SAVANNAH, Ga. - The Ten Commandments dominate the religious news in Savannah and a lot of other places in the South and elsewhere, but Savannah revels in "wickedness." This is the home, after all, of "hard-hearted Hannah," the vamp who poured water on a drowning man. The early settlers of Savannah banned slavery, rum, and lawyers, but it wasn't long before they realized that their Garden of Good and Evil was home to more than one kind of snake in the tall grass. (The lawyers survived, too.)
Summer in Savannah means tourists, and most of them arrive looking for the garden, or the evidence of it as outlined in the famous (or infamous) book by John Berendt. Sex sells in Savannah (unlike other places) and "Lady Chablis," the drag queen featured in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" continues to play to sell-out audiences in a Savannah club.
There's more than one Savannah, to be sure. This is where John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his hymn-writing brother Charles landed on their mission to bring God to the wilderness, and churches abound. There's even a bronze statue of John Wesley in the center of Reynold's Square.
Nevertheless, there's more than one kind of party, often more important than politics, policy or nearly anything else. "If you go to Atlanta," says John Berendt, "the first question people ask you is, 'What's your business?' If you go to Macon they ask, 'Where do you go to church?' In Augusta they ask your grandmother's maiden name. But in the Savannah the first question people ask you is, 'What would you like to drink?"
This generosity of 'spirits' cuts across class and ethnic lines. A Greek tavern keeper on River Street pours licorice-flavored ouzo into two enormous plastic cups, "on the house," for two diners to take with them on their moonlit walk along the quay facing the river. "You can drink while you stroll," he said. "It's legal in Savannah."
Billy Sunday brought his sawdust trail to Savannah, warning that the man in the saloon pulls the same rope as the devil. He drew the enormous crowds that he did everywhere else, but didn't come close to cooling down the town. Savannah was wet when the rest of Georgia was dry and during the Prohibition years a certain filling station on Abercorn Street pumped whiskey as well as gasoline.