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Sultry Savannah's a Secret No More

  • Ted Landphair

The Bonaventure cemetery, the spooky Savannah cemetery that inspired the title of the book, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

The Bonaventure cemetery, the spooky Savannah cemetery that inspired the title of the book, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

Nor are its delights and eccentricities

One of America's most beautiful cities is Savannah, an old seaport in the southern state of Georgia that clings to many of the courtly traditions of the Old South.

Off the heavily traveled north-south interstate highway, it was a relatively undiscovered place until the late 1990s. Forsyth Square is one of Savannah's many promenading grounds. Most of them date to the American Revolution of the 1700s.

Forsyth Square is one of Savannah's many promenading grounds. Most of them date to the American Revolution of the 1700s.

Then a smash best-seller, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" — and a movie based on it — brought worldwide attention to this fairyland urban forest of fragrant magnolia trees and live oaks draped in Spanish moss.

Savannah's 22 orderly squares, some laid out when Georgia was Britain's southernmost American colony, are lined with antebellum and Victorian mansions and guest houses.

Men in white suits and string ties, and ladies in flowing gowns and matching hats are a common sight on the streets and verandas of town. Union General William T. Sherman and his men are shown advancing on Savannah in this 1886 lithograph.

Union General William T. Sherman and his men are shown advancing on Savannah in this 1886 lithograph.

Debutante balls, where young women are introduced to society, are still very much in favor, and there's even a married women's club where members take turns hosting afternoon card games over cocktails. Languorous Savannah dinner parties are legendary, too.

It seems like time froze in charming Savannah in 1864, when Union general William Tecumseh Sherman — who had just burned Atlanta to the ground in the American Civil War — spared Savannah. He sent a letter to President Lincoln, presenting him with the city as a Christmas present.

Savannah may be elegant and gracious, but it also has its quirky side. Captured by the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, Savannah's Fort Pulaski - named for a Polish count who fought with the colonists in the Revolutionary War - was used as a prison.

Captured by the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, Savannah's Fort Pulaski - named for a Polish count who fought with the colonists in the Revolutionary War - was used as a prison.

Many of its notorious characters were exposed in the Garden of Good and Evil book, which was full of what local historian John Duncan calls the worst gossip about the best people in town.

It was at the onetime home of legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer, for instance, that wealthy antiques dealer Jim Williams shot and killed his gay lover in 1981 — a story that's central to the Midnight book. Williams would be tried four times before a jury finally acquitted him.

Tour buses pass by the Williams house every day on their way to the spooky old Savannah cemetery that inspired the title, The Garden of Good and Evil.

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