For those who would like an Olympic venue quieter and more cultured than tomahawk-chopping Atlanta; who would rather sample Southern hospitality washed down with juleps, not suds; who would opt to sup on shrimp just hours removed from the ocean and boiled in herbs rather than gorge themselves on corn dogs and Buffalo wings; who would prefer taking their shade beneath oaks caped in Spanish moss to doing so under mirrored skyscrapers, may we suggest the lovely and leisurely Savannah, satellite city of the 1996 Games.
Savannah, a five-hour, 268-mile drive southeast from Atlanta, is host to the yachting events. Yachting, we'll grant you, is a fan-challenged activity. As boring as it is on television, it's worse in person. Watching from a spectator boat as the Olympians race in Wassaw Sound won't be any treat. The swells on the sound usually run a stomach-churning three to six feet. The heat and humidity in July and August are oppressive. And the mosquitoes in midsummer are only slightly less voracious than the sand gnats—the locals call them flying teeth—that drove sailors batty in May during the U.S. Olympic Trials. You might catch a distant view of a couple of sails before your kids start vomiting over the side and you develop sunstroke, but that's about as good as it will get.
Still, for those intrepid few who make the trip, Savannah, which will hold its own opening, closing and medal ceremonies, promises to add a unique flavor to the Olympic experience. The first capital of Georgia, Savannah is a visual jewel whose character is easily reproached; it's a Southern belle with a reputation. Savannah was founded in 1733 by James Edward Oglethorpe, who had drawn up its design—which featured houses built around 24 parklike squares—even before he sailed from England. Twenty-two of the original squares survive (the opening scene from Fairest (lump was shot in one), adorned by benches, monuments, fountains, brick walkways and ancient oaks. Surrounding the squares are a wealth of 19th-century houses of various styles: Federal, Greek and Roman revival, Italianate, English Regency, Victorian. Some of the homes have been restored to their glory; others are fraying at the edges; and others, particularly some of the Victorian ones, are downright dilapidated. The town is a soft-spoken protest against the sameness of modern times.
Olympic visitors who feel they have stepped back into the '50s upon arrival in Savannah will be forgiven if they depart unsure whether it's the 1950s or the 1850s. The place has an air of the nonspecific past. All that visitors will know for certain is that they've traveled far from the " U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"-chanting crowds on Peachtree Street to another world and a more genteel time. "In Atlanta, people ask strangers, 'What do you do?' " says Savannah tour guide Pat Tuttle, a native of the city. "In Macon, people ask, "Which church do you attend?" In Augusta it's, 'What's your mother's maiden name?' But in Savannah, we ask, 'What would you like to drink?' "
Tuttle tells this story while seated on a bench marking writer Conrad Aiken's grave in Bonaventure Cemetery, a spot overlooking the Wilmington River. It is the last stop on her By the Book tour, a celebration of the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the place where she used to pour wine for tour-goers until a magazine article mentioned the delightful custom and local officials put an end to it. Tuttle notes that on this very bench, writer John Berendt, a native of Syracuse who's the author of the Book, as locals now refer to Midnight, and local resident Mary Harty drank martinis while Harty first told Berendt about the nature of Savannah. Intrigued by what he heard. Berendt expanded that introduction into an engrossing tale of an actual 1981 murder in one of Savannah's historic houses and the series of trials that followed. His cast of characters, all of them real people, included drag queens, voodoo practitioners, piano-playing bunco artists, surly gigolos and murdering antique dealers. The Book has sold more than 900,000 hardback copies since it was published in 1994, and it has been on The New York Times best-seller list for most of the last two years.
Call it Midnight madness. The Book has spawned a tourist boom like nothing Savannah has ever seen. In the city's 263-year history—and this is where the first Girl Scout troop was formed, where Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and where the first trans-Atlantic steamship crossing was launched—nothing has, for better or worse, done to the city what the Book has. It has made Savannah trendy.
"We're going to have a great athletic competition here, the Olympics, and all anyone talks about is the Book, which in any other city would mean the Bible," says the executive director of the Greater Savannah Sports Council, Dan Simmons, who like many Savannah natives is not wild about the light in which Midnight casts his city.
Indeed, while Atlanta braces for the 17 days during which the Olympic family will be in town, Savannah is afraid that the Games might actually cut into its tourist traffic. Midnight fans now make pilgrimages to Savannah expressly to find the people, places and graves mentioned in the Book. Visitor-center registrations are up 25% in the two years since Midnight came out, and hotel-and-motel-tax revenues are up 15%. Further, a bevy of cottage industries has sprung up to assist the pilgrims, selling them tours, maps, tickets to lectures, calendars and miscellany. "The Book must be getting big in Oklahoma, because we've had a lot of visitors from there recently," says Tuttle, who fills two buses sewn days a week. "Also Germany."
It's only going to get worse, since the Book will soon be made into the Movie, directed by Clint Eastwood. Midnight has even spawned a literary offspring. The Lady Chablis, the black female impersonator whom Berendt wrote about hilariously, has her own memoir coming out in July. It's called Hiding My Candy, a title that does not refer to the pralines left on a guest's pillows each night by the proprietors of the Gastonian Inn. Chablis, unfortunately, will be on a book tour when the Olympics come to town, a scheduling conflict that has her seasick inside. "I like yachting because I'm a Pisces, honey," she says, "and I like water. I also like the fact that there's a lot of skin showing, but not much of it as pretty as mine."
What little skin was showing on sailors during the U.S. trials in May was covered up by bug nets. The sand gnats of Savannah are such a plague on the populace that in balloting by 1,800 city residents to rename the minor league baseball team this year, Sand Gnats won 70% of the vote. The moniker has proved to be a marketing bonanza. In its first 22 games this season, the club sold more team merchandise than it did all last season as the Savannah Cardinals. Two bug repellents have signed on as Sand Gnats sponsors. "Get bitten!" has become a team slogan, and in the tradition of the tomahawk chop, fans perform the Sand Gnats swat. So do the players, who can be seen slapping their arms and necks while trying to stand at attention for the national anthem. "The sand gnat is a feisty, tenacious creature that won't ever give up," says Ric Sisler, the team's general manager and a grandson of Hall of Earner George Sisler. "Just what you'd like your team to be." The Sand Gnats, who play in the Class A South Atlantic League, will be home for 10 games during the Olympics, and Sisler hopes to attract a few spillover fans from the yachting.