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Destination: Georgia : SOUTHERN BESTSELLER : Exploring gracious Savannah's flower-drenched squares and gardens . . . 'of good and evil'

March 05, 1995|M.J. McATEER | McAteer is a member of the editorial staff of the Washington Post. and

SAVANNAH, Ga. — "I see you have 'The Book,' " people said in Savannah when they spotted "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" under my arm. It was, I noted, an observation made each time in a curiously uninflected tone and without elaboration.

Yes, I had "The Book," and what's more, I had read it too. So had a friend, which was one reason why we were poking around Savannah for a couple of days--an endeavor in which we were not alone.

Since New York editor John Berendt's book about Savannah was published last year, tourism in the southern Georgia town has gone up 46%, a welcome boost to the local economy. On the other hand, I could imagine that some of the natives might have greeted Berendt's gossip fest with less than open arms. The central event in his bestseller is, after all, the murder of a wild young street hustler by a gay antiques dealer, and other characters in "Midnight" include a drag queen named the Lady Chablis, a man who walks flies and a voodoo priestess.

Their goings-on are not exactly in keeping with the preferred image of a place that calls itself the "Hostess City of the South," a quaint moniker that evokes a picture of ladies (none dare call them women) in gloves and brimmed hats serving mint juleps in a garden where the smell of gardenias drifts on the warm breath of a breeze. Too much Margaret Mitchell on my part, perhaps.

But after my visit to the "Hostess City," I could believe that such a carpetbagger fantasy is (pardon my language, Savannah) made flesh there. And it was certainly easier to picture than murder or the reportedly Mardi Gras-like excesses of the city's St. Patrick's Day festivities, when fountains run green and revelers party in the street.

All that I would have to alter in my all-purpose Southern fantasy to make it a better fit for Savannah is the quaff of choice. Judging from the Junior League cookbook, Savannahans apparently skip the mint juleps and serve Chatham Artillery Punch instead, a local concoction that mixes gin, whiskey, green tea, brandy, rum, wine and, oh, pineapple chunks, among other things. It is said to pack more wallop than two brass cannons. The league ladies' recipe serves 200 of their nearest and dearest.

Not that I got a taste of it. When you're a Yankee tourist who hasn't been properly introduced, the possibility of being among the 200 being drilled by artillery punch at a Savannah party is remote. In fact, the only hostesses I and my pal, Aldra, met during our visit were the ones who saved us a table for two at 7:30. And all we saw of Savannah's secret gardens--their soaring walls would deny even someone with the hang time of a Michael Jordan so much as a glimpse of an interior--was what we could espy through the few gates that were barred instead of board.

*

Not that I'm complaining. Equipped with maps, guidebooks and "The Book," we entertained ourselves quite nicely in Savannah, though, if I may be so bold to suggest, the "Hostess City" tag didn't really apply. "Savannah, fair and square" would sum up our visit better.

When I arrived in the city in early February, I was wearing a wool coat, scarf and gloves. A major snowstorm was supposed to make most of the East Coast miserable the next day, but in Savannah, Johnny-jump-ups and camellias and the odd daffodil bloomed. Of course, the "fair" part of my motto would be referring to more than climatic clemency. Savannah's downtown historic district--at 2.2 square miles the nation's largest urban historic landmark district--is stunning.

You don't have to know the difference between Greek Revival and Classical Revival, Romanesque, Regency and Italianate to be bowled over by block after block of stately mansions. I can just about manage to tell a Federalist home (fanlights) from a Victorian one (towers), but that didn't keep me from being delighted by the sweeping staircases, the frosted glass doors, the fancy wrought-iron grillwork, the gas lanterns, the oriels (crossword puzzles are not a waste of time), the guardian lions and dolphin-shaped drainpipes that we came across as we walked the historic district.

"Oooo, I like that one," one of us would say at about 90-second intervals, or sometimes, not to get repetitive, "Oooo, I want that one."

Aldra had pronounced the first variation on this theme when we were ogling a number with upstairs porches and tidy white trim.

"Thank you," said a man, who crossed the street behind us and went up the walk with keys out.

That these wonderful restorations exist in such profusion comes thanks to two pivotal events in Savannah history, the first of which occurred way back during the "War of Northern Aggression."

After a promising start, things had not been going well for the Confederacy, and the barbarians, in the person of William Tecumseh Sherman, were at the gate. Before they could knock it down, though, the city's eminently sensible mayor offered to surrender the city without a shot if Sherman would only keep his matches in his pocket.

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