A Visit to the Hostess City of the South

A Visit to the Hostess City of the South

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A Visit to the Hostess City of the South

In 1994 John Berendt whispered a tale of murder and scandal in a quaint Southern town that took the nation by storm. Berendt’s novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil spent more time on the New York Times Bestseller List than any other piece of fiction or nonfiction. This tale of a murder and other oddities which Savannah tucks away in it’s proverbial “closet” takes place during the 1980‘s and 1990‘s. Upon reading this novel I became obsessed with the idea of visiting Savannah, and in 2002 I was able to make this obsession a reality.

With a much needed Spring Break in sight, my boyfriend and I decided to take a weekend jaunt to the “Hostess City of the South”. After our classes were over and our bags were packed, we finally headed out of Tallahassee on the afternoon of March 8th. We traveled east on I-10 and drove the mind-numbing 166 mile stretch to Jacksonville. The sad thing about interstates is that they are generally bland with only an occasional view of different scenery. We breezed past the generic fields and even more generic patches of forest that characterize I-10 along the Florida Panhandle.

Shortly after merging with I-95 north of Jacksonville the area surrounding the interstate morphed into swampland as we crossed the Nassau, and later St. Mary‘s Rivers. We whizzed by an abundance of saw grass and swamp cypress, which was a nice change from the pine forests of Florida. Another change that we noticed around Brunswick, Georgia was the gas prices…only $0.99/gallon! Of course, we stopped to fill up and then proceeded to drive the ninety-five miles to our hotel in Hardeeville, South Carolina.

Hardeeville was only fifteen miles from Savannah and we had a free hotel room there courtesy of a Ramada rewards program. The lax South Carolina laws on fireworks sales have made it a very lucrative business judging from all of the highway signs.

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The first two exits in the state were surrounded by large fireworks warehouses that thrive on passing travelers whose home states have more rigid laws. To be honest, arriving in Hardeeville at midnight felt kind of like walking around in the movie Deliverance wearing a Versace dress, welcome to the country fellas!

Tired and hungry, we looked for a place to eat that was close to our hotel, we found a Subway in the gas station across the street. After eating our sandwiches under the suspicious eyes of the local passer-bys, we dragged ourselves to the comfort of our hotel room and called it a night.

The next morning we drove south on Highway 17 through the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, where we briefly stopped to move a snapping turtle who had decided to sun himself in the middle of the road. We crossed the Savannah River at the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge and entered Savannah around 10 o’clock in the morning. Our first stop was the Savannah Visitors Center, which was set inside an old, brick train station. The Visitors Center was divided into two sections. One section was a museum of Savannah, with half of an old train in the middle of it. The other, much smaller, section of the museum was dedicated to what the locals refer to as “The Book”. The locals don’t seem to hold much animosity toward “the book” or John Berendt for furthering Savannah’s tourist quality. It was humbling to be pigeon-holed into “that group of tourists that come to see Savannah because of ‘the book”’, but when the trip was over, it was decidedly worth the stereotype. We snagged some brochures and pamphlets from the museum and were on our way.

We started our tour of Savannah by walking North along Jefferson Street until we came to the west end of River Street. River Street is exactly what it sounds like, an old cobblestone street that runs along the Savannah River. The city had, at one time, been a great manufacturer of cotton, and River Street was where international trading of goods took place. Housed in the restored buildings that once were trading posts now is an array of art shops, candy shops, cafes, and bars/lounges. Concerning these bars and lounges, it was said by a Savannah local in Midnight, that “We’re not at all like the rest of Georgia. We have a saying: If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, ’What’s your business?’ In Macon they ask, ’Where do you go to church?’ In Augusta they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is ’What would you like to drink?’”.

Even during prohibition, one never went thirsty. While the rest of the nation had strict rules concerning liquor, Savannah law enforcement turned their heads when it came to drinking. John Berendt noted that while driving through Savannah at night, one could see glass sparkle from inside the Oak tree trunks, from all of the cars that had hit them during a drunken drive home. I looked for these telltale glass sparkles, and though I didn’t see any, I did note deep scars at fender level on quite a few of the trees lining the streets. It is impossible to find a street in Savannah that doesn’t have some kind of horticulture paralleling it’s sides.

In 1733 when John Oglethorpe decided to build the city that would come to be known as Savannah, he resolved that it would be laid out in a grid system. All of the streets in downtown Savannah intersect each other at right angles with 22 park squares evenly distributed almost every 2 city blocks. The squares are actually fairly significant parks that are about half an acre in size, each having either a monument, a fountain, or simply a few benches and a walk around. Originally there were 24 squares, however a couple were lost in the name of progress.

After concluding our walk down River Street we cutback and headed south down Bull Street, directly in front of City Hall. Bull Street runs from City Hall past five squares and eventually dead ends into Forsyth Park. Some of the squares showcased fountains that were gently spitting green water. St. Patrick’s day was taking place the week after our trip, and Savannah takes this holiday very seriously. All of the hotels in the area surrounding Savannah had been booked for St. Patrick’s day weekend, when we had first tried to make reservations a month earlier. We had already seen a stage being set up in Emmet Park in anticipation for this weeks pre-holiday celebration. We stopped and took photographs of these scenic parks and continued our stroll toward Mercer house.

Three blocks north of Forsyth Park is where the infamous Mercer house rests. This is the house that was inhabited by Midnight’s main character Jim Williams, the murderer. Jim Williams, a social aristocrat of sorts, bought Mercer House in addition to many other properties of Savannah and restored them, with the cooperation of the Historic Savannah Foundation. Mercer House had originally been built by Hugh Mercer, great-grandfather of Johnny Mercer, a famous songwriter. It was not until years after its restoration, that the Mercer House would gain popularity for the murder that occurred there. Mercer House stood proudly on the corner of Bull Street and East Gordon Street, directly across from Monterey square. It is a 7,000 square-foot red brick Italianate mansion encased by a black wrought-iron fence with green shrubs nestling it’s bars. The front porch was encased by two giant, white pillars and the door was a pleasant hunter green. The house was so beautiful that it had been repeatedly chosen as a setting for films, one of which was GLORY. It was hard to imagine that this was a murder site. Mercer House was one of the many houses to benefit from the Historic Savannah Foundation.

The Historic Savannah Foundation is an organization which began in the 1950’s in order to preserve historic buildings in the downtown area of Savannah. What this organization did was buy houses and other historic buildings that were pegged for destruction and then turned around and sold these properties to any wealthy person that wanted them as long as they promised in writing to restore them. This little organization proved to be very beneficial and lucrative for the city of Savannah. One of the first things a person notices when visiting Savannah is the beautiful, old architecture of many of it’s downtown buildings. Armstrong house was another of the restored gems of Savannah, which stood directly across the street from Forsyth Park.

Forsyth Park is a 30-acre city park which features a large fountain, a floral garden, and recreational fields. It was encased by dozens of bright pink Azalea bushes and was apparently the place to be on this warm, spring day. Joggers passed us, while talking about the local gossip, while other people found their place among the grass soaking in the sun or playing Frisbee and soccer. With the cool breeze and warm sun caressing our bodies, I felt like I could lay here for the rest of the day. My senses took in the laughing children and the buzzing insects while we decided where we would venture to next. We decided to walk back to our car in order to find a place to eat some lunch.

We were a little strapped for cash at this point, so we began to look for places to eat that took credit cards. As we were driving around, we noticed that there weren’t very many fast food or chain restaurants in Savannah. The fast food chains that we did find didn’t accept credit cards either, this came as a huge shock to two college students accustomed to the versatile food industry of Tallahassee. It is mentioned in Midnight that Savannah, is in fact “cut off” from a lot of the influences of modern society. Companies actually use Savannah to test market their goods, because they know that the people of Savannah don’t have as much contact with commercialism as people of other regions. After a rigorous search, we finally decided on a little Chinese restaurant on Jefferson Street. The food was greasy and there was little selection on the buffet, but all we were asking for at this point was for something cheap to fill us up.

Our next stop, after leaving the Chinese restaurant with stretched bellies, was the Colonial Park Cemetery on Abercorn Street. This cemetery was not mentioned in “The Book”, but has enough history of it’s own to perhaps fill a novel single-handedly. Colonial Park Cemetery opened in 1750, and for 130 years, it served as Savannah’s primary burial ground. There are six hundred burial markers, but over 10,000 bodies entombed in this cemetery. It is surrounded by a six foot brick wall, that apparently has seen some harder times in the past. Residents of Savannah in the eighteenth century complained when the wall fell down in places that dogs would go into the cemetery and wreak havoc on the souls laid to rest there. When the citizens of Savannah began finding body parts strewn about the cemetery from these dogs’ ventures, they began their task of repairing the wall.

Colonial Park Cemetery’s southern side was used as a dueling ground in years past, with the first recorded duel being a sword fight in 1740. There are several significant persons buried in this cemetery; such as Revolutionary War hero, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Button Gwinnett. However, most of the people buried in this cemetery are just ordinary citizens that lived in Savannah during Colonial Park’s years of operation. In December of 1864, when General Sherman occupied Savannah, he stationed some of his troops inside the cemetery. The soldiers looted graves and tombs and added some mischief by carving different dates in a number of the tombstones. According to these soldiers creativeness, the oldest living person in Colonial Park Cemetery died when they were 1700 years old! In 1853 Colonial Park Cemetery closed it’s gates to new burials, but it still serves as a rare glimpse into the Savannah’s past.

Modern Savannah also holds something quite rare, her name is The Lady Chablis. The Lady Chablis is a black drag queen that author John Berendt took an interest in (not romantically) while writing Midnight. She makes her appearance in two of the chapters of Midnight, but remains to be a predominate character in the mind of the reader. In addition to her role in the book, The Lady Chablis also acted in Clint Eastwood’s film version of Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil, starring as herself. At the time of Berendt’s stay in Savannah, “The Lady, The Doll”, lived in a quaint home by Crawford Square, and performed at night in The One Club on Congress Street. I dragged my very unhappy boyfriend in search of The One Club, and when that search was exhausted, without a sign of the club, I settled for a quick drive by The Lady’s home.

We made our way west on Congress Street until we intersected Houston, upon which we began to head South. As we neared Crawford Square it became evident that we were in the less wealthy, predominantly African-American section of town. There were children enjoying the spring weather on a small playground, and many quaint wooden houses everywhere. There it was, a crisply colored wood shingled house. The house itself was a white color, but the door and windows were bordered by a deep, purple paint. There was a front porch, where I imagined “The Lady” and John Berendt had sat discussing the happenings in Savannah. I was fairly sure that The Lady didn’t live there anymore, but I was thrilled to be able to see yet another place that had been mentioned in the novel. “The Lady”, from all that I hear, still performs in the Savannah area, but has expanded her popularity by also writing her own book called Hiding My Candy.

Feeling quite happy about seeing all of the sights of the day, we began our drive out to the Bonaventure Cemetery. We took Victory Drive east, through the more modern section of Savannah, passing a wealthy residential area with newer (but not quite new) houses. We continued until turning onto Bonaventure Road, where we began snaking through a beautiful wooded area until we finally arrived at the Cemetery. Unfortunately, with only fifteen minutes until the cemetery closed, we had to settle for a quick drive through viewing. We checked the visiting hour postings on the gate and decided that we would come back the next day. Before leaving, however, we went to the less affluent cemetery next door and located Danny Hansford’s grave.

The tale of murder in Berendt’s novel circles around Danny Hansford’s slaying at the hands of Jim Williams. Danny was a young, hotheaded kid who had a tendency to fight with Jim Williams, the lover and the financial benefactor. One night, during a particularly violent argument, gun shots rang out across Savannah and a trial of murder that would last eight years began. Danny had always liked the idea of dating Jim Williams because he fancied the thought of having a big, expensive plot in the wealthy Bonaventure Cemetery. Ironically enough, Danny was laid to rest in the less wealthy cemetery next door to Bonaventure. Danny’s grave marker is covered with cheap, silk flowers; pennies; and matchbox cars from people who either knew him, or knew of him and his interests from his story in Midnight.

Having seen all that could be seen for the day, my boyfriend and I returned to the hotel for our last night in the Savannah area.

The next morning, before heading back to Tallahassee, we decided to go to Bonaventure Cemetery one more time. On the front cover of Midnight is photograph taken at the cemetery of a beautiful statue which is called the “Bird Girl”. This was a solid bronze statue of a girl holding a dish in each hand, each of which were intended to have fountains coming through them. In 1938, Lucy Boyd Trosdal paid sculptress Sylvia Shaw Judson to create the “Bird Girl” so that it could adorn her husband’s grave. The “Bird Girl” rested peacefully atop Einar Storm Trosdal Sr.’s grave until 1995 when Midnight fans came searching for her in Bonaventure Cemetery. The graves immediately surrounding Trosdal’s grave were being trampled and destroyed by enthusiastic fans of “The Book”.

After searching the 160 acre cemetery for an hour or so with no sign of the “Bird Girl” we finally went to make inquiries at the Cemetery Welcome Center. It was here where we were told that the “Bird Girl” had been moved seven years ago! They gave us a pamphlet on the fate of the “Bird Girl”, which informed us that she was now located in the Telfair Museum of Art in downtown Savannah. Feeling a bit embarrassed and rather frustrated we took the pamphlet and returned to our car. Unfortunately we never got to see the “Bird Girl”, but we were able to see the infamous Bonaventure Cemetery.

Bonaventure Cemetery is situated on top of a sizable bluff overlooking the Wilmington River. Standing at the edge of the bluff one can see the stretch of water cradled by sandy colored saw grass. The cemetery itself is 160 acres in size and is dotted with ancient, Spanish Moss-filled Live Oak trees and Azalea bushes. Due to its size, people are allowed to drive along the many roads of the cemetery’s property. The cemetery adjacent to Bonaventure where Danny was buried was actually the “Garden of Good and Evil” in Midnight. An old voodoo woman, Minerva, used the place to help her cast spells in order to get Jim Williams acquitted for the murder trial. In addition to its fame from Midnight, Bonaventure also acquires its reputation by housing the graves of some notable characters. Some of these characters include: writer, Conrad Aiken and singer, Johnny Mercer.

We decided that our last sightseeing venture in Savannah would be to Tybee Island. We took Highway 80 out to Tybee Island where we walked along the beach on the Atlantic Ocean, visited Tybee Lighthouse, and drove around the small community. From Tybee Island we headed back towards the mainland, stopping at Fort Pulaski National Monument along the way. Fort Pulaski was built in the 1840’s to guard the entrance to the Savannah River and it saw action during the Civil War. It is located on Cockspur Island where it is surrounded by marsh and sub-tropical plants . We walked around the fort briefly, but saw very little of it due to the hot weather and our anxiousness to be back in the air conditioned car.

The trip had been an absolute success for me. I was able to see many of the places which I had only read about and was able to enrich my knowledge about this quaint southern town. I have not been back to Savannah since last Spring, but would love to visit again and would even consider living there once I graduate. The sad fact is that I doubt I would have had any interest in visiting Savannah had I not read Midnight. The fame that Savannah has received since Berendt’s novel is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing that many people, like myself, will learn about Savannah from this novel and it may inspire them to increase their knowledge about Savannah. Unfortunately, some people will not hold an appreciation for this city when they come to visit it. The relocation of the “Bird Girl” is just one sad example of change due to the success of Midnight.
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