- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2004

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Locals simply refer to it as “the Book.” It had been on store shelves less than three months in 1994 when Trese Newman got her first clue that things were going to be different in Savannah.

Bonaventure Cemetery had removed the “Bird Girl,” the bronze statue on the cover of John Berendt’s new book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” to spare the surrounding plot from tourists’ trampling feet.

“When you have to start removing a statue that had been in the cemetery since 1938, you realize something’s going on,” Miss Newman says from behind the register at the Book Gift Shop, where autographed copies of “Midnight” continue to sell alongside Bird Girl mugs, hand creams and canned jams.

A decade has passed since Mr. Berendt, a New York magazine writer, published “Midnight” with its gossipy tales of a homicide, a drag queen and voodoo rituals that many Savannahians doubted outsiders would ever read.

Since its debut in January 1994, Mr. Berendt’s book has sold 3.3 million copies and spent 216 weeks on the New York Times list of best sellers. If Savannahians were surprised, so was the author.

“When I was asked how will it sell, I said, ‘Look, this is not a mainstream book,’” Mr. Berendt said in an interview with Associated Press. “Look at what’s in it: … the drag queen, the gay murder, you name it. It was not what mainstream Americans are used to. What I guess happened was that the mainstream widened while I was writing the book.”

In his hugely popular book, Mr. Berendt tells the story of Jim Williams, a restoration specialist and antiques dealer who shoots and kills his lover, Danny Hansford. Although the killing and Mr. Williams’ arrest and subsequent four trials shape the book’s primary theme, it is the unfolding of Savannah’s quirky residents and lore that brings the book to life.

The spotlight that the book shined through Savannah’s canopy of live oaks and Spanish moss turned this once-sleepy coastal city into a tourism dynamo.

“When I was talking to the folks who hired me, I said, ‘I don’t know if you need me or just another John Berendt,’” says Anthony Schopp, president of the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Before “Midnight,” Savannah mostly attracted day-trippers who swung through to see the city’s parklike squares, marble monuments and antebellum homes. Afterward, when a copy of the book became as much of a travel accessory as sunscreen, tourists swarmed in from around the world.

Overnight stays by visitors have skyrocketed from 3.5 million in 1994 to 10.5 million in 2002, the latest figures available. The estimated amount of money spent by visitors to Savannah leaped from $587 million to $1.07 billion during the same period.

Mr. Schopp says a robust economy and tourism growth across the South in the mid-1990s helped spur the boom. “Midnight,” though — the book and the 1997 movie version directed by Clint Eastwood, gave Savannah confidence to invest in tourism as serious business.

New hotels opened downtown. The grand Marshall House Hotel, built in 1857, reopened in 1999 after being shuttered for 40 years. Vacant historic-district storefronts gave way to chain stores such as Starbucks and Gap.

“There are neighborhoods you can travel into now safely because there are restored buildings instead of abandoned buildings,” says Mark McDonald, executive director of the Historic Savannah Foundation. “Much of the heavy lifting had been done already, but when the book came out, it just put an exponent beside it.”

Downtown real estate broker Dickie Mopper recalls a flight from London about five years ago. On the plane was a group of British tourists headed for Savannah. Each one carried a copy of “Midnight.”

“The book did a tremendous amount to promote the city as a tourist destination, and that had a lot to do with people falling in love with Savannah and saying, ‘This is a place [where] I want to invest.’”

Though housing prices in historic Savannah soared over the past decade — 19th-century homes that sold for $250,000 then fetch more than $1 million — the book is believed to have had only a “nominal” influence.

“Midnight” fandom didn’t sell the famous Mercer House for an asking price of $7 million when it went on the market a few years ago. The Victorian mansion was the home of Mr. Williams, who died of pneumonia in 1990 at age 59.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that some tourists who came to Savannah and decided to stay were influenced by “Midnight.” Mr. Schopp, the visitors bureau president, recalls golfing with a Wisconsin transplant in 1998.

“I said, ‘Why did you leave?’” Mr. Schopp says. “He said, ‘It’s a long story. Here’s the short of it: My wife read the book.’”

Many Savannah residents read “Midnight” as well when it came out in 1994. Esther Shaver, who owns a small bookstore on Madison Square, sold 1,000 copies at a launch party with Mr. Berendt. She stopped counting years ago, when her sales topped 20,000.

At first, many locals kept talk of the saucy best seller private — even after tourists arrived with copies in hand — for fear of social reprisals.

John Duncan, a retired history professor and a friend of Mr. Berendt’s, turned down an offer by the Savannah Morning News to review “Midnight.” “I didn’t want to stick out my neck that far,” says Mr. Duncan, who now sells autographed copies from his bookshop on Monterey Square.

“We were all nervous. For the first six months, the tour companies told their guides not to mention the book. But of course, the tourists, they would have nothing of it. That’s why they came here in the first place.”

Pat Tuttle started her own tour company the year before “Midnight” and later became the first to offer a tour based solely on the book.

“Growing up in the South, you’re told you don’t tell family secrets,” says Miss Tuttle, who once was scolded in front of her tour group. “A family friend I respected greatly, an older lady, came up, and she shook her finger at me and said, ‘Pat, you should not be doing this.’ And I almost started crying.”

Though Miss Tuttle and others say “Midnight” mania has tapered off after peaking in about 1998, some tourists still pack a keen interest — and some locals still ignore it.

Ruth and Kim Martin of Fredericksburg, Va., recently entered the Book Gift Shop still wearing puzzled looks from their stop at the Savannah Visitors Center.

“I asked for the book tour, and the lady said, ‘What book would that be?’” Ruth Martin told Miss Newman, the shop employee.

Miss Newman picked up the phone to book them a tour reservation and answered, with a knowing smile, “Well, you met someone who’s either in the book or friends with somebody who’s in the book.”

• • •

Savannah Convention & Visitors Bureau, 101 E. Bay St.; phone 877/SAVANNAH, or visit www.savannah-visit.com for information.

Marshall House Hotel, 123 E. Broughton St.; 800/589-6304 or www.marshallhouse.com for more information. Rates begin at $109 per room.

Historic Savannah Foundation; 912/233-7787 or www.historicsavannahfoundation.org for more information.

Book Gift Shop, 127 E. Gordon St.; 912/233-3867.

Pat Tuttle’s book tour; 888/869-0119 or www.pattuttle.com for details.

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