The risk in fulfilling a long-held ambition is the imagining may be better than the reality. But 20 years after reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil I ticked off a vow made as I turned the last page – to visit the central star of the story, Savannah, Georgia. The “non-fiction novel” combines laugh-out-loud drollery, true crime, bizarre real life and travelogue. And author John Berent mixes all in his 1994 international bestseller with liberal doses of Savannah’s plentiful selection of old-money intrigue, snobbery, off-beat sex and voodoo. But best of all he draws a compelling picture of this elegant antebellum gem of a town.
The Bird Girl on the Midnight cover…in protective custody in Telfair Museum.
Savannnah has developed its personality by fiercely protecting its charm, history and heritage against all comers for over 150 years. One of Savannah’s earliest acts of survival dates back to the Civil War when it was precariously placed in the pathway of plundering General Sherman on his 1984 March to the Sea. Rather than suffer the fate of other Georgia cities such as Atlanta, which was burned to the ground, the Savannah mayor agreed a favourable surrender. The town survived and prospered, the innate pride of the local citizenry kicking in to weather precarious periods in subsequent years when decline threatened.
Midnight’s main “character”, the Mercer House on Monterey Square.
Large oaks drip Spanish moss.
Today Savannah boasts a vigilant historical society, supportive local government and a subsequent booming tourist industry. No surprise then that the population is expanding and the real estate market booming. The historic centre of Savannah largely retains the plan laid down by founder, the British General, Member of Parliament and philanthropist James Olgethorpe. Its centrepiece – or centrepieces – is 22 squares, lusciously treed with large oaks dripping with Spanish moss, guaranteeing cool and shade from the hot Southern summer sun. Most famous of these, at least to Midnight readers, is Monterey Square on which Mercer House, the book’s central character, is located. Mercer House has another connection to fame as the family home of songwriter Johnny Mercer of Moon River, Acc-cent-tchu-ate the Positive, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, renown. Jackie Kennedy allegedly once sought to buy it.
Typical Savannah mansion, Old Sorrell-Weed House.
Hail the conqueror – General Sherman’s house.
Running in various directions off Monterey Square, and the other squares, are the streets and locations that are stars of the book: the one along which a local resident took his imaginary dog on a daily walk; Abercorn Street where Clary’s Restaurant was located; East Jones Street where Joe Odom rented one of his many party houses; Bull Street which claims five squares; Barnard Street where the Telfair Museum protects the Bird Girl statue from the book cover after her many “abductions” from Bonaventure Cemetery; Jefferson Street’s Club One where the exotic Lady Chablis gyrated “her” way to “her” audiences’ hearts . So treasured are the squares that only two have ever fallen into the hands of developers – and one of those is planned for “undeveloping” back to its original state.
Dealing with doggie do Savannah style.
Still wowing ’em at Club One…the glittering Lady Chablis.
Remembering Johnny Mercer.
The fragrant magnolia is the floral emblem of Georgia.
A setting of such allure obviously hasn’t escaped the authors and film makers of this world. Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel was set in Savannah and was the setting for the film. The iconic Forrest Gump bench scene, when his mother offers him the chocolate box, is located on Chippewa Square. And of course the Midnight book, and Clint Eastwood’s movie version, have drawn numerous avid readers and movie goers as tourists – an instructive lesson in the economic and social benefits that can derive from having pride in your heritage and protecting it.
Not just a pretty city. Savannah is a major port with huge container ships plying its namesake river through the centre of town.
I’d love to!