“It is still somewhat surprising that his true son of the South, while neither a Good Ole Boy not an out-and-out Bible-smacker, was quire moralistic, even among the heathens of show biz. He did read the Bible often, he never used directly erotic lyrics, and he was openly angered by Tennessee Williams’ preoccupation with depravity in bayou country Johnny Mercer was basically an Ivy Leaguer, much more in the Walker Percy image than Capote, Williams or the current playwrights of off-off Broadway” (Bob Bach, Our Huckleberry Friend).
Mel Torme that Mercer’s generosity and encouragement were legendary in the music world. Unlike “most” songwriters, Mercer “encouraged new, young talent and genuinely enjoyed listening to other people’s musical brainchildren.”
Johnny Mercer was known as a mean drunk. But writers on Mercer’s life gave him a pass on his boozing lifestyle. The finest article I found on Mercer’s career, written by Ruth Huskey for her magazine Yesterday in l991 fifteen years after his death (“Biography of Johnny Mercer”) failed to even mention Mercer’s private life of alcoholism and accompanying abuse. For example, in a new book about “the golden age of American popular music” Wilfrid Sheed writes that Mercer was “the meanest, cruelest, nastiest drunk this side of James Thurber” but that “one reason Johnny didn’t quit is that it seems to have cost him no friends that he couldn’t win back the next day. Nobody took it personally, for long at any rate. Whoever this foul-mouthed demon might be, he clearly wasn’t the real Johnny Mercer.” Whatever.
He started boozing early in his life and really hit his stride with Bing Crosby in the mid-1930s. Furia writes, “The intensity of the memory of Mercer’s virulence made the friend speak of his attacks in the present tense. After a moment, he reverted to the past. ‘John was never, in my opinion, a happy man.’ . . . when he was on this tear he would ruin your party, by just being rude. I guess all creative people have these demons roiling and broiling inside them, and parts of them that are at war with each other, and it probably comes out when they’ve had a taste of drink.” By l937 Mercer had joined Crosby carousing circle called “The Westwood Marching and Chowder Club” (a throwback to Crosby Puget Sound days) which included Bob Hope among other Hollywood biggies. The “Chowder Club” put on minstrel shows for local amusement and produced a hit duet between Mercer and Crosby in 1938 called “Mr. Crosby and Mr. Mercer.”
Another story on Mercer and his boozing: Mercer’s collaboration with the gentle and sweet composer Harold Arlen produced wonderful songs during the 40s and 50s. Mercer appalled Arlen with his drunken behavior. Furia again” “One night the two men were eating dinner at a restaurant in Greenwich Village when Mercer suddenly began tearing the restaurant apart, furniture and all, and hurling racial slurs at the black waiters in a fit of drunken violence. On another occasion, at another party Mercer ruined he vehemently turned on Arlen, saying, ‘I don’t understand your music,’ and threw a punch at the composer.”
Mercer’s Racial Ambivalence
It has been noted that alone among the great composers and lyricist of the first have of the 20th century, Mercer was influenced by the music of blacks from childhood on. Johnny grew up in a Savannah household that referred to blacks as “darkies.” Momma Mercer didn’t like son Johnny’s publicly putting his arm around Nat King Cole. She scolded her son, “We don’t do things like that down here.” Most of his musical colleagues and collaborators (Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter the major exceptions) were from the urban East Coast, and primarily Jewish. There are many stories of Mercer’s kindness and generosity toward black musicians and acquaintances as an adult. For instance, Mercer went to the Newport Jazz Festival in l957 to sing “Happy Birthday” to Louis Armstrong on his 56th birthday party. Mercer writes, “a colored maid once said to me, ‘I am really surprised you are white, Mr. Mercer, we have always claimed you as one of our own.’ I received a postcard from the Abraham Lincoln Junior Boys Club of Chicago, upon which was written; ‘Dear Johnny mercer: we have taken a vote and are pleased to inform you that you have been voted the most successful young colored singer of the year. Sincerely yours (signed) T.A.L.B.C.’ I’ve still got it.”
But there is also the demon specter racism, sometimes explained away by drunkenness, sometimes an evil soul. He once wrote, “Every black I ever liked has conquered his blackness – is a civilized man of dignity and independence. Few are pure black . . . they are not angry. Inside perhaps – but they have overcome their anger and have been too busy overcoming life to stay mad.” Another quote, “Do you know what NAACP stands for? Niggers Ain’t Acting like Colored People.” Phillip Furia opines: “Johnny Mercer, who was raised by a black nurse and played with black children, was completely comfortable in the presence of blacks and could show genuine warmth toward them. It was whey they forgot their place that disturbed and bewildered him, having only treated them with loving kindness.”
Mercer married Ginger Meehan, a Jewish woman whose real name was Elizabeth Meltzer, who had no use for Christianity and Mercer’s Episcopalian roots. His family objected to him marrying her, as well. He wanted children, she did not and the speculation was that her reasoning was rooted in their religious differences. Gene Lees writes that John would say, “Can’t we just go to church on Sunday and be a family?” She never did consent to attend a church service.
Relationship to his parents
Johnny adored and respected his father, George, and loved and doted on his mother, Lillian.
The Mercer adopted two children: Amanda (1940) and John Jefferson (1947). As a grandfather of two (and hopefully more) wonderful little granddaughters Jeff’s view on adoption bears a long quote: “The old laws are disgraceful. What right do people have, when they adopt a child, to exclusion? The child should have superseding right to know the facts. There should be no such thing as closed adoptions. Everything should be public. The child has a right to the facts –first of all, for health reasons. . . My mom had the information all the time and she finally, in a sarcastic way, gave it to me. My birth parents were from Georgia. It was out of wedlock. They were going to get married. They were real proper. And so they put me up for adoption. They probably got married and had three of four kids anyway . . . . . It’s a matter of your heritage. All my father was interested in was heritage, and you’d thin he might have pushed for it for me. I think it was mainly my mother who didn’t want to deal with it.” There is no record of why the Mercers didn’t not have biological children.
In l941, 32-year-old Mercer began a public and long-term sexual relationship with 19-year-old Judy Garland who was engaged to composer David Rose at the time. Rose married Garland causing Mercer to be so devastated that he wrote the lyrics to the song “I Remember You.” The more profound lyric, however, came in his poignant torch song “One for My Baby” written in l943 with Harold Arlen. He wrote the lyrics on a napkin while drinking at P. J. Clark’s Restaurant on Third Avenue in Manhattan. Tom Joyce was the bartender that night. The story is told that the next day Mercer called Joyce and apologized by saying, “I couldn’t get your name to rhyme.” My family and I have enjoyed dinners at Clarks in the past.
In 2009, the actor-producer-musician-composer Clint Eastwood produced a scrubbed documentary on Mercer entitled “The Dream’s On Me” which is available for purchase.
Hugh Martin, the late composer, music arranger and late-in-life Seventh Day Adventist evangelical, said of Mercer long-time and public infidelities with Judy Garland, “Neither of them had a very high moral account.”
Mercer was a Southern Democrat and not as liberal as his New York born and raised Jewish wife, Ginger.
The Mercer’s long time cook, Nancy Lee Green attended a Savannah Black church and Johnny paid for a new roof for the church building.
Gene Lees maintains that Mercer loved to attend church: “He loved to go to church. He went to a little Episcopal church every Sunday, whenever he could. . . And although he was a conventionally religious Episcopalian, John said to me, ‘The theater is our modern church.’” His former son-in-law, Bob Corwin, said that in addition to a hit Broadway show he would have liked to have written a hit Christmas song.”