SAVANNAH, Ga. — Savannah can’t seem to separate itself from “the Book,” as locals call it, which was published 11 years ago and has supercharged tourism here. But why distance yourself from a 4-million-copy best-seller and Clint Eastwood film?
Both still help shape the itineraries of the nearly 6 million visitors a year who come to this Southern jewel, population 131,510 in the 2000 census, the capital of Georgia when it was the nation’s 13th Colony.
“We did have a history before ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,’ but we were unknown to the rest of the world,” says John Duncan, local historian, Mercer House neighbor and a friend to the book’s author. “When John Berendt published that book, it shone the spotlight on Savannah for the whole world. Whether you liked this book or not, it will be the view the world has of Savannah from now on.”
That view includes Mercer House, home of the wealthy Jim Williams, who was charged with murdering his young male lover; oak-lined Forsyth Park; the martini-sipping bench at Bonaventure Cemetery; the “bird girl” statue on the book’s jacket; the nightclub where the transvestite Lady Chablis still occasionally performs. The list goes on.
Those and much more await in Savannah, a planned city that actually was completed. One of the first things to strike visitors is how Savannah is arranged in a grid of town squares connected by straight streets, all easy to navigate.
The city originally had 24 public squares; 21 have survived and have been restored. Savannah also claims to have the country’s largest historic district, which covers 2-1/2 square miles filled with more than 1,000 restored buildings (several of them completed by Mr. Williams).
The Savannah Visitors Center has much information on the squares, their statues and the historic homes along them, an architect’s dream. The center is across from what once were cotton warehouses (site of a battle scene from the 1989 film “Glory”), now owned by the Savannah College of Art and Design, which occupies 56 buildings in the historic district.
EXPLORE ON FOOT
Savannah is a town best explored on foot. A stroll through the 20-acre Forsyth Park offers a true Southern postcard view, with Spanish moss hanging from huge old live oaks. The trees form a tunnel that frames the park’s 1858 fountain, patterned after that in the Place de la Concord in Paris and purchased for $2,200 from a catalog. The water is dyed green for the country’s second-largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration (after only New York), which draws about a half-million people.
Spring also is the garden-and-home-tour season, when stately shuttered and wrought-iron-gated brick and stone mansions are framed in a pastel explosion of azaleas, wisteria, dogwoods and camellias.
Chippewa Square on Bull Street is the spot where Forrest Gump sampled his box of chocolates in the 1994 film. His bench is displayed at the Savannah History Museum, adjacent to the visitors center. The square is home to a statue of Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, who arrived from England to settle the area with 114 settlers, about a third of them debtors. He and his trustees established four prohibitions, known as Oglethorpe’s rules: no slavery, no hard liquor, no Catholics, no lawyers.
Most notable for fans of the Berendt book is Monterey Square, site of Mercer House, named for its original owner, the great-grandfather of songwriter Johnny Mercer, who is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery.
Mr. Williams of “Midnight” fame bought the house in the 1960s for $55,000. After his death, his sister reportedly had it on the market for nearly $9 million but got no takers; it is now open for tours. It was in the Mercer House study that Mr. Williams shot Danny Hansford. The shooting and subsequent trials — plus a host of unusual Savannahians — are the topic of Mr. Berendt’s best-seller.
Monterey Square is also home to historian John Duncan and his wife, Virginia, who run V. & J. Duncan Antique Maps, Prints & Books. The couple, who appear briefly in the “Midnight” film, became friends with Mr. Berendt when he lived in Savannah. (On page 142, Mrs. Duncan is chilled by the sight of a Nazi flag Mr. Williams drapes from an upstairs balcony to disrupt filming for a TV movie, reportedly because the production company failed to pay him to use Mercer House as a backdrop.)