Friday, April 15, 2016

GINGER MERCER: THE WOMAN BEHIND THE LYRICS


Ginger Mercer was born Elizabeth Meltzer on June 25, 1909 in Brooklyn, New York, one of three daughters born to Anna and Joseph Meltzer. Specially gifted from childhood, Ginger studied piano and dance and made her stage debut at age 16 under the stage name “Ginger Meehan.” From the mid-1920s through approximately 1930 Ginger appeared as a dancer in numerous shows, including Honeymoon Lane (1926), in which Kate Smith made her debut, and the 1930 production of Ruth Selwyn’s Nine-Fifteen Review.

While a member of the cast of the Garrick Gaieties of 1930 Ginger met an aspiring actor named Johnny Mercer, who had moved to New York from Savannah, Georgia to try his hand at a show business career. Mercer had hoped to win a role in the Gaieties, but instead placed one of his songs in the show and met Ginger, his future wife. Their courtship continued throughout 1930 and 1931, complicated by the separations they endured as each of their shows toured from city to city, and the two were finally married in New York City on June 8, 1931. They raised two children, Georgia Amanda (known as “Mandy,” the inspiration for the Mercer song “Mandy is Two”) and John Jefferson (known as “Jeff”), during a marriage that lasted 45 years, until Johnny’s death.

Their marriage was not always a happy one. Johnny Mercer had a scandalous affair with a young rising super star in 1940. That superstar was Judy Garland. 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. 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.


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.


In his last year, Mercer became fond of pop singer Barry Manilow, in part because Manilow's first hit record was of a song titled "Mandy", which was also the name of Mercer's daughter Amanda. After Mercer's death in 1976 from a brain tumor, his widow, Ginger Mehan Mercer, arranged to give some unfinished lyrics he had written to Manilow to possibly develop into complete songs. Among these was a piece titled "When October Goes", a melancholy remembrance of lost love. Manilow applied his own melody to the lyric and issued it as a single in 1984, when it became a top 10 Adult Contemporary hit in the United States. The song has since become a jazz standard, with notable recordings by Rosemary Clooney and Nancy Wilson, among other performers.

Following her husband’s death, Ginger traveled widely and spent much of her time promoting her husband’s legacy. In 1982, she founded the Johnny Mercer Foundation, a charitable foundation that awards grants to songwriters and contributes funds to charities and non-profit organizations in the arts, to selected medical sciences, and to projects commemorating Johnny Mercer.

Ginger Mercer died at the age of 85 on October 21,1994...


1 comment:

  1. Once again....a story I never heard of before. That Judy certainly got around!

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