Chapel of St. Thomas Episcopal Church. She was a chorus girl and one of her earliest suitors was Bing Crosby — a fact she never let Johnny forget.

It was common knowledge in Hollywood and within the close family circle in Savannah, and to Ginger, that John had an odd, protracted love affair with Judy Garland. It probably began when they recorded a duet in 1940 of Cole Porter's "Friendship" when she was 18 and he was 31. His close friends told Lees that Garland was sexually predatory and that Mercer "wandered around in a lovesick daze."

It continued in an off- and on-again manner for years, surviving Garland's marriages and her serial infidelities and bouts with pills, alcohol and suicide attempts. When she died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1969, John was in New York with his niece Nancy Gerard. Nancy told him that she knew that he was very sad about Judy's death and he thanked her for her solicitude. Lees said that it is also common knowledge that the words to "That Old Black Magic" published in 1942 are about Judy Garland.

Affair

His alienation from Ginger predated the affair. They both drank heavily and had vehement differences of opinion about money. She resented his generosity to his family and to many other people. She never appreciated his genius as a lyricist nor his devotion to his friends.

Johnny adored children and children loved him. At his insistence, he and Ginger adopted two children through a private agency in Augusta, Ga. Norma Clare Barnes was born in 1939, and was named Georgia Amanda Mercer by her new father.

Eight years later, Ginger Mercer went to Augusta and returned with a tiny baby boy only a few weeks old — John Jefferson Mercer, always known as "Jeff." Ginger kept their origins secret but both children researched their birth parents when they were adults. Lees includes several interviews with Mandy and Jeff in the biography about what their lives were like as children in Hollywood with a famous father and indifferent mother.

Brain tumor

Johnny Mercer began to suffer from severe headaches and had some serious falls when he was in his 60s. After six neurosurgeons refused to operate, he was admitted to Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. His surgeon, Dr. Theodore Kurze, found and removed a malignant tumor. The operation left Mercer paralyzed and mute.

Ginger installed her comatose husband in his studio at the back of the property. He died June 25, 1976, and his ashes are buried in Savannah's Bonaventure Cemetery, close to his parents and many of his ancestral relatives. The cemetery is close to what used to be called Back River, renamed Moon River.

Soon after his death, the two children sued for one-half of his estate before their mother died. It was fortunate they did so because Ginger Mercer did not share the same values as her husband.

She tried to turn over her wealth to a man who was nothing more than a gigolo for wealthy women.

Ginger died in 1994, at age 85, at Cedars Sinai Hospital. Her will did not include any of Johnny's kin or any institutions in Savannah, though she lies beside him beneath the moss-draped oaks there.

Ginger set up the Mercer Foundation, which receives almost half of the royalties still being paid on Johnny Mercer's songs.

None of his relatives or friends serve as trustees of the foundation. None of the beneficiaries of the Mercer foundation are the ones that Johnny founded and supported while he lived.

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