SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Beneath the ancient, moss-draped oaks, Sue Rendeiro leads a dozen visitors to a granite bench that happens to be a tomb.
Families still picnic among the dead in Bonaventure Cemetery, she tells the spellbound group, and the poet Conrad Aiken designed his unique gravestone for those who might want to linger with a martini, as he often did.
But these men and women are toting cameras, not silver shakers, on their pilgrimage to the once-secluded cemetery. It's the final stop on their 2 1/2 -hour tour of Savannah spots made famous by the best seller, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
"In the beginning," Rendeiro politely confesses, surprising her group, "I wasn't in the least bit interested in doing this book tour."
Savannah, in general, shared her initial reluctance to embrace John Berendt's mostly nonfiction tale of murder and eccentricity amid its elegant, 19th-century mansions and insular, old-line society. Yet like Rendeiro, who now chauffeurs a tour van, many in this sleepy Southern town are coming to terms with its new notoriety.
"The Book," as it is known locally, turned into a mega-hit -- on national best-seller lists since its 1994 publication, translated into 23 languages and made into a movie released last year. Along the way, "Midnight madness" has transformed Savannah, setting off a tourism boom and creating several thousand new jobs.
More than 5 million people visited the small Georgia coastal city (pop. 150,000) last year, up from 3.7 million in 1995. Tourist spending increased 30 percent in the past three years. The inns are full, and tour buses, trolleys and horse-drawn carriages roll through the historic district seven days a week.
Shops peddle "Midnight" T-shirts, bookmarks, kitchen towels, key chains, postcards and official cookies -- key lime coolers. At Clary's, the waitresses sport "Midnight" T-shirts; the onetime drugstore has expanded into a full eatery since the days when Berendt met locals there. New restaurants cater to the crowds, and housing values are rising, with so many newcomers settling in town.
Ironically, the "Midnight" phenomenon has changed some of Savannah's "self-imposed estrangement from the outside world" that beguiled Berendt.
In his final chapter, Berendt writes that after living there part-time for eight years, he had learned: "Savannah was invariably gracious to strangers, but it was immune to their charms. It wanted nothing so much as to be left alone. . . . For me, Savannah's resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large."
Now, observes retired history professor John Duncan, the outside world has come to Savannah.
"In Slow-vannah, we used to have to go out of town for entertainment," he says. "Now, we just sit back and let the rest of the world come to us."
He enjoyed a walk-on role in the movie, and his wife, Virginia, has a photograph of herself with director Clint Eastwood taped to the refrigerator. The couple sell autographed copies of the book in their antiques shop, a profitable venture that has afforded them a new car, dubbed the "Midnight-mobile" by their friend, Berendt.
"It's helped create a renaissance," Virginia Duncan adds. "Savannah is alive. It's energetic."
Not everyone in Savannah is equally delighted.
The book and subsequent movie chronicle the true story of Jim Williams, a wealthy antiques dealer tried four times in the killing of his lover, Danny Hansford. Finally acquitted, Williams died soon thereafter in the mansion where he had shot Hansford.
Though the slaying was well-known locally, some Savannahians did not care for giving it national prominence. Nor did they approve of Berendt's depiction of their beloved city. "Midnight" features memorable characters, including a voodoo priestess, an inventor who talks of poisoning the city's water supply, an amiable con man and the drag queen Lady Chablis (who landed her own book deal -- "Hiding My Candy" -- and played herself in the movie).
"Oh, that darn book," Euclid Parker sniffs, while stitching a quilt .. at the Visitors Center. She stopped reading it after the chapter on the Married Woman's Card Club. "I'm from the country," she says, "and even I know high-society ladies don't talk like that."
Even today, at least a few Savannahians grumble that the book revealed local gossip they wanted kept local. But far more worry that in gaining millions in tourist dollars, their town risks losing something less quantifiable -- its unique identity and charm.
Savannah always drew plenty of tourists, but they came to see the Italianate mansions, the lush city squares and birthplace of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Lowe. Today, "Midnight" pilgrims flock to stare at houses where characters lived. And like Annapolis, Charleston, S.C., and other popular historic towns, Savannah is struggling to find the right balance between tourism and historic preservation.
"This is our home," says Sarah Moore Barto, president of the Historic District Residents Association, which is pushing for limits on the tour vehicles. "Sometimes, I look out the window and see those tour buses, and think, 'I've got to get out of here.' "
Jim Williams' sister still lives in Mercer House, the shutters drawn shut against the hordes snapping photos. One family even posed outside the front gate in Santa Claus outfits for a Christmas card. Autograph-seekers have tried to push their way into several homes. And so many "Midnight" fans trampled across a family plot in Bonaventure Cemetery to see the "Bird Girl" statue, photographed on the book cover, that it was moved to a local museum.
And there's no sign of any significant letup. The book is still a best-seller, and fans line up daily for the half-dozen narrated tours in town. Native blue-blood Pat Tuttle broke ranks by beginning the first book tour; today, she has four buses and a new gift shop.
"Life is good," she says. "In the South, you're told don't tell family secrets. . . . But to me, it's foolish to complain when you see how Savannah is prospering."
Plenty of locals agree -- and not just the tour operators. They recall the city's hard times in the 1950s and '60s, when shops stood empty and many of the historic houses were crumbling. Lady Astor, while visiting, is said to have described Savannah as "a beautiful woman with a dirty face."
"I've been waiting 32 years for this time to come," says Duncan, the retired professor.
He and his wife live across Monterey Square from the Williams mansion, but don't feel overwhelmed by tourists. They also believe the initial resentment has largely faded.
"At first, some people had very negative views of the book, but most have come around," Duncan says. "Certainly, 95 percent of the population now approves."
One is Rendeiro, 68, who led historic tours for years, retired and then went back to work driving a peach van for her friend, Tuttle. She knows some characters in the book, though not, she quickly says, Lady Chablis. Today, she enjoys conducting the gossipy "Midnight" tours; she figures they introduce visitors to the beauty of her historic hometown.
"I think it's exciting for Savannah," she says. "Even on the book tour, the rest has to rub off. They see how pretty Savannah is, they learn some of the history and, hopefully, they'll want to find out more."
Pub Date: 5/21/98