By Lawrence Ferber
The ghost of Kevin Spacey haunts this room.
Actually, it’s the ghost of a rich, gay antiques dealer and preservationist, Jim Williams, whom Spacey portrayed in the 1997 film “Midnight In the Garden of Good And Evil,” although the latter seems somehow more likely to impart chills and cringe these days. I’m touring the Mercer-Williams House, one of Savannah, Georgia’s most famous 19th-century homes, including the actual study where Williams shot and killed his hustler boy toy, Danny Hansford (played by Jude Law in the movie, and I’m sure many queens would welcome his spectre), reportedly in self-defense.
Adapted from gay author John Berendt’s bestselling 1994 nonfiction novel, director Clint Eastwood’s movie shined a Hollywood spotlight on Savannah and its quirky denizens, including iconic transgender entertainer The Lady Chablis, who famously played herself, regularly performed at LGBTQ bar Club One and, sadly, passed away in 2016, which helped attract even more millions of tourists annually. In 2019, 14.8 million visitors came for Savannah’s mix of historic architecture, gorgeous willow-draped parks, movie locations (including the spot where Forrest Gump sat on a bench babbling inane philosophies about chocolates), a buzzing riverside entertainment zone and live-and-let-live genteel Southern attitude. Bless their hearts!
Today the lush, compact and walkable port city, hometown of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 8 queen Dax ExclamationPoint and Georgia Democrat Senator Raphael Warnock, boasts an even more progressive open queerness. There’s Halloween weekend’s vibrant Savannah Pride, the hipster Starland District, an influx of creative young energy thanks to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD for short — fashion icon André Leon Talley sits on its Board of Trustees) and, this being one of America’s most haunted cities, an expanding population of spirits (including the drinkable type at Ghost Coast Distillery).
Ultimately, Mercer House — once owned by the family of another iconic homegrown talent, prolific songwriter Johnny Mercer of Oscar-winning “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” ditty “Moon River” and Elvis’ “Fools Rush In” fame — proved an illuminating experience replete with photos of Williams and his parties, original antiques, paintings and furniture, especially for fans of the film and book. But the upper floor, where Williams’ sister still lives, and its working pipe organ remain off limits.
Many tourists stay around the tourist-heavy, shop-lined River Street, newly developed Plant Riverside district, and adjacent downtown, which all form Savannah’s equivalent of NOLA’s French Quarter and an active port where cargo ships routinely zip past along the city’s namesake river and hotels include an Andaz and new 416-room JW Marriott. However, my husband Matt and I opted for the neighboring, slightly inland Historic District. Its Perry Lane Hotel, which splits 167 rooms between two buildings and boasts a cheeky, upscale camp aesthetic in design, decor and property-wide collection of contemporary art, proved perfect and more chill. Just two blocks from Chippewa Square (site of the Gump bench, a temporary prop), there’s also a rooftop bar and pool where local queers regularly congregate for the gorgeous views and a kiki… but not so much for the pedestrian cocktails, one noted. “Nobody goes there for the drinks!” However, if you prefer gay B&Bs that capture the city’s historic flavor, and are allegedly haunted to boot, there’s the Foley House Inn,
DIGGING YOUR SCENE: SAVANNAH’S TO DO’S
To get one’s bearings in Savannah, a tour is well-advised, and there are dozens listed on official tourism website Visit Savannah, from trolley to bicycle to themed walking tours. The latter include Black heritage, food, local indie boutique shopping, ghost/haunted (I’ll get to that later!), and openly gay guide Jonathan Stalcup’s engaging Architectural Tours of Savannah, which we joined and enjoyed. Stalcup juxtaposes structures and stories with photos of Savannah’s evolving cityscape since its founding in the 1730s by General James Oglethorpe and, as it turns out, some sassy queer facts if you take him aside post-tour.
Many essential attractions are historic, educational and kid-friendly in nature, including the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, Bonaventure Cemetery, and 100-plus-year-old Leopold’s Ice Cream, which draws snaking, hours-long lines of tourists daily for old-timey frozen treats. It honestly isn’t worth hours-long waits unless you’re the 8-year-old with extremely limited travel and life experience who loudly declared “This is the best ice cream I ever ate!” as I consumed a sundae and rolled my eyes so far back the time traveled to 2015 (pro tip: there are two satellite Leopold’s locations at the airport with little to no wait). Yet some of Savannah’s most intriguing musts are surprisingly modern and edgy.
Incorporating an antebellum railroad depot in its design, the contemporary SCAD Museum of Art hosts multidisciplinary, provocative exhibitions by international talents like queer French artist Mehryl Levisse, whose immersive “White Wig,” featuring five sculpted wigs by Parisian drag queens, will be on display through December 12, 2021. Artwork and home goods by SCAD’s own faculty, students and alumni, plus books, accessories and more, fill out sister retail space shopSCAD.
Only open Thursday through Sundays, Graveface Museum is destination-worthy for those obsessed with serial killers, cults, sideshows and pinball machines, with a permament collection of artifacts related to the above, including a pair of underwear worn by lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos and artwork by John Wayne Gacy (shockingly, John Waters hasn’t been by yet!), plus a horror-movie-themed arcade and shop.
And Chocolat by Adam Turoni is one of Savannah’s retail musts. A queer chocolatier who channels Southern culture and flavors through his sophisticated, high-quality, artful creations, Turoni’s Historic District Bull Street boutique is designed like a home library, its shelves displaying trays of Red Velvet, Mint Julep and Georgia Peach truffles plus gold-dusted honeycomb bars and much more. To the rear, a glass-enclosed kitchen provides views of chocolate-making in action, while Turoni himself often works the register and can be chatted up. Another Chocolat location, on Broughton Street, is dubbed the “Dining Room,” while a third can be found in nearby Charleston, South Carolina (there’s a lot of brand crossover between the two sibling-esque destinations, including Savannah Bee Company, Byrd’s Famous Cookies and the trailblazing Husk restaurant). Private chocolate-making classes with Turoni can also be arranged via the Perry Lane Hotel.
COFFEE AND CUISINE
Being a coffee snob and caffeine junkie, a priority was finding Savannah’s best cold brew. Conveniently, a branch of popular local cafe Franklin’s was a few blocks from my hotel offering a solid cold brew and yummy pastries. Downtown’s queer-owned Blends roasts its own beans, as does Perc, whose owner Philip Brown, a hipster-bear literal daddy, staffs his flagship warehouse-cafe with LGBTQs and is himself the proud father of a trans child. Perc also sells a killer dehydrated instant version, plus excellent bagged beans (Perc expanded to Atlanta in 2020 and opened its second location there in 2021, so this could well become the Southeast’s Stumptown!).
Hungry, we had our first breakfast at local and tourist fave B. Matthews, where reservations are highly recommended during peak hours. Passing numerous rainbow flags, I noticed its listing as both “LGBTQ friendly” and a “transgender safe space” on Google Maps, while the lowcountry Southern-tinged food was excellent. I savored a cheesy, decadent shrimp and grits bowl I would happily return for, plus fried green tomatoes. Another brekkie-must with outdoor seating to boot, The Collins Quarter serves brunch daily and its “Swine Time Beni” — bacon and hollandaise-topped poached eggs over pulled pork and French toast — is bar none the most decadent, heart-clogging eggs Benedict iteration I’ve encountered. And if you’re hungry and hunty, once a month the Moon River Brewing Company and Club One collaborate for a family-friendly Sunday drag brunch.
Savannah has upped its culinary game substantially in recent years with enterprising young chefs bringing color, presentation and locavore ethos to plates. As a foodie I was psyched to try Husk, and while the interior design proved stunning, drinks lovely, and a bonus to be greeted by a seemingly nonbinary host, the food was hit-and-miss (my boneless heirloom pork entree was shockingly tough, but its side dishes sublime and brightly flavored).
Happily, 2021 arrival Common Thread and Savannah native Zach Shultz’s Cotton & Rye proved high points, with outstanding, fresh, memorable cuisine; request a table with view of the kitchen at the former, and do not sit outdoors during summertime at the latter lest you risk being tormented by hangry flies while eating. As for supporting LGBTQ-owned restaurants, the traditional French Circa 1875 and Italian La Scala Ristorante are the work of gay couple Jeffrey Downey and Donald Lubowicki.
NIGHTLIFE IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL
If you’re a natural at networking, befriending queer locals is well-advised, since even before COVID hit private house parties became Savannah’s dominant form of local socializing and nightlife for LGBTQs (Grindr and Scruff, we’re giving you stink eye). Only one LGBTQ+ bar, the multi-level dancing and drag queen destination Club One, still stands — there are 18+ nights, a plus for SCAD students — since the delightfully divey Chuck’s Bar closed in 2019.
As with many cities, drag shows have become a magnet for godforsaken decidedly un-gay bachelorette parties and rowdy (albeit ally-ish) heterosexuals. This certainly proved true with Savannah’s Yes Queen! Pub Crawl. My hubby and I were the sole queers participating besides the delightful Venezuela-born queen and aspiring fashion designer leading the tour, Marie Con, and her lowkey boyfriend. It basically entailed Marie creating a loud public spectacle while we searched for her fictitious sugar daddy, Richard, aka “Dick”; stopped at non-gay bars for drink specials; and, at her insistence, grabbed each other’s butts to form human centipedes while crossing the street. It was a bit #MeToo and I really wished #TimesUp, but I did cull valuable intel from Marie about the scene and local drag collective, House of Gunt, before fleeing early.
We didn’t flee early from another popular and quintessential Savannah after-dark activity: a ghost tour. Although hoping for the guide known as “Prince,” who styles himself like the iconic late musician, our adults-only Sixth Sense haunted tour was led by the black-clad “Lady Ravenwood,” whose ensemble included an LGBTQ+ rainbow and a shiny pair of steampunk glasses (not sure how steampunk figures in here, but OK).
Being a skeptical Scully to my hubby’s I-want-to-believe Mulder, I rolled my eyes as Ravenwood told us of murder victim ghosts and flashed images of blue orbs hovering on her phone, and I begged for a spirit or demon to attach itself to us to spice things up (“Burn sage!” my hubby’s fellow true believer friend texted in a panic). Alas, no blue orbs or demons followed us home, but darned if glowing happy memories of Savannah don’t frequently haunt and beckon us back.
NY-raised entertainment and travel journalist Lawrence Ferber has contributed to publications including Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, The Advocate, NewNowNext, The NY Post and TripSavvy. He also co-wrote/co-created the 2010 gay romcom “BearCity” and authored its 2013 novelization. Photos courtesy of Visit Savannah.