Augusta, Ga. has squatted on a red clay ridge along the Savannah River in the shade of enormous pine trees for 231 years. For most of these years it has tried to do more than just sit there, but things keep happening to Augusta. In 1735 James Oglethorpe had hardly hung his fur cap on a wisteria branch, declaring Augusta a trading post, when the Yuchi Indians started their raids. Surviving the raids was easier than surviving the Revolutionary War. Augusta was conquered so many times that both the British and the Continentals got bored crossing the river. Even in the Civil War, Augusta deserved a better historical footnote. It was the largest Confederate powder works, but General William Tecumseh Sherman, marching from Atlanta to the sea, didn't even bother to veer slightly north and burn it down.
Economically, unscorched Augusta had a perfect right to flourish after the war, because it had lumber and cotton and a river. And it did flourish for a while. But after the town had become a market and textile center, a member of what passed for the jet set in the 1880s decided that Augusta's sunny, invigorating winter climate was grand for bathing, porch sitting and polo. Augusta soon became a curiously fashionable if somewhat lazy spa, a place where U.S. Presidents sometimes hibernated. Augusta had just got accustomed to this idea, however, when something worse than Sherman's troops came along—something called the Florida boom. Florida's warmer climate made Augusta's winters seem like Stalingrad. Even if Augusta had been able to divert its energy back to industry, it would not have mattered then, for the Depression was about to swallow up a whole country, including Georgia.
For more than 30 years Augusta has been gamely fighting its own deterioration, but one thing it is never going to be again is a resort town that thrives on its guests. Thus Augusta is now a place that happens to its visitors.
Specifically, Augusta happens to its visitors during one infuriating, confusing and yet altogether hilarious week—the first or second week of April, the week of the Masters golf tournament. This is the one week in which Augusta speaks, groans, growls, yowls, laughs and weeps. Overnight it combines all that is good and bad in Louisville during Derby Week and Pasadena during the Tournament of Roses. It manifests all of the fun, frolic, anguish and hysteria that would occur if the Democrats held their national convention in Pamplona, Spain when the bulls are running through the streets. A week in Augusta during the Masters is like a surrealistic dream.
Thirteen times I have lived this dream. Speak to me now of a Masters, and while you envision deep-green pines, luscious fairways and Bobby Jones, I envision—to pick a starting point—the Bon Air Hotel.
In Augusta the landmarks of a lost elegance are everywhere, but eventually almost every visitor is drawn through streets of old Georgian and Classic Revival homes to the crest of a hill where the massive, wrinkled, 372-room Bon Air is exposed above a meandering drive of dark magnolias. The Bon Air gazes, like the Sphinx, upon Augusta and its newish tone of short-order cafes, car washes and drive-ins. Old and rambling, the Bon Air's whitewashed face looks most immediately at something that tells the entire story: the almost always dry cavern of its own swimming pool. The pool, located in a courtyard where Presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge once took their ease, has occasionally been filled in Masters week, filled with green water on which floated paper cups and hats and other strange baubles. In 1961 a motorboat sat foolishly on the surface with a sign that said "Mutimer for Sheriff." (Mutimer won.)
At night during the Masters, as music grinds from speakers on the upstairs porch, as wandering couples lean against the walls, as ancient waiters in white coats tumble drowsily through the dining room, the Bon Air conjures up the atmosphere of a Riviera palace the evening before World War I began. One of the jokes about Augusta is that President Wilson declared war on Germany after his room at the Bon Air put him in the mood. There are an awful lot of jokes about the Bon Air, because the sort of stay-at-your-own-risk attitude that has governed life there—and at most other Augusta hotels and restaurants—has become as much a part of the Masters as the divots taken out of the Augusta National Golf Club's velvet turf.
In many curious ways the Bon Air is the Masters. It is the most famous survival school of all the places that have for years tried to pass themselves off as Augusta hotels, and it is not unsymbolic that when one begins his first approach to the Bon Air there are red patches of blooming azaleas which lie against the lawn like the blood of a thousand vanquished guests.
While the Masters is the cornerstone of any present-day Augusta rebirth, it is a chipped cornerstone, for this first major outdoor sports event of each spring has been understandably too big for the city—now 70,000—to handle ever since the tournament grew so important after World War II. Nonetheless they come, 100,000 golf enthusiasts each year, entering into the gold, green and red beauty of an early April in Georgia, always with a mystical forgiveness and a renewed hope of and for a better-equipped Augusta. And each year they find it basically the same.
First, of course, they discover that the Bon Air still endures. Owners of the property, on the fringe of a fine old neighborhood not two miles from the golf course where the Masters is played, may come and go, and hotel managers may do the same, but the building stays. The Bon Air has, in fact, another new owner this year. It is a Houston realty company, which is gradually converting it into a residence for the elderly, catering to senior citizens at $125 per month for room and board. For the past four years the Bon Air has been closed most of the year, reopening only for the Masters. "That's wrong," says Jessie Outlar of the
Atlanta Constitution. "The Bon Air has always been closed. They've only charged money to stay there during the tournament."