The longest-selling New York Times bestseller in history belongs to a book set in Savannah, Georgia. John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) reads like a murder-trial fiction, but the tales he chronicles of alliances, hostilities, and mysteries within Savannah’s towering estates and tree-lined squares are very much nonfiction. Berendt, a New Yorker who lived in Savannah while writing the book, will join PRIOR’s Nomadic Clubhouse journey on March 19-22, 2020 to celebrate the city’s singular culture that so compelled him and continues to enchant readers year after year.
Local curator and art historian Nicole “Nola” Blackwood knows well the entrenched community Berendt sought to capture in Midnight: Parts of it are still very much intact in Savannah’s historic district, where Blackwood has lived for the past five years. But to her, the city’s individuality comes from a combination of life inside the traditional Savannahian homes and the influx of creatives moving into the city each day. “The aspect of storytelling and intrigue and history and gossip and reality are all intertwined like myth and legend here,” Blackwood says. “But there is also significant change in Savannah that has brought people here or brought them back.”
Regional storytelling is the hook behind our upcoming PRIOR Nomadic Clubhouse, an immersive experience meant to showcase the city from a variety of vantage points—including a roving cocktail party and black-tie dinner in the historic district, and an old-fashioned oyster roast along the marshes of the lowcountry. But here, Berendt and Blackwood give us a taste of why—when getting to know Savannah—the grand homes of its longtime dwellers may be the best place to begin.
John, Midnight came out in 1994. What still intrigues you about returning to Savannah all these years later? JB: The Savannah I wrote about was a seductively beautiful city of garden squares and historic, architecturally significant houses. It basked appealingly all by itself on the Georgia coast, surrounded by a protective moat of piney woods, marshes and the Atlantic ocean. Savannah was isolated—gloriously isolated, as they saw it—and not just geographically. The city had its own language, its own cuisine, its own history, its own traditions, and its own distinctive sense of humor.
Whatever else may have changed, these irresistible charms remain. And they are the reason why every time I come back to Savannah, it’s an experience touched by magic.
Nola, being so familiar with the city from its museums to architecture, what understanding of Savannah do you hope visitors take away with them? NB: A lot of what John has referenced is still very much alive and well, though I’d also say there’s more of a sense today of Savannah being connected to the world and new people constantly coming here both to visit and live. There’s a really fascinating, growing community of expats from elsewhere who come here for creative projects via The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) or the film industry. I most want to share that beneath the beautiful 19th-century architecture or the fragrant botany that pervades the city, there are these complicated rich human stories both from the past and the present. I love to open those stories up to people so that they can learn not just one but multiple narratives.
What do you think continues to make Midnight—and perhaps subsequently Savannah where it’s set—so intriguing to people? JB: [The book] focused mostly on Savannah’s historic district, and the overall ambiance that I tried to capture was the beauty of the place and the insularity of it. Everybody knew everybody. That permitted certain kinds of behavior. There were people who, as adults, still lived in their childhood homes or eventually died in the beds they were born in. There was an ironic sense of humor that was very typical of Savannah at the time, which I tried to capture, along with local traditions like the oyster roast in which you’d go out near the shore and eat oysters hulled fresh out of the water and roasted over a fire. There’s a kind of cohesiveness and community spirit and isolated culture to these events but also to daily life that I was getting after. I’m sure a large part of that culture still persists today.
NB: Savannah is an intimate community and it’s still true that when I leave my house in the historic district, I do always see someone I know. And if I didn’t see them they would certainly see me. There’s something about the architecture and the way the city is so walkable with its squares, sprawling green spaces like Forsyth Park, and the shops at street level—there’s just an ability to encounter people and a perforation to the city that allows this to take place. It isn’t true of other places where you get in your car or on the subway and don’t know the people on the train. Here, people know each other and recognize each other. That’s part of what I love about living here. You do know your neighbors and they want to share their stories with you. You then want to share yours with them, and you all become part of each other’s story.
What culinary traditions still exist? NB: I actually just had an oyster roast this weekend! Definitely church on Sunday followed by lunch. [It’s different in every community but] usually for me it’s either at one of the newer restaurants in town [like The Grey], or one of the older clubs of the city. There’s still a strong club tradition here and that’s part of the infrastructure of the historic area.
But there are new rhythms, too: The farmers’ market sets up every Saturday morning in Forsyth Park and features all local products from foraged mushrooms to locally caught seafood. There’s still a strong element of cocktail hour whether it’s on the front porches of the homes, or in the park, or wherever.
JB: I can agree with you there.
NB: It’s still alive and well. And at certain places you still get a sidecar to any drink you order—a little top-up should you so need it. Certainly people drink at lunchtime and that’s not dead in the water. You’ll often see people having a cocktail during lunch break.
JB: When I was interviewing people over the years in Savannah they invariably wanted to be interviewed around five in the afternoon, because that was when they could start drinking. That was good for me, of course. It would loosen them up. Their defenses would be down and they would talk more freely.
So what’s the ideal blend of activities for a traveler who wants to see the true Savannah? NB: There really is no way to fully know Savannah if you’re not inside the [historic] homes. The homes were designed to have many people in them, especially the larger residences on the trust lots like The Mercer House (now called The Mercer-Williams House Museum), The Green-Meldrim House, and the Owens-Thomas house. They were pretty much designed for entertaining, with incredibly wide hallways and grand parlors. The way to understand them architecturally is to see them in their intended use, hosting guests. [In the PRIOR Nomadic Clubhouse trip] we’ll have access to a lot of people’s homes from the community and interesting storytellers who have lived here their whole lives.
We’re also planning to take people beyond the historic district to not just meet the people there but to see the natural beauty that you described, John—how Savannah is situated inside these marshes and estuaries and networks of intercoastal waterways. We’re going to the [antiques dealer] Mimi Cay’s riverfront property, where we’ll have fresh crab pulled from the river and sparkling wine followed by a very Southern style rice lunch. We’ll have a walking tour with two incredible members of the Gullah Geechee community who will tour us through parts of the city and talk about its more complicated history in relation to slavery, but through music and storytelling. And we’ll see some of the interesting things people are doing more locally like indigo dying and Yaupon tea and sake making. There’s a whole other dimension to Savannah that’s not part of the historic district homes, and it helps create a rich tapestry.
The PRIOR editorial team, overseen by David Prior, works together to write and produce stories that inspire curiosity about, and the desire to connect to, places and people across the world.