Great lyricist, mean drunk: Johnny Mercer's tangled story is still being told
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 16 November 2004)

Set 'em up, Joe, I've got a little story you ought to know. It concerns a lyricist, Johnny Mercer (1906-1976), who wrote that line in 1943, one of his best years, when he was riding on top of the music business in Los Angeles, turning out some of the most popular songs in America.

He had more hits than anyone else, producers were begging him to write for their movies, he was collaborating with the great composer Harold Arlen and he owned a large share of Capitol Records, a flourishing company he had founded. His easygoing, sweet-natured singing style made him a popular guest on the big radio shows. Oscar Hammerstein called him "the most perfect American lyricist alive."

It goes without saying, of course, that he was miserable. This is a story, after all, and it needs a little plot and a trace of mystery. Mercer's life provides both. His misery has a small place in history because he expressed it through several famous songs, thereby installing it in the imagination of millions. Mercer wrote hit-parade lyrics, a category that's easy to deride, but he was no hack. His work reflected his life, as any poet's does.

In One for My Baby, that famous soliloquy delivered to Joe the bartender, the singer says they are "drinking, my friend, to the end of a brief episode." Mercer and Arlen wrote it for Fred Astaire to sing in a now forgotten movie about a test pilot, The Sky's the Limit. But, as Gene Lees tells us in his new biography, Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer (Pantheon), the words were charged with private emotion.

The woman was Judy Garland. Three years earlier, when she was 18 and Mercer was 30, they had become lovers. To the astonishment and dismay of his friends, he decided (as he wrote in That Old Black Magic) that she was "the lover I have waited for/The mate that fate had me created for." Ever after, he called her his one great love, "the one who made my dreams come true," as he wrote of her in I Remember You.

Even Hollywood considered their affair scandalous. Mercer was married and Garland had played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz only a year before; she was scarcely out of childhood. Friends demanded they end their relationship, which may be why One for My Baby suggests that the episode is finished. In fact, they remained on-and-off lovers for decades.

The Mercers stayed married until his death but his wife, Ginger, was not pleased. For the rest of her days she wouldn't allow a mention of either Garland or I Remember You in her presence. She pointedly omitted I Remember You from Our Huckleberry Friend: The Life, Times, and Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, which she and Bob Bach edited in 1982. The Garland episode and its ramifications were described last year in Philip Furia's excellent Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer (St. Martin's Press).

Gene Lees, a Canadian who has written more than a dozen books about music, has the advantage of a long friendship with the Mercers. That's also a disadvantage, since it results in Lees popping up often in the narrative, sometimes obscuring our view of the subject.

He works through the Garland story and its ramifications and also takes us into another aspect of Mercer's life, his alcoholism. As Lees understands it, One for My Baby not only mourns lost love but also amounts to a self-portrait of Mercer as a drunk, charting in a few words his progress through a drinking bout "from melancholy to maudlin through aggression to remorse."

On that list, "aggression" is the significant word. As Furia and Lees both explain, the amiability Mercer showed in public had a dark side, revealed only in private and then only from time to time: He was a hideously mean drunk. David Raksin, one of the leading film composers of his day and Mercer's co-author of Laura, told Lees that alcohol revealed Mercer as a profoundly angry man. "I think he was one of those guys from whom rage springs undiluted. All of a sudden it comes pouring out, and you've got to know it's hell in there."

Mercer might denounce almost anyone within range (once he accused Irving Berlin of lacking talent) but Ginger was his most frequent victim. Lees was there when Mercer said to her, "What are you? Just an ugly old woman who keeps hanging around." Alan Livingston, an executive at Capitol Record, remembers that "when he drank, he became a monster. I was sitting next to him at a party when he took his drink and poured it over Ginger's head." Remorse would follow, then a repetition.

Part of him clearly hated Ginger, but he had other sources of frustration. His career seemed a great success to others, but it disappointed him. He brooded, accentuating the negative. He dreamt of a big Broadway musical with plenty of hit songs but never managed to write one. In the 1960s he complained that his kind of music was being shoved aside by rock 'n' roll, though at the time all the ballad singers were still choosing his songs (as they do today). He seems to have felt he was slipping even before he actually slipped, as if he couldn't wait for failure to find him. As a rueful joke, he sometimes sang a medley of his flops.

Much of his success was grounded in his ability to capture the feelings evoked by nostalgia for an earlier America. He filled his songs with haunting train whistles, meadowlarks, folks sitting quietly on porches and blues in the night, putting to good use his boyhood in Savannah, Ga. He went back to that source to find the words for his last great hit, Moon River, written in 1961 for Audrey Hepburn to sing in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Mercer had her call a river "my huckleberry friend," a line that was puzzling till he explained that he used to pick huckleberries by a river near Savannah. He also liked the word because it made a connection to Mark Twain's great novel and all the emotion it evoked. After Mercer died the county government honoured him by renaming that favourite place Moon River.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page