Sweet Savannah

Patricia Cleveland-Peck is seduced by Savannah – arguably the most enchanting city on America’s Atlantic coast

Robert Louis Stevenson may never have visited Savannah, Georgia but he was sufficiently beguiled by the name to place the deathbed scene of the pirate Captain Flint in a Savannah tavern in Treasure Island. To question whether such a pirate existed or whether there really was an inn there frequented by Caribbean pirates in the 1790s misses the point.

Savannah loves the myth and today punters flock to The Pirate’s House, now a popular restaurant, to see the place which ‘inspired’ RLS. This mix of fact and fiction is typical of the city: add to this a certain old-fashioned elegance, a touch of decadence and some outright eccentricity and you have a destination that you won’t forget in a hurry.

Where else would you be able to stay in a hotel converted from a funeral home – or one which used to be a brothel? Or go to Leopold’s and eat ice cream in a parlour owned by an A-list Hollywood producer? Where else would boast of being the most haunted city in the United States – or count its cemeteries among its greatest tourist attractions? But then what other city has been a Christmas present? As Savannah was during the Civil War when General Sherman, during his notorious “march to the sea on which he burned everything in his path”, instead of laying waste to the city, sent a telegram to President Abraham Lincoln on 22 December 1864, saying: “ I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.”

Savannah residents say the city’s beauty swayed him. Yankees just claimed the Confederates put up a poor defense. Nevertheless, it is true that the city has great beauty and architecture. It is said that when the British General James Oglethorpe, who founded Savannah in 1733, set sail to return to England 10 years later, his last words to Savannah’s inhabitants were “ Don’t change a thing until I get back.” That would appear to still hold good, especially in the Historic district where carriage horses clip-clop past antebellum mansions along streets lined with live oaks trailing Spanish moss. Now, of course, these carriages are mere tourist traps but they still provide a pleasant way to enjoy the dreamy southern atmosphere.

Even before coming to the New World, Oglethorpe drew plans which put at the core of the city a grid system regularly interspersed with green garden squares. Originally 24, these squares, unique to Savannah, with their trees, shrubs, flowers and fountains are truly the city’s gems.

They are not only loved and frequented by locals and visitors – but also by filmmakers. Here on a bench at the bus stop in Chippewa Square, Forrest Gump sat telling his story while both Forsythe Square with its beautiful fountain and leafy Monterrey Square, feature in the Clint Eastwood film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

This film, based on the book by John Berendt, so accurately captures the fact-within-fiction spirit of Savannah that shortly after its appearance, visitor numbers rose from three million to nine million and have now settled at 6.5 million per annum. It tells the true story of a sensational murder trial involving Jim Williams, a prominent Savannah antique dealer accused of murdering a good-looking young hustler. The trial, which caused ripples through Savannah society, wasn’t really asking how the young man died but rather: was wealthy, gentlemanly Jim Williams really gay? The characters, many real people, some of whom played themselves in the film, ranged from members of the Savannah elite, through a series of party-loving squatters to The Lady Chablis, an outrageous black drag artiste. Even today people flock to her occasional performances at Club One in the city. Many of the real places mentioned in the book including Bonaventure Cemetery and Clary’s Café, form part of a fascinating tour run by the inimitable Angela Sergi, herself a great Savannah character.

Clint Eastwood insisted on filming inside the Mercer House, William’s own super-elegant home but in fact, all the furnishings and antiques seen in the film are exact copies as the originals were too valuable to insure. The house is open to the public for a tour in which the furnishings are meticulously described, but little mention is made of the shooting. Nevertheless as one enters the library where the body was found, all eyes are riveted on the spot and an almost palpable frisson runs through the group.

Read the second part of Patricia’s Savannah piece only on CD-Traveller, this Sunday!

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