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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Chapter Two: Destination Unknown

It would be stretching things to say that I had left New York and come to Savannah as a result of eating a paillard of veal served on a bed of wilted radicchio. But there is a connection.

I had lived in New York for twenty years, writing and editing for magazines. Thomas Carlyle once said that magazine work is below street-sweeping as a trade, but in mid-twentieth-century New York it was a reasonably respectable calling. I wrote for Esquire and had served as editor of New York magazine. At any rate, in the early 1980s it happened that New York City had embarked on a nouvelle cuisine eating binge. Every week, two or three elegant new restaurants would open to great fanfare. The decor would be sleek postmodern, the food superlative, and the prices steep. Dining out became the most popular leisure activity in town; it replaced going to discotheques, the theater, and concerts. Talk of food and restaurants dominated conversations. One evening, as a waiter at one of these places was reciting a lengthy monologue of specials, I scanned the prices of entrees on the menu--$19, $29, $39, $49--and it occurred to me that I had seen that very same column of figures earlier in the day. But where? It suddenly came to me. I had seen it in a newspaper ad for supersaver airfares from New York to cities all across America. As I recall, the veal-and-radicchio entrée cost as much as a flight from New York to Louisville or any of six equidistant cities. With everything included--drinks, dessert, coffee, and tip--the bill for each person that night came to what it would have cost to spend a three-day weekend in another town.

A week later I passed up the veal and radicchio and flew to New Orleans.

After that, every five or six weeks I took advantage of the newly deregulated airfares and flew out of New York in the company of a small group of friends interested in a change of scene. One of those weekend jaunts took us to Charleston, South Carolina. We drove around in a rented car with a map lying open on the front seat. At the bottom of the map, about a hundred miles down the coast, lay Savannah.

I had never been to Savannah, but I had a vivid image of it anyway. Several images, in fact. The most memorable, because it was formed in my childhood, was one associated with Treasure Island, which I had read at the age of ten. In Treasure Island, Savannah is the place where Captain John Flint, the murderous pirate with the blue face, has died of rum before the story begins. It is on his deathbed in Savannah that Flint bellows his last command--"Fetch aft the rum, Darby!"--and hands Billy Bones a map of Treasure Island. "He gave it me at Savannah," says Bones, "when he lay a-dying." The book had a drawing of Flint's map in it with an X marking the location of his buried treasure. I turned to the map again and again as I read, and every time I did I was reminded of Savannah, for there at the bottom was Billy Bones's scrawled notation, "Given by above JF to Mr W. Bones. Savannah this twenty July 1754."

I next came across Savannah in Gone with the Wind, which was set a century later. By 1860, Savannah was no longer the pirates' rendezvous I'd pictured. It had become, in Margaret Mitchell's words, "that gently mannered city by the sea." Savannah was an offstage presence in Gone with the Wind, just as it had been in Treasure Island. It stood aloof on the Georgia coast--dignified, sedate, refined--looking down its nose at Atlanta, which was then a twenty-year-old frontier town three hundred miles inland. From Atlanta's point of view, specifically through the eyes of the young Scarlett O'Hara, Savannah and Charleston were "like aged grandmothers fanning themselves placidly in the sun."

My third impression of Savannah was somewhat quirkier. I got it from the yellowed pages of an old newspaper that had been used to line the inside of an antique wooden chest that I kept at the foot of my bed. It was from the Savannah Morning News, April 2, 1914. Whenever I lifted the lid of the chest, I was confronted by a brief story that read as follows:




It is no indication of insanity to tango. This was settled yesterday by a lunacy commission which decided that Sadie Jefferson is sane. It was alleged the woman tangoed all the way to police headquarters recently when she was arrested.

That was the story in its entirety. Sadie Jefferson was not further identified, and nothing was said about why she had been arrested in the first place. I imagined she had drunk more than her share of the rum left over from Captain Flint. Whatever it was, Sadie Jefferson seemed to be cut from the same cloth as the heroine of the song "Hard-hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah." Those two women lent an exotic dimension to the picture of Savannah that was forming in my mind.

Then Johnny Mercer died in the mid-1970s, and I read that he had been born and raised in Savannah. Mercer had written the lyrics and sometimes also the music for dozens of songs I'd known since childhood, gentle songs that had a mellow eloquence: "Jeepers Creepers," "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "Blues in the Night," "One for My Baby," "Goody Goody," "Fools Rush In," "That Old Black Magic," "Dream," "Laura," "Satin Doll," "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," and "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe."

According to his obituary, Mercer had never lost touch with his hometown. Savannah, he said, had been "a sweet, indolent background for a boy to grow up in." Even after he moved away, he kept a home on the outskirts of town so he could visit whenever he wanted. The back porch of his house looked out on a tidal creek that meandered through a broad expanse of marshland. In his honor, Savannah had re-named the creek after one of the four Academy Award-winning songs for which he'd written the lyrics, "Moon River."

These, then, were the images in my mental gazetteer of Savannah: rum-drinking pirates, strong-willed women, courtly manners, eccentric behavior, gentle words, and lovely music. That and the beauty of the name itself: Savannah.

On Sunday, my traveling companions went back to New York, but I stayed on in Charleston. I had decided to drive down to Savannah, spend the night, and fly back to New York from there.

* * *

There being no direct route to Savannah from Charleston, I followed a zigzagging course that took me through the tidal flatlands of the South Carolina low country. As I approached Savannah, the road narrowed to a two-lane blacktop shaded by tall trees. There was an occasional produce stand by the side of the road and a few cottages set into the foliage, but nothing resembling urban sprawl. The voice on the car radio informed me that I had entered a zone called the Coastal Empire. "The weather outlook for the Coastal Empire," it said, "is for highs in the mid-eighties, with moderate seas and a light chop on inland waters."

Abruptly, the trees gave way to an open panorama of marsh grass the color of wheat. Straight ahead, a tall bridge rose steeply out of the plain. From the top of the bridge, I looked down on the Savannah River and, on the far side, a row of old brick buildings fronted by a narrow esplanade. Behind the buildings a mass of trees extended into the distance, punctuated by steeples, cornices, rooftops, and cupolas. As I descended from the bridge, I found myself plunging into a luxuriant green garden.

Walls of thick vegetation rose up on all sides and arched overhead in a lacy canopy that filtered the light to a soft shade. It had just rained; the air was hot and steamy. I felt enclosed in a semitropical terrarium, sealed off from a world that suddenly seemed a thousand miles away.

The streets were lined with townhouses of brick and stucco, handsome old buildings with high front stoops and shuttered windows. I entered a square that had flowering shrubs and a monument at the center. A few blocks farther on, there was another square. Up ahead, I could see a third on line with this one, and a fourth beyond that. To the left and right, there were two more squares. There were squares in every direction. I counted eight of them. Ten. Fourteen. Or was it twelve?

"There are exactly twenty-one squares," an elderly lady told me later in the afternoon. Her name was Mary Harty. Acquaintances in Charleston had put us in touch; she had been expecting me. She had white hair and arched eyebrows that gave her a look of permanent surprise. We stood in her kitchen while she mixed martinis in a silver shaker. When she was finished, she put the shaker into a wicker basket. She was going to take me on an excursion, she said. It was too nice a day, and I had too little time in Savannah for us to waste it indoors. As far as Miss Harty was concerned, the squares were the jewels of Savannah. No other city in the world had anything like them. There were five on Bull Street, five on Barnard, four on Abercorn, and so on. James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, had been responsible for them, she said. He had decided Savannah was going to be laid out with squares, based on the design of a Roman military encamp-ment, even before he set sail from England--before he even knew exactly where on the map he was going to put Savan-nah. When he arrived in February 1733, he chose a site for the city on top of a forty-foot bluff on the southern bank of the Savannah River, eighteen miles inland from the Atlantic. He had already sketched out the plans. The streets were to be laid out in a grid pattern, crossing at right angles, and there would be squares at regular intervals. In effect, the city would become a giant parterre garden. Oglethorpe built the first four squares himself. "The thing I like best about the squares," Miss Harty said, "is that cars can't cut through the middle; they must go around them. So traffic is obliged to flow at a very leisurely pace. The squares are our little oases of tranquillity."

As she spoke, I recognized in her voice the coastal accent described in Gone with the Wind--"soft and slurring, liquid of vowels, kind to consonants."

"But actually," she said, "the whole of Savannah is an oasis. We are isolated. Gloriously isolated! We're a little enclave on the coast--off by ourselves, surrounded by nothing but marshes and piney woods. We're not easy to get to at all, as you may have noticed. If you fly here, you usually have to change planes at least once. And trains are not much better. Somebody wrote a novel in the nineteen-fifties that captured it rather well, I thought. The View from Pompey's Head. It's by Hamilton Basso. Have you read it? The story opens with a young man taking the train from New York to Pompey's Head and having to get off at the ungodly hour of five in the morning. Pompey's Head is supposed to be Savannah, and I have no quibble with that. We're a terribly inconvenient destination!"

Miss Harty's laughter was as light as wind chimes. "There used to be a train that ran between here and Atlanta. The Nancy Hanks. It shut down altogether twenty years ago, and we don't miss it at all."

"Don't you feel cut off?" I asked.

"Cut off from what?" she replied. "No, on the whole I'd say we rather enjoy our separateness. Whether that's good or bad I haven't any idea. Manufacturers tell us they like to test-market their products in Savannah--toothpastes and detergents and the like--because Savannah is utterly impervious to outside influence. Not that people haven't tried to influence us! Good Lord, they try all the time. People come here from all over the country and fall in love with Savannah. Then they move here and pretty soon they're telling us how much more lively and prosperous Savannah could be if we only knew what we had and how to take advantage of it. I call these people 'Gucci carpetbaggers.' They can be rather insistent, you know. Even rude. We smile pleasantly and we nod, but we don't budge an inch. Cities all around us are booming urban centers: Charleston, Atlanta, Jacksonville--but not Savannah. The Prudential Insurance people wanted to locate their regional headquarters here in the nineteen-fifties. It would have created thousands of jobs and made Savannah an important center of a nice, profitable, non-polluting industry. But we said no. Too big. They gave it to Jacksonville instead. In the nineteen-seventies, Gian Carlo Menotti considered making Savannah the permanent home for his Spoleto U.S.A. Festival. Again, we were not interested. So Charleston got it. It's not that we're trying to be difficult. We just happen to like things exactly the way they are!"

Miss Harty opened a cupboard and took out two silver goblets. She wrapped each of them in a linen napkin and placed them carefully in the wicker basket beside the martinis.

"We may be standoffish," she said, "but we're not hostile. We're famously hospitable, in fact, even by southern standards. Savannah's called the 'Hostess City of the South,' you know. That's because we've always been a party town. We love company. We always have. I suppose that comes from being a port city and having played host to people from far-away places for so long. Life in Savannah was always easier than it was out on the plantations. Savannah was a city of rich cotton traders, who lived in elegant houses within strolling distance of one another. Parties became a way of life, and it's made a difference. We're not at all like the rest of Georgia. We have a saying: If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, 'What's your business?' In Macon they ask, 'Where do you go to church?' In Augusta they ask your grandmother's maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is 'What would you like to drink?'"

She patted the basket of martinis. I could hear the echo of Captain Flint shouting for rum.

"Savannah's always been wet," she said, "even when the rest of Georgia was dry. During Prohibition, filling stations on Abercorn Street sold whiskey out of gas pumps! Oh, you could always get a drink in Savannah. That's never been any secret. I remember when I was a child, Billy Sunday brought his holy-revival crusade to town. He set himself up in Forsyth Park, and everybody went to hear him. There was great excitement! Mr. Sunday got up and declared at the top of his voice that Savannah was the wickedest city in the world! Well, of course, we all thought that was perfectly marvelous!"

Miss Harty handed me the basket and led the way through the hall and out the front door to my car. With the basket on the seat between us, she guided me as I drove through the streets.

"I'm going to take you to visit the dead," she said.

We had just turned onto Victory Drive, a long parkway completely covered by an arch of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. In the center, a double colonnade of palms marched along the median strip as if lending architectural support to the canopy of oaks and moss.

I glanced at her, not sure I'd heard correctly. "The dead?"

"The dead are very much with us in Savannah," she said. "Everywhere you look there is a reminder of things that were, people who lived. We are keenly aware of our past. Those palms, for example. They were planted in honor of soldiers from Georgia who died in the First World War."

After driving three or four miles, we turned off Victory Drive onto a winding road that took us to the gates of Bonaventure Cemetery. A live-oak forest of a primeval dimension loomed before us. We parked the car just inside the gate and continued on foot, coming almost at once to a large white marble mausoleum.

"Now, if you should die during your stay in Savannah," Miss Harty said with a gentle smile, "this is where we'll put you. It's our Stranger's Tomb. It was built in honor of a man named William Gaston. He was one of Savannah's greatest hosts and party givers, and he died in the nineteenth century. This tomb is a memorial to his hospitality. It has an empty vault in it that's reserved for out-of-towners who die while visiting Savannah. It gives them a chance to rest awhile in one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world, until their families can make arrangements to take them away."

I remarked that I hoped I would not tax Savannah's hospitality to that extent. We moved on past the tomb along an avenue bordered by magnificent oaks. On both sides, moss-covered statues stood in an overgrowth of shrubbery like the remnants of an abandoned temple.

"In Colonial times, this was a lovely plantation," Miss Harty said. "Its centerpiece was a mansion made of bricks brought over from England. There were terraced gardens extending all the way down to the river. The estate was built by Colonel John Mulryne. When Mulryne's daughter married Josiah Tattnall, the bride's father commemorated the happy union of the two families by planting great avenues of trees forming the initials M and T intertwined. I'm told enough of the original trees survive that you can still trace the mono-gram, if you put your mind to it." Miss Harty paused as we approached a vine-covered mound by the side of the path.

"This is all that's left of the plantation house," she said. "It's a piece of the foundation. The house burned sometime in the late seventeen-hundreds. It was a spectacular fire, by all accounts. A formal dinner party had been in progress, with liveried servants standing behind every chair. In the middle of dinner, the butler came up to the host and whis-pered that the roof had caught fire and that nothing could be done to stop it. The host rose calmly, clinked his glass, and invited his guests to pick up their dinner plates and follow him into the garden. The servants carried the table and chairs after them, and the dinner continued by the light of the raging fire. The host made the best of it. He regaled his guests with amusing stories and jests while the flames consumed his house. Then, in turn, each guest rose and offered a toast to the host, the house, and the delicious repast. When the toasts were finished, the host threw his crystal glass against the trunk of an old oak tree, and each of the guests followed suit. Tradition has it that if you listen closely on quiet nights you can still hear the laughter and the shattering of crystal glasses. I like to think of this place as the scene of the Eternal Party. What better place, in Savannah, to rest in peace for all time--where the party goes on and on."

We resumed our walk and in a few moments came to a small family plot shaded by a large oak tree. Five graves and two small date palms lay inside a low curbstone. One of the graves, a full-length white marble slab, was littered with dried leaves and sand. Miss Harty brushed the debris away, and an inscription emerged: JOHN HERNDON MERCER (JOHNNY).

"Did you know him?" I asked.

"We all knew him," she said, "and loved him. We always thought we recognized something of Johnny in each of his songs. They had a buoyancy and a freshness, and that's the way he was. It was as if he'd never really left Savannah." She brushed away more of the leaves and uncovered an epitaph: AND THE ANGELS SING.

"For me," she said, "Johnny was literally the boy next door. I lived at 222 East Gwinnett Street; he lived at 226. Johnny's great-grandfather built a huge house on Monterey Square, but Johnny never lived in it. The man who lives there now has restored it superbly and made it into quite a showplace. Jim Williams. My society friends are wild about him. I'm not."

Miss Harty squared her shoulders and said no more about the Mercers or Jim Williams. We continued along the path toward the river, which was just now visible up ahead under the trees. "And now I have one more thing to show you," she said.

We walked to the crest of a low bluff overlooking a broad, slow-moving expanse of water, clearly the choicest spot in this most tranquil of settings. Miss Harty led me into a small enclosure that had a gravestone and a granite bench. She sat down on the bench and gestured for me to sit next to her.

"At last," she said, "we can have our martinis." She opened the wicker basket and poured the drinks into the silver goblets. "If you look at the gravestone," she said, "you'll see it's a bit unusual." It was a double gravestone bearing the names of Dr. William F. Aiken and his wife, Anna. "They were the parents of Conrad Aiken, the poet. Notice the dates."

Both Dr. and Mrs. Aiken had died on the same day: February 27, 1901.

"This is what happened," she said. "The Aikens were living on Oglethorpe Avenue in a big brick townhouse. Dr. Aiken had his offices on the ground floor, and the family lived on the two floors above. Conrad was eleven. One morning, Conrad awoke to the sounds of his parents quarreling in their bedroom down the hall. The quarreling subsided for a moment. Then Conrad heard his father counting, 'One! Two! Three!' There was a half-stifled scream and then a pistol shot. Then another count of three, another shot, and then a thud. Conrad ran barefoot across Oglethorpe Avenue to the police station where he announced, 'Papa has just shot Mama and then shot himself.' He led the officers to the house and up to his parents' bedroom on the top floor."

Miss Harty lifted her goblet in a silent toast to Dr. and Mrs. Aiken. Then she poured a few drops onto the ground.

"Believe it or not," she said, "one of the reasons he killed her was . . . parties. Aiken hinted at it in 'Strange Moonlight,' one of his short stories. In the story, the father complains to the mother that she's neglecting her family. He says, 'It's two parties every week, and sometimes three or four, that's excessive.' The story was autobiographical, of course. The Aikens were living well beyond their means at the time. Anna Aiken went out to parties practically every other night. She'd given six dinner parties in the month before her husband killed her.

"After the shooting, relatives up north took Conrad in and raised him. He went to Harvard and had a brilliant career. He won the Pulitzer Prize and was appointed to the poetry chair at the Library of Congress. When he retired, he came back to spend his last years in Savannah. He always knew he would. He'd written a novel called Great Circle; it was about ending up where one started. And that's the way it turned out for Aiken himself. He lived in Savannah his first eleven years and his last eleven years. In those last years, he lived next door to the house where he'd lived as a child, separated from his tragic childhood by a single brick wall.

"Of course, when he moved back to Savannah, the poetry society was all aflutter, as you can imagine. But Aiken kept pretty much to himself. He politely declined most invitations. He said he needed the time for his work. Quite often, though, he and his wife would come out here and sit for an hour or so. They'd bring a shaker of martinis and silver goblets and talk to his departed parents and pour libations to them."

Miss Harty raised her goblet and touched it to mine. A pair of mockingbirds conversed somewhere in the trees. A shrimp boat passed at slow speed.

"Aiken loved to come here and watch the ships go by," she said. "One afternoon, he saw one with the name Cosmos Mariner painted on the bow. That delighted him. The word 'cosmos'' appears often in his poetry, you know. That evening he went home and looked for mention of the Cosmos Mariner in the shipping news. There it was, in tiny type on the list of ships in port. The name was followed by the comment 'Destination Unknown.' That pleased him even more.

"Where is Aiken buried?" I asked. There were no other gravestones in the enclosure.

"Oh, he's here," she said. "In fact, we are very much his personal guests at the moment. It was Aiken's wish that people should come to this beautiful place after he died and drink martinis and watch the ships just as he did. He left a gracious invitation to that effect. He had his gravestone built in the shape of a bench."

An involuntary reflex propelled me to my feet. Miss Harty laughed, and then she too stood up. Aiken's name was inscribed on the bench, along with the words COSMOS MARINER, DESTINATION UNKNOWN.

* * *

I was beguiled by Savannah. The next morning, as I checked out of the hotel, I asked the desk clerk how I might go about renting an apartment for a month or so--not right then, but soon perhaps.

"Dial 'bedroom,'" she said. "On the telephone. B-E-D-R-O-O-M. It's the number of a referral service for guest houses. They have listings."

I suspected that in Savannah I had stumbled on a rare vestige of the Old South. It seemed to me that Savannah was in some respects as remote as Pitcairn Island, that tiny rock in the middle of the Pacific where the descendants of the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty had lived in inbred isolation since the eighteenth century. For about the same length of time, seven generations of Savannahians had been marooned in their hushed and secluded bower of a city on the Georgia coast. "We're a very cousiny people," Mary Harty told me. "One must tread very lightly here: Everyone is kin to everyone else."

An idea was beginning to take shape in my mind, a variation of my city-hopping weekends. I would make Savannah my second home. I would spend perhaps a month at a time in Savannah, long enough to become more than a tourist if not quite a full-fledged resident. I would inquire, observe, and poke around wherever my curiosity led me or wherever I was invited. I would presume nothing. I would take notes.

Over a period of eight years I did just that, except that my stays in Savannah became longer and my return trips to New York shorter. At times, I came to think of myself as living in Savannah. I found myself involved in an adventure peopled by an unusual assortment of characters and enlivened by a series of strange events, up to and including murder. But first things first. I went to the telephone and dialed "bedroom."

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
by by John Berendt

  • paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0679751521
  • ISBN-13: 9780679751526