Savannah residents are remembering a vocal advocate for one of the city's most famous native sons.
Nancy Gerard, a niece of the prolific late songwriter Johnny Mercer, died on Friday.
Gerard kept her uncle's legacy alive through media and school appearances.
"His father once asked him, 'Well, son, how do you do this?'" Gerard told GPB in 2008. "And he said, 'Well, pop, I just get in tune with the infinite.'"
Mercer wrote classic American tunes such as "Autumn Leaves," "Moon River" and "The Days of Wine and Roses."
She was 72 years old.
Her family provided GPB with the following memorial, written by Savannah writer Betty Darby:
Scrapbooks generally are a strange mix of ego and sentiment – little collections of paper ephemera of little interest even to their own subjects within a few years of being stuck together. But Nancy Mercer Keith Gerard’s scrapbook is a different family treasure entirely. This aging compilation of newspaper clippings and photos and invitations was put together by Nancy in the early 1970s as a sort of introduction of herself to the father she had not seen since infancy. Thirty-some years of a classic “old Savannah” childhood and the young woman it nurtured are displayed there to show Henry “Hank” Keith a glimpse of what he missed in his oldest child’s life. And, along the way, she captured a bit of what it must have been like to “grow up Mercer” in the history-loving town where her beloved Uncle Bubba was Savannah’s favorite son, Johnny Mercer.
Steve Gerard, Nancy’s husband of 44 years, tells the story of the scrapbook. Nancy’s mother was Johnny’s sister, his only sibling to survive childhood. That gave Nancy her direct blood link to an old Savannah name whose fortunes had been restored by the enduring talents and success of the Oscar-winning lyricist – and Johnny set great store by family ties, as we will see. Unfortunately, as present and solid as her mother’s side of the family was during Nancy’s growing up, her father’s side was absent. Divorce split the little family up within months of Nancy’s birth. Within another year, World War II scattered the men of her father’s generation across the globe. Nancy would not see Hank or even know much about him until she was 29 years old. Johnny – Uncle Bubba - served instead as her virtual father.
Nancy enjoyed a happy youth, remembers childhood friend Stratton Leopold.
“We talked about this all the time. Christmas mornings on Gwinnett Street were vitally remembered by the sound of roller skates on brick – that’s what the streets there were paved with at the time. That was our memory of Christmas morning, the sound of skates, the kind that you locked to your shoes,” Stratton says.
Those roller-skating skills came in handy some 20 years later, when Nancy’s colleagues at the Bronx veterans’ hospital thought it would be fun to see what a freshly transplanted Southerner could do on the ice at a nearby neighborhood skating rink. She may have been new to the ice, but her dancer’s background from Savannah Little Theatre productions and her childhood roller-skating days kept her upright – and attracted the attention of Steve Gerard, her future husband, a New York lawyer just launching his career.
“Nancy grew up on Gwinnett at Lincoln [streets], and I was at Gwinnett on Habersham,” recalls Stratton. “Johnny was friends with my dad and he was always in the shop when he was in town.”
The shop he refers to is Leopold’s Ice Cream Shop, a Savannah classic he has recreated (albeit several blocks away) after returning to Savannah in the midst of a successful movie production career. And the original shop figures in the story of two friends. Growing up, the two worked together in a number of Savannah theatrical performances, both Little Theatre and at Armstrong College. When life took Nancy in and out of town, she would announce her return to Savannah by bursting through the ice cream shop door with a rendition of one of the musical numbers they liked, be it from “Leave It to Jane” or “Oklahoma.”
A Brief Time on the Boards
Nancy’s career was as an occupational therapist with a particular talent for working with children, and she practiced both in hospitals and in private practice in New Jersey. She practiced at St. Joseph's/Candler Hospital in Savannah when Steve retired 13 years ago in New Jersey and the couple relocated to Nancy’s hometown.
But for a few shining years in her youth, Nancy was a star of the stage, at least in Savannah, which had a thriving local theater scene at the time.
“We did plays together at Armstrong [Junior College] back in those days,” recalls Stratton. “I remember doing Leave it to Jane and we did Aristophanes’ The Birds and we did summer theater out at Barbee’s Pavilion out at Isle of Hope. In the summer, Little Theatre put on a summer musical.”
So, was Nancy any good at these amateur theatricals?
“She was great. I had a fatal weakness for dancers. She was very talented as an actress and especially singing. She had an amazing voice,” Stratton says.
C. Robert (Bob) Jones remembers Nancy’s performing years well.
“I directed The Little Theatre there between 1962 and 1966, and Nancy appeared in two of the musicals (The King and I and The Pajama Game) during that period--and did lights and sound on several other shows. She was an absolute delight in all of those associations--fun, upbeat, energetic . . . and so enormously talented. She became a special friend during that time, and has remained so for the past 50 years,” Bob writes in an email when asked about the young performer.
Bob - who is writing a book about his own Savannah experiences, in which the Mercer family plays no small role – strikes a nostalgic note when he writes about his former young star. “I regret that neither Steve nor their children ever got to see her at that particular point in her life. She was quite magical onstage--actor, singer, dancer. She had it all.”
However, Steve did get to see her perform in New Jersey in shows such as “West Side Story,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Nancy’s poignant scrapbook opens with pictures of her as a baby, including a shot of her wearing a bulky cloth diaper and a smile, captioned “First summer at Tybee.”
In the ’40s and ’50s, before air conditioning was a given for even the well-to-do, the hallmark of a privileged childhood was to summer at Tybee Island’s beach. Judging from the scrapbook’s evidence, most if not all of Nancy’s childhood summers were spent there.
There’s further proof of privilege: elementary school photos at the Pape School, which had morphed into Savannah Country Day School by the time Nancy graduated in the late 1950s. Then there’s the pièce de résistance of Savannah social life of the time: an invitation to a debutant ball on Christmas night, 1959, and a photo of Nancy and her cousins in their white gowns.
So how did a child of a single-parent family, rare in those days and in that particular social strata, gain entrée to the likes of cotillions and private schools? Look no further than Uncle Bubba, who took family responsibilities seriously and, thanks to his flourishing career, could afford the perks of privilege for his only niece, says Steve of his wife’s famous relative.
But back to the scrapbook. Remember, it was composed for a specific purpose – to reintroduce two strangers who were father and daughter.
Steve takes up the story at this point, and it goes like this:
He and Nancy were now married and had begun raising their own family in New York, where Steve’s law practice was centered. Nancy was now curious about her own father, of whom she had no memories. Steve agreed to help her find the long-lost Hank Keith.
It is easy to forget, in these days of Internet search capabilities, just how hard it used to be for a private citizen to find someone they’d lost touch with decades earlier. It was slow, hard work with no guarantee of success.
Steve remembers both Nancy and himself putting in hours at Rockefeller Center, which in those days maintained a collection of telephone directories from around the country. No luck. Steve put the task to a credit agency he was familiar with, and they found some folks with that name but not Nancy’s father. Then, Steve used his Army Reserve officer status to inquire about Hank’s service record, since one of the few things the couple knew about him was that he had been in the Army Air Corps.
The military link brought one nugget of information: the California title insurance company where Hank had gone to work after his World War II service 20-something years earlier. What were the odds that he was still there? Never heard of him, the switchboard operator at the company said. (Turns out, it was a temp operator who was working that particular day.)
So the search was pretty much dead-ended. But a few months later, the credit agency called Steve with the news that they thought they had something. Hank had remarried and the telephone was listed in his wife’s name. The wife answered the phone and sent Steve on to the same insurance company he had tried earlier – the one where Hank had worked for 20-plus years. They had their man.
Long, emotional, tearful phone calls followed, and a week later Nancy, 18-month-old daughter Lily in tow, set out for the West Coast and a father/daughter reunion and to meet half-siblings she had not known existed. Steve remembers that despite the fact it didn’t begin until Nancy was 29, the two enjoyed an excellent relationship through the rest of Hank Keith’s life.
A touch of Johnny
Johnny Mercer served as father figure for his niece and bankrolled Nancy’s college education, too, Steve says. He remembers his wife telling him that, when her career as an occupational therapist was established, she approached Mercer and said it was time she began paying him back. He assured her there was no need, “but promise me if I am ever down and out, you’ll pass the hat for me,” Gerard said.
Of course Nancy never had to pass the hat for her uncle. But she did perform a valuable service for him, even after his death in 1976. Fame comes with a price, and part of that price is gossip. Nancy took a vocal, personal approach to celebrate and preserve Johnny Mercer’s memory in not only larger musical circles but in his hometown as well. Always eager to respect her uncle’s wishes, she keeps his philanthropic generosity private and continues to dismiss scandalmongers.
For the Johnny Mercer Centennial in 2009, she rallied the family. She was always available for interviews spotlighting her Uncle Bubba. She served on the city’s centennial committee, co-chaired the statue committee and was an active member of The Friends of Johnny Mercer, Inc.
All of Nancy’s memorial work had an unexpected side effect, recalls Jim Corwin, Johnny’s grandson. It brought together two segments of the family – Nancy and most of her children on the East Coast, Mercer’s daughter Amanda and her children and grandchildren on the West Coast.
“No one was mad at anybody, or anything like that, but it’s a big continent,” Jim said. The relatives had drifted apart, but Nancy’s zeal reunited them.
For her four children – David, Robbie, Steve, and Lily, - and three grandchildren, this daughter of Savannah still loves the joys of her youth: music, ice cream, family, friends, and laughter.
Yes, perhaps Nancy did end up “passing the hat” on behalf of her beloved uncle – not for money, however, but for a renewal to “Ac-Cen-tchu-ate the Positive” in good times and bad along life’s way.