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OH, SAVANNAH IN FACT OR IN FICTION, ATLANTA WAS NEVER LIKE THIS, AND MORE'S THE PITY

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For those who would like an Olympic venue quieter and more
cultured than tomahawk-chopping Atlanta; who would rather sample
Southern hospitality washed down with juleps, not suds; who
would opt to sup on shrimp just hours removed from the ocean and
boiled in herbs rather than gorge themselves on corn dogs and
buffalo wings; who would prefer taking their shade beneath oaks
caped in Spanish moss to doing so under mirrored skyscrapers,
may we suggest the lovely and leisurely Savannah, satellite city
of the 1996 Games.

Savannah, a five-hour, 268-mile drive southeast from Atlanta, is
host to the yachting events. Yachting, we'll grant you, is a
fan-challenged activity. As boring as it is on television, it's
worse in person. Watching from a spectator boat as the Olympians
race in Wassaw Sound won't be any treat. The swells on the sound
usually run a stomach-churning three to six feet. The heat and
humidity in July and August are oppressive. And the mosquitoes
in midsummer are only slightly less voracious than the sand
gnats--the locals call them flying teeth--that drove sailors
batty in May during the U.S. Olympic trials. You might catch a
distant view of a couple of sails before your kids start
vomiting over the side and you develop sunstroke, but that's
about as good as it will get.

Still, for those intrepid few who make the trip, Savannah, which
will hold its own opening, closing and medal ceremonies,
promises to add a unique flavor to the Olympic experience. The
first capital of Georgia, Savannah is a visual jewel whose
character is easily reproached; it's a Southern belle with a
reputation. Savannah was founded in 1733 by James Edward
Oglethorpe, who had drawn up its design--which featured houses
built around 24 parklike squares--even before he sailed from
England. Twenty-two of the original squares survive (the opening
scene from Forrest Gump was shot in one), adorned by benches,
monuments, fountains, brick walkways and ancient oaks.
Surrounding the squares are a wealth of 19th-century houses of
various styles: Federal, Greek and Roman revival, Italianate,
English regency, Victorian. Some of the homes have been restored
to their glory; others are fraying at the edges; and others,
particularly some of the Victorian ones, are downright
dilapidated. The town is a soft-spoken protest against the
sameness of modern times.

Olympic visitors who feel they have stepped back into the '50s
upon arrival in Savannah will be forgiven if they depart unsure
whether it's the 1950s or the 1850s. The place has an air of the
nonspecific past. All that visitors will know for certain is
that they've traveled far from the "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"-chanting
crowds on Peachtree Street to another world and a more genteel
time. "In Atlanta, people ask strangers, 'What do you do?'" says
Savannah tour guide Pat Tuttle, a native of the city. "In Macon,
people ask, 'Which church do you attend?' In Augusta it's,
'What's your mother's maiden name?' But in Savannah, we ask,
'What would you like to drink?'"

Tuttle tells this story while seated on a bench marking writer
Conrad Aiken's grave in Bonaventure Cemetery, a spot overlooking
the Wilmington River. It is the last stop on her By the Book
tour, a celebration of the book Midnight in the Garden of Good
and Evil and the place where she used to pour wine for
tour-goers until a magazine article mentioned the delightful
custom and local officials put an end to it. Tuttle notes that
on this very bench, writer John Berendt, a native of Syracuse
who's the author of the Book, as locals now refer to Midnight,
and local resident Mary Harty drank martinis while Harty first
told Berendt about the nature of Savannah. Intrigued by what he
heard, Berendt expanded that introduction into an engrossing
tale of an actual 1981 murder in one of Savannah's historic
houses and the series of trials that followed. His cast of
characters, all of them real people, included drag queens,
voodoo practitioners, piano-playing bunco artists, surly gigolos
and murdering antique dealers. The Book has sold more than
900,000 hardback copies since it was published in 1994, and it
has been on The New York Times best-seller list for most of the
last two years.

Call it Midnight madness. The Book has spawned a tourist boom
like nothing Savannah has ever seen. In the city's 263-year
history--and this is where the first Girl Scout troop was
formed, where Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and where the
first trans-Atlantic steamship crossing was launched--nothing
has, for better or worse, done to the city what the Book has. It
has made Savannah trendy.

"We're going to have a great athletic competition here, the
Olympics, and all anyone talks about is the Book, which in any
other city would mean the Bible," says the executive director of
the Greater Savannah Sports Council, Dan Simmons, who like many
Savannah natives is not wild about the light in which Midnight
casts his city.

Indeed, while Atlanta braces for the 17 days during which the
Olympic family will be in town, Savannah is afraid that the
Games might actually cut into its tourist traffic. Midnight fans
now make pilgrimages to Savannah expressly to find the people,
places and graves mentioned in the Book. Visitor-center
registrations are up 25% in the two years since Midnight came
out, and hotel-and-motel-tax revenues are up 15%. Further, a
bevy of cottage industries has sprung up to assist the pilgrims,
selling them tours, maps, tickets to lectures, calendars and
miscellany. "The Book must be getting big in Oklahoma, because
we've had a lot of visitors from there recently," says Tuttle,
who fills two buses seven days a week. "Also Germany."

It's only going to get worse, since the Book will soon be made
into the Movie, directed by Clint Eastwood. Midnight has even
spawned a literary offspring. The Lady Chablis, the black female
impersonator whom Berendt wrote about hilariously, has her own
memoir coming out in July. It's called Hiding My Candy, a title
that does not refer to the pralines left on a guest's pillows
each night by the proprietors of the Gastonian Inn. Chablis,
unfortunately, will be on a book tour when the Olympics come to
town, a scheduling conflict that has her seasick inside. "I like
yachting because I'm a Pisces, honey," she says, "and I like
water. I also like the fact that there's a lot of skin showing,
but not much of it as pretty as mine."

What little skin was showing on sailors during the U.S. trials
in May was covered up by bug nets. The sand gnats of Savannah
are such a plague on the populace that in balloting by 1,800
city residents to rename the minor league baseball team this
year, Sand Gnats won 70% of the vote. The moniker has proved to
be a marketing bonanza. In its first 22 games this season, the
club sold more team merchandise than it did all last season as
the Savannah Cardinals. Two bug repellents have signed on as
Sand Gnats sponsors. "Get bitten!" has become a team slogan, and
in the tradition of the tomahawk chop, fans perform the Sand
Gnats swat. So do the players, who can be seen slapping their
arms and necks while trying to stand at attention for the
national anthem. "The sand gnat is a feisty, tenacious creature
that won't ever give up," says Ric Sisler, the team's general
manager and a grandson of Hall of Famer George Sisler. "Just
what you'd like your team to be." The Sand Gnats, who play in
the Class A South Atlantic League, will be home for 10 games
during the Olympics, and Sisler hopes to attract a few spillover
fans from the yachting.

It makes for an attractive package. A morning stroll through the
historic squares followed by the Book tour with Tuttle. Catch a
spectator boat to see the nonstop, indecipherable afternoon
yachting action, just to say you did it. (Trust us, you'll never
do it again.) Back to town for a medicinal cocktail at Hannah's
(as in the ragtime song: "Hard-hearted Hannah, the vamp of
Savannah ..."), where you can listen to Emma Kelly, whom local
songwriting legend Johnny Mercer (Moon River, Jeepers Creepers)
nicknamed the Lady of 6,000 Songs. Out to a Sand Gnats game at
Grayson Stadium. A late dinner of fresh shrimp boil on the
Savannah River. Then a nightcap at the Olde Pink House Tavern,
one of the few remaining 18th-century buildings in town, where
you can catch the TV highlights of whatever the yahoos in
Atlanta watched that day. Late-night revelers might want to take
in the midnight show at Club One; although the Lady Chablis
won't be around, the rest of a beautiful cast of female
impersonators will perform on weekends.

Civilized Olympic scenario, wouldn't you say? Come on down,
y'all. The water is fi-i-ine. As Minerva, the witchlike
character in Midnight, might advise: Just voodoo it.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE IF IT'S IN "THE BOOK," IT'S IN THE CITY, FROM THE 19TH-CENTURY ADLER HOUSE TO THE FEMALE IMPERSONATOR THE LADY CHABLIS (OPPOSITE) [Adler House in Savannah]

COLOR PHOTO [See caption above--Lady Chablis]

COLOR PHOTO: RANDOM HOUSE[Cover of book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE OLYMPIC YACHTING FANS, LIKE THOSE AT THE TRIALS, WILL BATTLE BUGS AND THE SUN [Yacht race]