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Searching for Truth in the City of Fact and Fiction


Savannah is no stranger to fever. The Georgian town site suffered the ravages of yellow fever epidemics from 1820 to the 1850s that strained the Colonial Cemetery to its limits. For six years now, since the publication of John Berendt’s bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the movie of the same name directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Kevin Spacey, Savannah has been under the influence of another type of fever: "book fever." This time, it’s a pandemic of tourists that is overtaking the city.

Even before tourism reached fever pitch, Savannah, a city resistant to change, was unlike anywhere else. Only a handful of places in the world have distilled the essence of another era to such a degree. "Savannah, the very dust of her streets relives the steps upon it from others of a distant past," pronounced the now-deceased Jim Williams, prolific preservationist and antique dealer. He is the man who played a major role in saving Savannah’s inner core, then brought the city notoriety when he fired the shot that unleashed a raging debate over whether he killed a man in cold blood or self-defense. This debate gave birth to Berendt’s creative non-fiction book.

The Hamilton Turner Inn. Copyright Terry Zinn.The perfect home base to feed your book fever is the Hamilton Turner Inn on Lafayette Square, the third home of attorney, piano bar entrepreneur, and all-around party man, Joe Odom, who appears in Berendt’s story under his own name.

Restored from those party days, the exquisite Second French Empire Inn dates back to1873 when it was the home of Savannah jeweler Samuel P. Hamilton. Furnished with Empire, Eastlake and Renaissance Revival period antiques, it is the perfect setting for spinning conversations with Nancy Hillis, known as Mandy in the book. Her easy-going personality and glib tales makes you feel you have shown up for a scene from the movie. The feeling that you are a star is reinforced by the trolley loads of green-eyed tourists who come by to gape.

Nancy Hillis (Mandy). Copyright Terry Zinn.While I was enjoying a late night chat with Hillis about her incarnation as Mandy, Jerry Spence dropped in. A longtime Savannah resident, Spence adds his own take on the truth about Savannah and its characters to the popular Tales of the South Tours. Besides helping Nancy with the tours, he is an accomplished Hollywood hair and makeup designer. An offer of a post-midnight drink set him talking and I was treated to another version of events to add balance and flavor to the conflicting "facts" already told to me by Nancy and other professional tour guides.

Like cross breezes stroking the springtime azaleas coloring the cityscape, there are many contradicting testimonies. This was my third visit in four years and I have come to realize that the lore created by Berendt’s book has taken on a life of its own, independent to what actually happened almost 20 years ago. Twenty years. It's hard to imagine that the 21-year-old rebel Danny Hansford, the man whose life was cut short by Williams’ bullet, would be 40 years old today.

At Danny Hansford’s gravesite, I found tribute on the flat granite gravestone: two pennies and a marble, along with a spray of flowers and another artificial display, not in the best taste, but respectful just the same. The two pennies, or should I say two cents, just now makes sense to me. Danny never had his two-cents say in what really happened.

Caught by the fever, I left a libation I thought the young Hansford might have enjoyed. The fever had me talking to him as if I had known him. I even thanked him, as should some of those who have prospered from the influx of tourists and the economic development it has spawned. Tourism dollars flowing into Savannah total in the hundreds of millions a year, I was told.

For those unfamiliar with "the book," the garden referred to in its title is a cemetery. In some voodoo lore, good can be accomplished through spells cast in a cemetery before midnight, but incantations made after midnight unleash evil spirits.

The private Bonaventure Cemetery, about five miles from the historic district, plays prominently in the story. However, the historically important Colonial Cemetery in the middle of the historic district, and the nearby Laurel Grove Cemetery, should not be missed.

Laurel Grove Cemetery. Copyright Terry Zinn. Historical walking tours of the cemeteries are highly recommended. Both Bonaventure and Laurel Grove have an abundance of moss-laden ancient live oaks, dogwood and azaleas that bloom in the spring like no earthly garden imaginable. In the spring, Savannah’s cemeteries are more like botanical parks than graveyards.

One wonderful way to get acquainted with the architectural richness of Savannah is to take the Historic Savannah Foundation’s home tour each spring. It sells a limited number of tickets to tour a variety of historical homes on different days. I took several of their self-guided tours and was introduced to parts of the city I might otherwise never have seen.

Savannah is no stranger to movie crews. The upcoming Robert Redford movie The Legend of Baggar Vance, and the yet to be released The Gift are recent movies made there. Forrest Gump is among a long list dating back several decades.

A prime example of Jim Williams’ restoration is the Mercer House, a stately mansion where Danny Hansford was murdered and now a popular photo stop on Book Tours. The romance, mystery and dignity of the house are preserved under the private ownership of Jim’s sister, Dorothy Kingery. The house is not open to the public, but Kingery and her daughter have opened a gift shop in the carriage house at the rear of the block-long estate. Here I found an elegant book detailing Jim Williams’ contribution to the preservation of Savannah and the Old South. More than Mercer House: Savannah’s Jim Williams & His Southern Houses was written by Dr. Dorothy Williams Kingery and should insure that his accomplishments will not be overshadowed by a sudden flash of notoriety. Not yet widely distributed, the book masterfully blends Jim Williams’ essays on preservation with photographs taken during the restorations he undertook. I’m afraid the book may spawn more fever to investigate and to visit other lesser-know sights that he saved from demolition.

While Jim, Danny and Joe live only in the memories of friends and book fans, amazingly many of the characters in the novel are alive and well and still living in Savannah. In addition to Nancy Hillis and Jerry Spence, the real life personalities still readily accessible for your enlightenment and entertainment include the drag queen Lady Chablis, who makes regular appearances at Club One; and Emma Kelly, the 81-year-old ‘lady of 6,000 songs,’ so-called by Savannah songwriter Johnny Mercer.

Emma Kelly. Copyright Terry Zinn. Emma Kelly often played at Jim William’s famous parties and at the short-lived Joe Odom club, Sweet Georgia Browns. She currently plays and sings every Wednesday evening at the Marshall House’s Chadwick’s, and Friday and Saturday nights at Hannah’s, above the Pirate House Restaurant at Trustees Gardens. For two hours Emma mesmerizes her avid fans with song standards that take you away to another time and place. You wish Emma and her song styling would last forever, but alas time marches on.

My book fever is still running high. I am already planning my next trip to Savannah in hopes of finding a cure. Of course, once infected, there is no cure, but oh what fun to flirt with the past while picking your own creative path through the undergrowth of fact and fiction. And besides, there are so many other attractions to Savannah I did not tell you about, and many more even I have yet to explore. Savannah is just as charming in the daylight as it is at midnight. So why bury yourself in a book or movie for a few hours, when you can escape repeatedly to the real setting for days...weeks...years?

When You Go:

To help you catch "the fever," visit the Savannah Tourist Information Web site at www.savannah-visit.com

Information on Hamilton-Turner Inn is available at www.hamilton-turnerinn.com. To make a reservation with Tales of the South Tours, call 912-786-5101.

Another excellent Savannah Inn is the Presidents Quarters Inn on Oglethorpe Square, built in an 1855 Federal Style twin townhouse. Amenities include breakfast served in your room, a complimentary bottle of wine stashed in your own refrigerator, nightly hors d’oeuvres, turndown service, a video library, free parking (a scarcity in the historic district) and an elevator that is wheelchair accessible, something almost unheard of in a multi-storied historic building. The rooms are named after presidents who have some connection to Savannah, no matter how slim. Access President's Quarters’ Web site at www.presidentsquarters.com

The Mercer House Carriage Shop can be reached at 912-236-6352.

Dining at The Pink House restaurant or its cellar tavern is a Savannah tradition made even more meaningful by the ghost stories it houses, and the fact that this is a structure Jim Williams helped preserve.

Nita’s. Copyright Terry Zinn. For good low country, funky cooking it’s Nita’s on Bull Street, which is giving Mrs. Wilks (of "book" fame) a bit of noontime competition.

Among traditional historic tourist sights are the Georgia Historical Society, Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, Owens-Thomas House Museum, Davenport House, Andrew Low Hose, and the birthplace of Julliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts. Don’t miss the railroad museum and, for the pure fun of it you can take a ride on a riverboat afloat on the Savannah River.

There are about seven companies that offer sightseeing tours of the historic district, and while all are good I found the impromptu walking tours of The Savannah Walks, Inc. most convenient and enjoyable.

Caught by the fever, I left a libation I thought the young Hansford might have enjoyed. The fever had me talking to him as if I had known him. I even thanked him, as should some of those who have prospered from the influx of tourists and the economic development it has spawned. Tourism dollars flowing into Savannah total in the hundreds of millions a year, I was told.

For those unfamiliar with "the book," the garden referred to in its title is a cemetery. In some voodoo lore, good can be accomplished through spells cast in a cemetery before midnight, but incantations made after midnight unleash evil spirits.

The private Bonaventure Cemetery, about five miles from the historic district, plays prominently in the story. However, the historically important Colonial Cemetery in the middle of the historic district, and the nearby Laurel Grove Cemetery, should not be missed.

Laurel Grove Cemetery. Copyright Terry Zinn. Historical walking tours of the cemeteries are highly recommended. Both Bonaventure and Laurel Grove have an abundance of moss-laden ancient live oaks, dogwood and azaleas that bloom in the spring like no earthly garden imaginable. In the spring, Savannah’s cemeteries are more like botanical parks than graveyards.

One wonderful way to get acquainted with the architectural richness of Savannah is to take the Historic Savannah Foundation’s home tour each spring. It sells a limited number of tickets to tour a variety of historical homes on different days. I took several of their self-guided tours and was introduced to parts of the city I might otherwise never have seen.

Savannah is no stranger to movie crews. The upcoming Robert Redford movie The Legend of Baggar Vance, and the yet to be released The Gift are recent movies made there. Forrest Gump is among a long list dating back several decades.

A prime example of Jim Williams’ restoration is the Mercer House, a stately mansion where Danny Hansford was murdered and now a popular photo stop on Book Tours. The romance, mystery and dignity of the house are preserved under the private ownership of Jim’s sister, Dorothy Kingery. The house is not open to the public, but Kingery and her daughter have opened a gift shop in the carriage house at the rear of the block-long estate. Here I found an elegant book detailing Jim Williams’ contribution to the preservation of Savannah and the Old South. More than Mercer House: Savannah’s Jim Williams & His Southern Houses was written by Dr. Dorothy Williams Kingery and should insure that his accomplishments will not be overshadowed by a sudden flash of notoriety. Not yet widely distributed, the book masterfully blends Jim Williams’ essays on preservation with photographs taken during the restorations he undertook. I’m afraid the book may spawn more fever to investigate and to visit other lesser-know sights that he saved from demolition.

While Jim, Danny and Joe live only in the memories of friends and book fans, amazingly many of the characters in the novel are alive and well and still living in Savannah. In addition to Nancy Hillis and Jerry Spence, the real life personalities still readily accessible for your enlightenment and entertainment include the drag queen Lady Chablis, who makes regular appearances at Club One; and Emma Kelly, the 81-year-old ‘lady of 6,000 songs,’ so-called by Savannah songwriter Johnny Mercer.

Emma Kelly. Copyright Terry Zinn. Emma Kelly often played at Jim William’s famous parties and at the short-lived Joe Odom club, Sweet Georgia Browns. She currently plays and sings every Wednesday evening at the Marshall House’s Chadwick’s, and Friday and Saturday nights at Hannah’s, above the Pirate House Restaurant at Trustees Gardens. For two hours Emma mesmerizes her avid fans with song standards that take you away to another time and place. You wish Emma and her song styling would last forever, but alas time marches on.

My book fever is still running high. I am already planning my next trip to Savannah in hopes of finding a cure. Of course, once infected, there is no cure, but oh what fun to flirt with the past while picking your own creative path through the undergrowth of fact and fiction. And besides, there are so many other attractions to Savannah I did not tell you about, and many more even I have yet to explore. Savannah is just as charming in the daylight as it is at midnight. So why bury yourself in a book or movie for a few hours, when you can escape repeatedly to the real setting for days...weeks...years?

When You Go:

To help you catch "the fever," visit the Savannah Tourist Information Web site at www.savannah-visit.com

Information on Hamilton-Turner Inn is available at www.hamilton-turnerinn.com. To make a reservation with Tales of the South Tours, call 912-786-5101.

Another excellent Savannah Inn is the Presidents Quarters Inn on Oglethorpe Square, built in an 1855 Federal Style twin townhouse. Amenities include breakfast served in your room, a complimentary bottle of wine stashed in your own refrigerator, nightly hors d’oeuvres, turndown service, a video library, free parking (a scarcity in the historic district) and an elevator that is wheelchair accessible, something almost unheard of in a multi-storied historic building. The rooms are named after presidents who have some connection to Savannah, no matter how slim. Access President's Quarters’ Web site at www.presidentsquarters.com

The Mercer House Carriage Shop can be reached at 912-236-6352.

Dining at The Pink House restaurant or its cellar tavern is a Savannah tradition made even more meaningful by the ghost stories it houses, and the fact that this is a structure Jim Williams helped preserve.

Nita’s. Copyright Terry Zinn. For good low country, funky cooking it’s Nita’s on Bull Street, which is giving Mrs. Wilks (of "book" fame) a bit of noontime competition.

Among traditional historic tourist sights are the Georgia Historical Society, Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, Owens-Thomas House Museum, Davenport House, Andrew Low Hose, and the birthplace of Julliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts. Don’t miss the railroad museum and, for the pure fun of it you can take a ride on a riverboat afloat on the Savannah River.

There are about seven companies that offer sightseeing tours of the historic district, and while all are good I found the impromptu walking tours of The Savannah Walks, Inc. most convenient and enjoyable.