Miriam Center & Me!

click to enlarge Miriam Center & Me!
Photo by Jon Waits
The great Miriam Center, at Johnny Mercer's gravesite in Bonaventure Cemetery.

I'VE GOT a birthday coming up, which is always an opportunity to obsess about the ephemerality of this one-way road trip.

This year, however, I’m swearing off my usual macabre preoccupations with life’s fleeting journey. Now that I’ve finally burned through the formidable reserves of my youthful angst, I figure I might coast on the plateau of middle age for a nice stretch before any sign of a final destination looms in the headlights.

But it looks like I picked the wrong week to stop fretting over my mortality, ‘cause right out of the gate, Miriam Center wants to talk about death.

It makes sense, really. The legendary local has never been one for social small talk, catching you up in her level gaze to tell you exactly what’s on her mind. And we are on our way to Bonaventure Cemetery, after all.

Plus, she just turned 90, a milestone not too many folks stick around to see.

“It’s a long goddamn time to be alive,” agrees Miriam amiably as she slides into my old Mercedes and slams the door.

“But I’m not afraid of what comes next. Are you scared of dying?”

I laugh nervously and mumble something about trying not to get us killed in the afternoon traffic snarl on Victory Drive. We cruise past Bonaventure’s wrought iron gates to the back, where the tallest trees sweep the tops of the oldest tombs with their sleeves of moss. With her red lipstick, a leopard scarf and Holly Golightly sunglasses—the style trifecta of timeless Hollywood glamour—Miriam stands out like a rose in a wheat field.

“It’s fucking ridiculous the way people pretend they’re not going to die,” she says as she strides through the somber gray and green hues.

“We’re all gonna be under these stones one day. We should talk about it.”

She points out this family name and that, telling of Savannah scandals long forgotten until we arrive at the burial plot of celebrated songwriter Johnny Mercer, her good pal who passed away in 1976. They both grew up in Savannah, but they didn’t meet until in 1963, after she was married with children and he was already an Academy Award-winning superstar.

She sings a few bars of “Tangerine,” dusts off the engraved marble bench with the palm of her hand, plops down and tells me the story.

“I sat on his lap at a party. He started singing to me one of his songs, ‘you must have been a beautiful baby...but baby, you got a fat ass!’” she finishes with a cackle.

After Johnny was introduced to Miriam’s tush, their snappy rapport deepened when he moved back to Savannah from Hollywood to care for his ailing mother. She was still mourning the death of her 15 year-old son, Henry, from a brain tumor. When Johnny announced he was terminally ill with the same fate, their relationship became profoundly devoted, though always platonic.

“He was just an extraordinary man. We would just talk and sing and laugh and cry,” she remembers, tracing his likeness on the bench. “He could also be a real shit when he was drunk.”

Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit cussing.

click to enlarge Miriam Center & Me!
Miriam and Johnny Mercer in London circa 1970.

One of Miriam’s many charms is her gleeful swearing—she could definitely teach a sailor a thing or two—and I find this delightfully contagious as we kibbitz. As we f-bomb the hell out of the early afternoon graveyard hebetude, I marvel that couched in the rounded vowels of Miriam’s elegant Savannah drawl, profanity somehow comes out sounding musical.

Musicals are what made Johnny famous, of course, and we’re here to pay homage to Mr. Moon River in advance of this week’s production of Johnny Mercer & Me!, Miriam’s original play about their huckleberry friendship. Skylark fans adored it when it was last onstage in 2012, and it’s being reprised for one night only on Thursday, September 22 at the Lucas Theatre.

Presented by the Savannah Community Theatre and directed by native thespian Tom Coleman III, the show stars longtime Mercer impressionist Jeffery Hall and lovely vocalist Regina Rossi Valentine in the titular roles. All proceeds go to Senior Citizens, Inc. save for $1 that goes to the historic preservation of the dreamy art deco Lucas. (Speaking of fine-looking nonagenerians, the Lucas itself celebrates 95 years on Sept. 23.)

Weaving the stories she wrote with the help of late Savannah State professor Dr. Ja Janhannes, the musical features 16 Mercer tunes that illuminate a turning point in Miriam’s life. She had just hit her mid-40s, and she didn’t know yet that her best adventures were yet to come.

She started her own real estate business and was instrumental in the construction of the Civic Center. The unapologetic liberal ran for city council twice and was appointed the first female director of the MPC. She wrote a novel, Scarlett O’Hara Can Go To Hell. In the 80s, after her two remaining sons, Tony and Scott, were grown, she divorced her husband, Leo, bought a convertible and sped off to California.

There she had a spiritual awakening that led her from white-robed cults to transcendental meditation to a degree in spiritual psychology from the University of Santa Monica. Finally, her West Coast journey brought her all the way back home, though hardly the same woman.

“There are so many aspects to a person, and most of us never even scratch the surface of who we are,” she says thoughtfully as we walk back to the car. “I’m so glad I’ve had so many experiences.”

It’s no wonder that Miriam has no problem standing up to death. She’s always followed her buddy Johnny’s admonition to “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” and if that doesn’t work, fill the days with wine and roses.

And carbs.

“You know what sounds good?” she says as we pull away from the cemetery. “Krispy Kreme. Let’s stop and get a box.”

Dammit, looks like I picked the wrong week to quit gluten. (Again.)

As we devour glazed old-fashioneds at her kitchen table, she tells me about growing up the daughter of immigrants from Belarus and being ostracized from the sororities at Savannah High for being Jewish.

“I didn’t care,” she says, tossing her shoulders with a mischievous grin.

“I was popular with the boys, and that was all that mattered.”

She voted for FDR for his last term and is thoroughly disgusted with the current state of political affairs. “If Trump gets elected, I’m fucking moving to Italy,” she says, daintily licking her fingers.

The only thing on the counter is a bottle of gummy vitamins, and she says the secret to her vitality is to avoid “all those damn medications they’re always trying to shove down old people’s throats.”

“That, and good sex,” she says with a raised eyebrow as longtime paramour John Patterson strolls in the door.

John gave her an exquisite triangle-shaped ring recently, but she hasn’t gotten around to setting a date for a wedding.

“I said I was engaged,” she giggles. “I didn’t say I was gonna get married!”

She sees Thursday’s show as a warm-up to the only item left on her bucket list: To take Johnny Mercer & Me! to a New York stage. “Other than that, I’ve done everything. I’ve already lived forever!”

I’m considering the math that Miriam is exactly twice my age when she pushes away her plate and trains her twinkling peepers on me. “So? Are you scared of death?”

Not as much as I am of not living, I tell her.

“Well then, you should have another donut, dahlin’,” she nods.

I help myself. We all end up at the same rainbow’s end anyway, and the only real wisdom is to enjoy the ride.


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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