GRAND IN THE “GREER MANNER”

By Nowell Briscoe

 

          Over the years, Monroe has the great honor of having produced quite a few notable individuals of accomplished merit.  Monroe has been called “home” by governors, state senators & representatives, wartime heroes, university presidents along with others who held high office in their chosen professions.  One person in this elite category had the distinction of being featured in the New York Times and the Atlanta papers along with society magazines and other newsworthy media from coast to coast.  He was as well known in New York and Washington, DC circles as he was in Monroe.  A man born into a prominent family already known for their civic contributions to the city who went on to achieve great success and acclaim as an internationally known interior decorator and designer. His name was Michael Greer.

          Joseph Cay Greer, Jr. was born in Monroe on September 19, 1917 to Bessie Moore and Joseph Cay Greer but had his named legally changed to Joseph Michael Greer later in life as his prominence rose in the field of interior design.

          Michael’s parents were widely known as the owners and operators of “The Greer House”, a boarding house and restaurant, which was the focus of one of my columns last year.  As a young boy growing up in a boarding house surrounded by people from various walks of life, it is easy to see where he developed his charm and ease around people.  His penchant for entertaining at lavish parties and soirees very possibly came from being amidst these early gatherings at his parent’s boarding house.

          When interviewed by a reporter in 1969 about growing up in a small town, Michael replied, “I enjoyed growing up in Monroe.  It was a nice, quiet town.  I have always been fascinated by the way people live and I began early on to observe the way things were done in the homes in Monroe.”

          Michael Greer graduated from Monroe High School, attended Emory-at-Oxford and transferred to Furman University where he graduated in 1939.  Leaving Furman, he entered the University of North Carolina where he did graduate work.  In another interview reflecting on his years at Furman he recalled, “Originally I wanted to be an architect, but was poor in math so I took a course in interior design to be close to a girl I was dating.  I was the first boy ever to take such a course on the girl’s “campus”.  During his sophomore year he studied interior design under Catherine Calhoun.  His courses were “Principles of Art and Design” and “Home Planning & Furnishings”.  Catherine Calhoun was a major influence in his studies and she saw in Michael raw, fresh untapped talent waiting to bloom.  One of Michael’s friends and classmates at Furman was Claude Sapp Funderburk, who went on to become a major supporter and benefactor of Furman.  In tribute to Mr. Funderburk and his wife, a public reception room was built in their honor in McAllister Hall.  Michael Greer was asked to design and furnish the room which he happily agreed to honor his old friend. Possibly his very first professional decorating job, prior to his graduation from Furman, was redecorating the house of his fraternity, The Kappa Alpha House.  Wanting to leave a lasting monument at Furman to his artistry, he designed and created the Greer Memorial Fountain as a tribute to his parents, which he dedicated on October 3, 1963.  The fountain was made of bronze and marble and is still in use today.

          Completing his studies at UNC, Michael was drafted in the Air Force in September 1941.  He rose in the ranks from private to major of the military personnel during the first half of his four and a half year stint in China and India.  After his release from active duty, he enrolled in the Parsons School of Design and the New York School of Design.

          Recalled to active duty again during the Korean War, Michael served a year in Greenland and upon returning to service at Fort Bragg, he took a correspondence course in interior design, carefully hiding his notebooks and papers from his barracks buddies under a false bottom in his foot locker.

          During the time he spent in India and China, Michael took full advantage of the rich heritage and furnishings of these countries.  Recalling those times he said, “I went everywhere possible.”  One occasion found him as the guest of the King of Thailand’s brother at the Rice Palace and there he learned a great deal about oriental artifacts.  Throughout his career, he used a large number of oriental pieces in his designs.  A man of firm convictions who never missed an opportunity to educate those around him about decorating, a typical Greer comment on Chinese porcelain goes like this: “I like Chinese porcelain vases for lamps.  One of my pet hates is to hear anyone use the word ‘china’ in reference to an article because China is a place!”

          After his release from service at the end of the war, Michael returned to Monroe for a short time before moving to New York where he joined the oldest design firm in the country, Nancy McClelland, Inc. and remained there for eleven years until he began his own company, Michael Greer Interiors at 75 East 56th Street.

          In another interview in the 60’s, Michael was asked about his earliest interests in the design field to which he responded: “One of the first persons to encourage me to enter the field was Mrs. Clifford Walker of Monroe, whose husband was governor of Georgia.  One of my earliest decorating jobs was for my aunt, Mrs. John T. Stowers, whose husband was a prominent Monroe businessman.”  When Mrs. Stowers died, she possessed a large number of antique heirlooms, many of which came from her nephew’s suggestions and some as gifts.  He also decorated the home of his close friend, Mrs. Henry Tichenor as well as the Atlanta home of his brother, Tom Greer.

          As one of the founders and early presidents of The National Society of Interior Decorators, Greer suggested in 1959 that one of the rooms in the White House be furnished completely with American antiques.  This was done under the Eisenhower Administration and he helped raise the $155,000 it took to furnish the Diplomatic Reception Room.  This was not his only involvement with the White House décor.  During the Kennedy Administration, Mrs. Kennedy asked Michael to acquire wallpaper for various rooms and he worked with Mrs. Johnson when she prevailed upon him to add his “touch” to some of the public and private rooms of the White House.

          Celebrities who enlisted his help included: Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Bette Davis, Merle Oberon, Joan Bennett, Charlton Heston, Gloria Vanderbilt, Arlene Francis, Earl Blackwell and Gloria Swanson.

          Regarding his love of entertaining, Michael recalled, “I love to entertain, especially for people of accomplishment.” It was from the many dinner parties and gatherings he hosted in his New York apartment that he garnered many of his clients who wanted their homes to reflect “The Greer Look”.

          During his New York years, Michael had two beautiful apartments which he designed and furnished.  The first one was in the exclusive Turtle Bay area where a neighbor was Katharine Hepburn.  When this apartment was destroyed by fire, he moved to Fifth Avenue where this residence was described as “European in feeling, yet warmly inviting.”

          Books were a particular passion for Michael and he read as often as his busy schedule permitted.  The Monroe- Walton Country Library was the recipient of many books in memory of his parents during his life. When the library was housed in the old post office building, a large number of books given to the library by Greer were displayed in appreciation of his generosity.

          Possessing a fertile and active imagination along with his flawless undeviating taste, his lectures combined interior design and decorating with wit and humor.  He was first and foremost a people person and said on more than one occasion during the years he operated his design firm, “If you come to see Michael Greer, you SEE Michael Greer!”

          To help ease his demanding lecture schedule, in the 60’s he wrote two books on interior design.  The first, “Inside Design”, was his masterpiece.  Having a strongly held, almost empirical opinion on just about everything, he generously sprinkled his thoughts and opinions among the pages of the book, as some of the following quotes illustrate:

          “Too many flowers in a room imply the presence of a corpse and should be avoided at all costs, unless, of course, a corpse IS present.”

          “Without a border on a rug, you don’t have a rug; you have a piece of cloth lying there, like a towel.”

          “In today’s world when everyone knows what time it is there is no excuse for visible clocks unless they help to ornament the room in which they are visible.”

          The second book Michael wrote was an instructional guide for students seeking a career in interior design.  At the time of his death he was working on his autobiography which was to be entitled, “Confessions of an Interior Decorator.”  The book was never completed.

          The lavish and society studded life of Michael Greer came to a shocking and brutal end in April, 1976, when he was found murdered in his apartment. As in life, his death made headlines across the globe.  His business manager was charged with his death and spent many years in prison.

          Michael Greer returned to his beloved Monroe for the final time where funeral services were held at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church and his ashes were interred in the family plot in Rest Haven.

          Many people in Monroe still remember Michael Greer with fondness as an elegant, sophisticated, outspoken Southern gentleman whose talent as a designer and decorator knew no equal.  His talent and success brought fame and honor to Monroe but especially to those friends who wanted their homes and businesses to be “Grand in the Greer Manner.”