Profile written and provided courtesy Nowell Briscoe ( nowellbriscoe@bellsouth.net )

 

MICHAEL GREER

GRAND IN THE “GREER MANNER”

 

        While his parents were noted for their community endeavors in Monroe, Michael Greer went a step further. He had the distinction of being known in the New York Times and Atlanta papers as well as his hometown paper.  He was as well known in New York, Washington and California society circles as he was in Monroe. He left his hometown to achieve great success and acclaim as an internationally known interior decorator and designer but not under the name he was born with.

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

        As a young boy growing up in a boarding house surrounded by people from all 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 possibly came from being amidst those early gatherings in his parent’s boarding house.

        From an interview with 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 to do graduate work.  Speaking to another reporter 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.  After becoming her student, Calhoun saw in Michael raw, untapped talent waiting to bloom.  Charles Sapp Funderburk, a fellow student who became a close friend, went on to become a benefactor and major supporter of Furman.  As a tribute to his contributions to Furman, Michael was asked to design and furnish a public reception room in McAllister Hall, which he happily agreed to do.  Before graduating from Furman he redecorated the house of his fraternity, the Kappa Alpha House.  Wishing to leave a lasting monument to his artistry at the university, he designed and created the Greer Memorial Fountain as a tribute to his parents, which was dedicated on October 3, 1963.  Made of bronze and marble, the fountain continues to be in use today.

        Completing his studies at UNC, Michael was drafted into the Air Force in September of 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.  Leaving the service he enrolled in the Parsons School of Design and the New York School of Design.

        During the Korean War he was recalled to active duty again serving a year in Greenland and ended up in service at Fort Bragg. While there 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 time spent in India and China he took time to study and learn the rich heritage and furnishings of these countries. During his career he used a great number of oriental pieces in his designs.  A man of firm convictions who never missed an opportunity to educate those around him on decorating, a typical Greer comment on Chinese porcelain goes like this: “I like Chinese porcelain vases for lamps.  One of my pet peeves is to hear anyone use the word ‘china’ in reference to an article because China is a place!”

        Returning back to Monroe for a short time after his military obligations were completed and having received his credentials from his correspondence course, he visited with family and friends before moving to New York where he joined the oldest design firm in the country, Nancy McClelland, Inc. and remained there for eleven years before opening his own company, Michael Greer Interiors at 75 East 56th Street.

        In an interview for the Atlanta Journal/Constitution Sunday Magazine section 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 a former governor.  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 as gifts from him.  Another Monroe home he decorated was that of his close friend, Mrs. Henry Tichenor along with the Atlanta home of his brother, Tom Greer.

        Michael was one of the founders and an early president of the National Society of Interior Decorators.  His appreciation of American antiques gained him an invitation to decorate rooms in the White House during the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

        Loving the society atmosphere, he often surrounded himself with celebrities who often times fought with each other wanting to be the first to capture his expertise in their homes.  Michael told another reporter, “I love to entertain, especially for people of accomplishment.”  It was from these dinner parties and gatherings he hosted in his New York apartments that provided him the clients who wanted their homes to reflect “The Greer Look”.

        Books were a particular passion of his and he read as often as his busy schedule permitted.  The Monroe-Walton County 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, now the Monroe Art Guild, a large number of books given to the library by Michael were displayed in appreciation of his generosity.

        Possessing a fertile and active imagination, much of it gained from what he read, He was often in demand as a lecturer and his audiences were delighted with his flawless, undeviating taste as he peppered his talks with decorating tips, wit and humor.  Always one to speak his mind no matter what the occasion, he once talked of the strict way he ran his design firm. “If you come to see Michael Greer, you SEE Michael Greer” he blasted once after losing a client who came to see him and left in a huff because an assistant waited on her.

        In the late 60’s to help ease his demanding lecture schedule, he wrote, “Inside Design”, to showcase his knowledge and appreciation in the field of interior design.  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, but 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 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 on an iron bed once belonging to Napoleon Bonaparte.  As in life, his death made headlines around the globe.  His business manager was charged with the murder and spent many years in prison.

        Michael returned to his beloved Monroe for the final time where funeral services were held at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church and his ashes interred here in the family plot. Because of the nature and brutality of his death, his brother decided against having a marker indicate his burial site.  Since I attended the graveside service, I can tell you exactly where his ashes rest….right here!

        There are still people in Monroe who remember Michael Greer as an elegant, sophisticated, outspoken Southern gentleman whose talent as a designer and decorator knew no equal.  His unique knowledge and expertise brought fame and honor to Monroe and to those friends and associates who wanted their homes and businesses to be “Grand in the Greer Manner.”