The venerable Savannah mainstay shows no signs of slowing down.
Leah Bell sits down with Julie Donaldson Lowenthal to dish on the family business as it turns 90 years old.
There are certain flavors we associate with place. And, if Savannah had a singular taste, most folk would say it’s the smoky barbecue sauce bottled by Johnny Harris Restaurant—a mainstay on Victory Drive for 90 years. Even while growing up in Atlanta, there was no other option for sauce in my house—it was Johnny Harris all the way—and it’s been the same for generations of families, not just in Georgia but throughout the world.
Julie Donaldson Lowenthal has never known it any other way, either. Lowenthal, the granddaughter of Red Donaldson, who took over the business from its namesake and passed it on, has captured the restaurant’s history and (thankfully) recipes in the Johnny Harris Restaurant Cookbook (Pelican Press 2014). She wrote the book to celebrate not only her family’s history, but that of the city and its food. And, she led the renovation of the venerable rotunda—the former ballroom of the supper club that ruled Savannah society during the mid-20th century—which will be unveiled at a birthday celebration today.
I got a chance to sit with Lowenthal and get a taste of the past as Johnny Harris looks toward the next 90 years.SM: When did you decide it was time for a Johnny Harris makeover?
Julie: About two and a half years ago. It was when we were updating our catering menu and I was photographing food for the new items. In between courses, sitting in the ballroom, I found myself looking around at all of the things I felt needed an update. It started with just a little here and a little there, but I eventually found myself seeing the potential for renovation in every piece of the room.SM: How did you start such an undertaking?
Julie: We followed what I like to call the “chip away” method. I’ve found that in a town like Savannah, change isn’t always best in some peoples’ eyes. Everyone here likes what they’ve grown up with—what they’re used to. I quickly learned that when it comes to our regulars, its best to update things in pieces rather than all at once, as to not overwhelm everyone with huge changes. It’s not a bad method for the budget either.SM: You mentioned regular customers—every restaurant has them. Tell us about Johnny Harris’s.
Julie: Our regulars have been around since the beginning, as far as I know. Back in the day when there were only, say, five restaurants in town, Johnny Harris was a regular spot for most Savannahians. It wasn’t just the restaurant that was a mainstay for customers, though. I know my grandparents sat at Booth #1 every time they came to eat; and I’m certain they weren’t the only ones with a “regular booth.” We’ve even have people wait in the lobby because they have a certain place in the ballroom or “the kitchen” where they HAVE to eat.SM: The kitchen?
Julie: ”The Kitchen” is the side of Johnny Harris that has a more diner-like atmosphere. We call the side in front of the counter “The Kitchen,” and behind the counter “The Pit.” That was where our first grill in the restaurant was located, so it’s had the nickname since day one. We’ve taken old photographs of the restaurant and blown them up to display in The Kitchen as a way to remember the restaurant’s history.
SM: Speaking of history, what have you learned about the restaurant that you didn’t know before?
Julie: I actually had to do a lot of research on the building when I started writing the cookbook. This whole endeavor has been such a huge learning experience on the history behind the restaurant, and this building, for that matter. For instance, we discovered that the back of the restaurant may have, at one point, been a drive through package store back in the Prohibition days. Prohibition also was the reason for the deep set booths—people used to close them off with a curtain and bring their own alcohol to drink. Couple that with the centerpiece of the room, which used to be a rotating bandstand, and you’ll find that Johnny Harris was the place to come in Savannah to have a good time!SM: What was your favorite part of the renovation?
Julie: I think what I like most are the parts that we were able to keep original. Those are the pieces that keep people coming back, and those are the parts with the stories. The ballroom mural, for example, was painted by a homeless man who offered to paint the landscape for free in exchange for food. What started as a short-term project turned into a year of painting and free food for the local wanderer, but that mural he painted looks just like new even today. No hired professional could match that kind of story.
What does Savannah taste like?
Eccentric? Elegant? Sweet or dry?
We’re asking you, the people who know our city best, to submit your original cocktail recipes in our quest for Savannah’s signature cocktail. To enter your lucky libation, CLICK HERE »
Deadline is 5 p.m., May 16.
It’s not just some post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction. More than 35 percent of Chatham County’s residents don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Nearly half of those are children. We want to make a difference, and we need your help.
For every new, renewal or gift subscription received between May 1 and June 30, Savannah magazine will donate $1 to Second Harvest’s Kids Café program. Our goal: $1,000.
To help us end hunger now, CLICK HERE >>
Pres Fest toasts city’s commitment to preserving our past.
Allison Hersh raises a glass to the Historic Savannah Foundation’s years of success.
Call it tradition. For decades, forward-thinking Savannahians have faced down bulldozers and stopped wrecking balls, making sure local architectural and cultural treasures can be enjoyed by future generations.
The city’s grassroots commitment to preservation runs deep—nearly three centuries deep. Since Georgia’s founding in 1733, Savannah’s urban plan has stood apart, defined by an elegant system of public squares and a pedestrian-friendly design.
“Preservation is the backbone of Savannah,” says Daniel Carey, president and CEO of Historic Savannah Foundation. “It’s what distinguishes us from every other city in Georgia and makes us the world-class destination we are. It all stems from our roots: appreciation for our environment and natural resources, General Oglethorpe’s timeless plan, respect for history, outstanding architecture and, of course, our famous hospitality.”
In honor of the city’s impressive legacy of preservation, HSF will host the third annual Savannah Preservation Festival, May 8 through 10. This year’s event, sponsored by United Community Bank, will span three days of education, outreach and inspiration, making it the nation’s largest and most ambitious preservation celebration.
“We want to celebrate Savannah’s commitment to preservation,” says Carey, “and share our secrets with visitors from across the country and around the world.”THE 2014 SAVANNAH PRESERVATION FESTIVAL SCHEDULE* Donovan D. Rypkema Lecture, Preservation Panel Discussion and Reception
May 8, 6 p.m., Free, Arnold Hall, 1810 Bull St.
Rypkema, principal of the Washington, D.C., firm PlaceEconomics, will discuss the economic impact of historic preservation in Savannah.SCAD Adaptive Reuse Tour
May 9, 10 a.m.–Noon, $35 per person, departing from the Clarence Thomas Center, 439 East Broad St.
The Savannah College of Art and Design has given new life to many of Savannah’s significant landmark structures. Enjoy an insider tour.Preservation Wine Tour
May 9, 6–9 p.m., $75 per person, throughout Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District
Tour five of Savannah’s finest private homes, including HSF Preservation Award winners, and hear their stories over food, wine and live music.HSF Revolving Fund Presentation and Trolley Tour
May 10, 10 a.m.-Noon, $35 per person, Kennedy Pharmacy, 323 E. Broughton St.
See preservation in action and enjoy a narrated overview of HSF’s Revolving Fund, which has helped save nearly 360 significant Savannah structures.Raise the Roof Party
May 10, 7-10 p.m., $75 per person, Ships of the Sea Museum, 41 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.
Celebrate the power of preservation at this high-energy soiree, with live music and tasty cuisine by some of the city’s finest chefs.
*An all-access pass, $250, includes admission to all events and a discounted HSF Preserver Membership. To buy tickets to events, CLICK HERE >>
Photography credit: Home page image courtesy of Historic Savannah Foundation
Savannah Arts Academy’s “Best in Show” student designer takes to the SFW Runway.
By Skye Sienkiewicz ¦ Photography by Savannah Morning News/Shelly Mobley
Troy is a junior at the Savannah Arts Academy, where students compete to create fashion collections from recycled materials at the annual Junk2Funk fashion show. This year, Troy’s skilled craftsmanship at Junk2Funk won him a Best in Show nod and the first-ever Fashion Week scholarship. He counts Savannah’s own Project Runway star April Johnston and local designer Brooke Atwood among his mentors, and plans to intern at The Row in New York City this summer.
On May 1 in Forsyth Park, Troy will display the six-piece women’s sportswear collection he created for Junk2Funk.
Concept: What began as “cowboys vs. Indians” evolved into a “rebellion against what fashion is” in his eyes. Each piece embodies a sense of nostalgia and child’s play into the survivor of today. The recycled materials used in his garments are rope, window screening, vinyl, glitter, zip lines, zip ties, fringed pin-caps, and hand beading.
Inspiration: Troy loves to “go against the grain,” challenge himself and discover new aspects of himself as a designer. He sees this collection as revealing that “imperfections are still beautiful.” His favorite design luminaries include Alexander Wang and Nicolas Ghesquière during his Balenciaga tenure.
Must-have: A dancer protects his feet, so Troy lives in sneakers. He wears his Nike Free Runners with chinos rolled at the ankle.
Boho-rocker chic designer to show latest collection at Savannah Fashion Week.
By Skye Sienkiewicz ¦ Photography by Tim Willoughby
Originally from Mississippi, Brooke Atwood learned to sew from her grandmother, then came to Savannah to earn an MFA in fashion design at The Savannah College of Art and Design. In 2012, her love affair with leather led Brooke to launch her own label. She lives in Savannah, where she styles and designs at her in-home studio.
Brooke will be showing her 2014 Fall/Winter collection: 24 pieces designed in Savannah and produced in New York.
Concept: The Brooke Atwood label is casual, effortless women’s wear with a rocker edge. For her current collection, think 1975 rodeo/prom queen meets New York fashionista.
Inspiration: Travel, music and live shows—especially Mississippi blues by artists such as Hank Williams III. Rodarté and Alexander Wang are her favorite designers.
Process: Brooke starts by imagining two or three pieces, then builds on those silhouettes to round out the rest of her collection. Surprisingly, she doesn’t sketch her looks before designing—she only draws flats for production.
Must-have: The moto jacket. Brooke wears one from Schott NYC, and her new collection features a sleek, black moto blazer made from long-haired velvet.
As the May 1 fashion show approaches, DeAnn Goins gets an advance look at the Forsyth Park runways.Bleubelle Boutique
The runway look: “We love that luxe, sophisticated beading is making a strong presence on the runways,” says Bleubelle owner Heather Burge. “A touch of delicate sparkle can take a simple silhouette and make it perfect for a fun Savannah night out.”
The local muse: Graphic designer Emily McCarthy
The must-have piece: “I love these handmade Reece Blaire stackable bauble bracelets.”
» $28-$34 each at Bleubelle Boutique, 5500 Abercorn St, 355-3554
The runway look: Fascinated with movement in nature, Tara Kirkland says the word “togetherness” describes her runway look this year. Onlookers can expect to see custom-made jewelry (available for purchase after the runway event in Friday’s pop-up shop), leather and a bold attitude.
The must-have piece: “Dresses from our fall collection (like this one) will be available for preorder.”
The local muses: “I would love to see Molly Rowe in this dress,” says Kirkland “or Lindsay Thompson!”
» Custard Boutique, 422 Whitaker St., 232-4733
Runway look: Focused mainly on chic rompers, jumpsuits and fashion for the modern woman, Jennifer Miller Cole has curated a look that’s full of bright colors and bold patterns. It’s fresh, chic and designed to stand out.
The local muse: Staci Cannon
The must-have piece: This Bella Dahl button-down pocket top.
» $102 at J Paige, 107 C Charlotte Rd, 897-1525
The runway look: Owner Stephanie Lindley took inspiration from Audrey Hepburn to design this year’s runway show for James Gunn. Think “tailored neutral solids for an easy sophisticated woman,” she explains, “and our swim looks for this season are comfortable and sporty California chic.”
The must-have piece: “This full-coverage, black two-piece swimsuit.”
The local muses: “The Whelan family!”
» James Gunn, 8413 Ferguson Ave. in Sandfly, 335-1887
Sara Jane Children’s Boutique
The runway look: Inspired by nautical trends in adult fashion, Sarah Jane Strickland is decking out her adorable little models in chambray, seersucker and linen.
The must-have piece: “These leggings are a great transition piece for girls—perfect for shorter dresses and to wear with tunic tops,” Strickland says.
» $22 at Sara Jane Children’s Boutique, 202 E. 37th St., 234-5266
The runway look: “Simple designs, luxurious materials” is the motto at Satchel—and it’s also the inspiration behind designer/owner Elizabeth Seeger’s runway collection. Seeger promises light, airy, neutrals mixed with metallics, monochromatic textures, white-on-white animal prints and pops of metallic in lilac, cobalt and tomato to light up the night of May 1 in Forsyth Park.
The local muse: Elizabeth’s sister, Alison Seeger
The must-have piece: “Our metallic leather cuff bracelets go with everything,” says Seeger “and make great hostess gifts.”
The runway look: Pop art and 1940 silhouettes captured Lindsay LeMaster’s imagination this season, so look out for artsy prints, floral patterns and reinvented classics straight from the Trunk.
The local muse: Erin Wessling. “She’s fearless when it comes to fashion—and life in general,” LeMaster says.
The must-have piece: “A crisp white collar shirt (like this one from BCBG) can be worn a million different ways.”
» $58 at Trunk 13, 414 Whitaker St., 349-4129,
The runway look: Zia Sachedina’s Fashion Week looks are always show-stoppers, but this year he took inspiration from the birds of paradise in African jungles. We’re sure to be wowed by his exotic jewelry and accessories.
The local muses: Miriam Urizar or Stephanie Lindley
The must-have piece: “(I love this) obsidian arrowhead and rock crystal necklace set in sterling silver,” Sachedina says.
» $2,249 at Zia Boutique, 325 W. Broughton St, 233-3237
Join Savannah magazine staffers and stylists on our whirlwind tour of the 5th Annual Savannah Fashion Week, April 28-May 3.Monday, April 28
Meet us at 11 a.m. at the corner of Broughton and Barnard streets, where we’ll be cheering on Mayor Edna Jackson as she receives the first-ever Savannah Fashion Advocate Award.
Next, we’ll cruise by ZIA at noon for an early peek at Zia Sachedina’s latest jewelry label from Spain.
We’ll grab salads at Butterhead Greens on our way south to Twelve Oaks for Heather Burge’s Diane von Furstenberg trunk show at BleuBelle. Like the iconic DVF herself, Heather and her staff always know how to make us look our best.
We’ll end the day at Satchel, where the talented Elizabeth Seeger will help us design our own custom leather accessories—from cuffs to koozies.Tuesday, April 29
Today is the day to get ready for fun in the sun, thanks to the L*Space swim collection trunk show at James Gunn in Sandfly and Trunk 13’s Beach Bash, complete with resort wear, beach bags and other summer essentials.
After an afternoon with the American Girls at Sara Jane Children’s Boutique, we’ll swing by the Mamie Ruth Studio for a trunk show and accessory bar with boho-chic designer Emily Bargeron. Then we’re off to the Modern Bronze jewelry trunk show at Custard Boutique, where edgy owner Tara Kirkland’s parties are as singular as her store’s selection.Wednesday, April 30
In the eye of the sartorial storm, we’ll prop our feet up and watch the feature film Mademoiselle C, a documentary about French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld—one of fashion’s most influential movers.
Time Out New York said, “For fashion junkies, Mademoiselle C is like five September issues of Vogue all rolled into one.” All for just $10 at the door of the Jepson Center for the Arts at 6 p.m.Thursday, May 1
For the first time ever, Savannah’s independent fashion designers are joining Fashion Week retailers for a runway extravaganza in Forsyth Park at 7 p.m. Get the highlights in the March/April issue of Savannah magazine, and get your tickets now before they sell out.Friday, May 2
This year, we’ll be able to shop last night’s runway looks at the Savannah Fashion Week Pop-Up Shop, presented by The B Street District from noon to 7 p.m. at the corner of Broughton and Barnard. A $5 donation at the door will support the Savannah Style Fund, providing scholarships to talented young designers.Saturday, May 3
Trunk-show hop with us from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. as we visit with two local designers at beloved Midtown boutiques. Bridal whiz kid Faith Thornburg will display her collection at the whimsical new wedding design mecca, Ivory and Beau, and Kathryn Grotheer Hayes of Mix Julep will share her spring and summer collections at BleuBelle Boutique.
Slider Credit: Photography by Beau Kester
Article Credit: Photography by Tim Willoughby
Image 1: Mix Julep red shift dress, $198 at BleuBelle Boutique. Gold herringbone bracelet, $198 at Zia.
Image 2: Cate Lyon batik tunic, black pants and bubble necklace, call for price at Cate Lyon Studio, 238-9410. Stingray and gold cuff, $149, and cloissone Indian wedding earrings, $49 at Zia.
Image 4: Brooke Atwood leather cage sleeve top, $480 at Brookeatwood.com. Modern earrings, $198 at Zia. Ethel K. Schwabacher; The Rock, 1961; Telfair Museum of Art; Gift of Christopher C. Schwabacher and Brenda S. Webster, 2007.31.
Image 5: Alice & Olivia navy gown, $495 at BleuBelle Boutique. Gold chain with raw ruby and black onyx, $149, and hand-knotted tribal ring, $50 at Zia. Headpiece, Ikeda Feingold.
Image 6: Faith Thornburg “Scarlet” dress, $2,145 at Ivory and Beau. Wishbone gold earrings with champagne pearl, $65, and clear quartz with beaded gold chain necklace, $149 at Zia.
With Savannah Fashion Week approaching, Lily Fort sat down with the stylist behind our March/April cover look.What kind of look belongs on the cover of a magazine?
Ikeda Feingold: It needs to be original and it needs to look like something you can’t just go out to the shop and buy. If we shoot things that come from the shops in town, changing the look through accessories and the way its shot is really important to make the look more dynamic and original. A cover has to really catch people’s attention.How did you and designer Cate Lyon collaborate to create this piece?
We both came to the table with different designs. I think Cate was right (that) mine were (too) simple. She thought the dress needed to be a strong image for the cover. She wanted the fabric to be hand-dyed with the flower pattern; it needed to be a special dress. I definitely wanted one shoulder to be netted, and she came up with the all the draping.It’s definitely a unique piece. Are the flowers tie-dyed?
Yes. Cate did it herself. It’s kind of amazing because she did it on yards of fabric and she got the flowers in exactly the right place. It’s a really complicated and structured dress. I’m really surprised how well it turned out.What was the inspiration behind the tie dye?
Cate felt strongly that it couldn’t just be a solid color. We also had time limitations. Cate made the dress in a weekend, which is amazing. She knows how to work with silk and how to tie-dye it, so she took the fabric she had and worked with that.So where do you think someone would wear this dress?
It’s definitely a cocktail dress, but it’s also pretty elegant. The fabric and construction are beautiful so I think it could be worn to an event (gala, dinner party, wedding), easily.How would you accessorize this look?
For the cover we just did a simple bracelet. In life, definitely earrings and a bracelet, but nothing around the neck. You don’t need a necklace because the sleeve is really beautiful.We all know Cate for her intricate ball gowns and her work with Victoria’s Secret, but why did you choose to work with her for this Fashion Week cover?
She’s incredible; she’s designed such a variety of different types of clothing. I think anyone who can actually make lingerie knows a woman’s body really well. She can just look at someone and fit clothing exactly right. She really is a master seamstress. No one in town has her credentials and experience.
Party people Brianne Halverson and Dan Gilbert offer tips for toasting the city’s famous tree canopy.
St.Patrick’s Day is all well and good, but the wonderful thing about celebrating Arbor Day* is that your guests won’t have a frame of reference. Yours will undoubtedly be the best Arbor Day party they’ve ever attended. Instant success!
First, establish the tone of your party. Will be it cerebral or whimsical?
If you think your friends will enjoy flexing their intellectual prowess, make it an Arbor Day poetry performance.
“Read and discuss Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” proposes Andy Shearer, event planner savant and co-founder of the local Orange PR & Marketing firm. “After all, the Lorax ‘speaks for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.’” Have recycled tissues on hand in case things get emotional.
For a rowdier set, take an experimental tack.
“You’ve heard the expression ‘like nailing Jell-O to a tree,’ meaning something that is impossible,” Shearer says with a gleam in his eye. “But is it really?” Just search for “nailing Jell-O to a tree” on YouTube. It’s a game changer. (Editor’s Note: Savannah magazine does not condone nailing anything to a tree, but feel free to seek out a tree substitute among your own inanimate property.)LISTEN » The Tree Swing
Shearer suggests filling your playlist with throw-back favorites such as “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” For more contemporary stylings, anything by ‘90s grunge band Screaming Trees, hippie jammers Rusted Root, or singer-songwriter Michelle Branch will do.DECORATE » All the Trimmings
Christmas trees aren’t just for Christmas anymore, Shearer declares.
“Haul out your artificial trees in the off season and provide immediate ambiance,” he urges. “If you’re really inspired, have a themed tree-decorating party.”
Prefer something a little more collaborative? “What about toothpick sculptures?”EAT » Tree of Life
Build your menu around fresh delectables that grow on trees—guacamole, Ruby Red grapefruit granité, apple or pear tarte Tatin, pecan-cheddar rounds and curried spiced nuts (check out Food 52.com). More than anything, Shearer quips, keep the menu playful.
“Any food—hamburgers, pizzas, cookies—can be cut into the shape of a tree.”SIP » Green Drinks
Mix up an earthy, refreshing Arbor Gimlet. Muddle a sprig of rosemary with lime and sugar, toss with a healthy dose of gin and add a squirt of seltzer.
“Every drink becomes a celebration of Arbor Day when you stick a palm tree drink stirrer swizzle stick in it,” admits Shearer, who finds his at Barware.com.AND » Branch Out
“Pass the hat for the Savannah Tree Foundation, whose mission is to preserve, protect and plant canopy trees in Chatham County,” Shearer recommends, adding that a great way to commemorate the event is to invite guests to help plant a tree in your yard.
Just a few years later, you’ll be basking in the shade—a perfect reminder of the best Arbor Day party ever.
*Although the state of Georgia recognizes Arbor Day on the third Friday of February, the holiday is celebrated nationally on the fourth Friday of April.
A real-life character steps off the page and into Andrea Goto’s path.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the infamous “Book,” Andrea Goto cross-examines one of its real-life characters to find out how much our little “Garden” has grown. » Photography by Katie McGee
“Have you read ‘The Book?’”
As a transplant from the North at the turn of this century, I expected to encounter the South’s doggedly devout, but this question was too much. Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to realize that the book in question was not the Word of God, but rather John Berendt’s bestselling novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—a close second. The more blasphemous among us might argue that Berendt’s novelization of Jim Williams’ four trials for the murder of Danny Hansford has shaped the city of Savannah as much or more than the Good Book itself.
As we celebrate 20 years of Midnight, outsiders still flock to the city Berendt painted as darkly charming and warmly debaucherous.
But familiarity breeds contempt, as they say. I’ll be the first to admit that, not too long ago, I was one Bird Girl figurine away from an old-fashioned Book burning. That is, until one of the characters stepped from its pages and into my path.
Sonny Seiler, the lawyer who defended Williams in the last three of his four trials, describes himself as a “cracker” from Savannah. But I’m told Sonny is the embodiment of everything I like best about this city: its generosity, irreverence and talent for telling a damn good story.
So I put down my matches, pushed aside the burn barrel and sidled up to Sonny one morning at the stately Armstrong House, which a forerunner of the law firm Bouhan Falligant purchased from Williams in 1970. I come bearing gifts of mimosas and Back in the Day Bakery biscones in exchange for some true confessions from the Garden of Good and Evil.
Sonny didn’t disappoint.
Meet Our Guest
Frank “Sonny” Seiler was Jim Williams’ lead defense attorney in the series of murder trials that are central to the book and film version of Midnight. He is a senior law partner at Bouhan Falligant and he has appeared as an actor in three Hollywood films. Sonny breeds and owns the famous Uga bulldogs—mascots for the University of Georgia, where he graduated law school.
Savannah Magazine: You represented Jim Williams even before the murder trial and knew him quite well. Tell me a little about his character.
Sonny: What a smart guy he was! Jim was a peculiar worker. He worked at night and he slept in the daytime. I never could get him to do anything on the cases until around 3 o’clock and then he insisted I come over (to Mercer House). Then we’d have a vodka and tonic, which he liked. Or two. Or three. And I’d get maybe an hour’s work out of him on the case.SM: It doesn’t sound like he was too concerned.
Sonny: He had the feeling, “Look, I’m not guilty. I know you can prove it. You will prove it—you don’t need me. For all this stuff you do, send me a bill and I’ll pay it.” That’s about the way it went. But I did need him because he was gonna have to testify. We needed him to prove self-defense because there was no other witness.SM: How did he do?
Sonny: Throughout all four trials he never contradicted himself one time on the stand. And it was hell to get him to sit down just to read his testimony from the previous trial. He said, “I know all that. I lived through it.” He was very flippant about things like that. You wouldn’t think he had his neck in a noose, so to speak.SM: John Berendt moved to Savannah in 1985 when you were preparing for trial two. When did he get in touch with you about the book?
Sonny: Immediately. Berendt’s an amazing guy. I got to know him personally and liked him very much. But Jim was in jail and I couldn’t tell John all he wanted to know because the case was ongoing. John knew that I couldn’t answer any of the questions he really wanted answered. So he went about trying to find answers in his own way and he did a pretty good job of it.
He would bring me news of what was being said in the street, and that was helpful.SM: Were you at all concerned knowing this book was being written about your client?
Sonny: I couldn’t do anything about it. I had enough to be nervous about (laughing) than to worry about what John Berendt was writing.
SM: Take us back 20 years. How was the book first received in Savannah?
Sonny: Mixed emotions. One faction thought it was just a travesty of justice for a Yankee writer to come down here and spread gossip about Savannah and that’s what pissed ’em off more than anything. It wasn’t the book. But they did not think that the book cast Jim in a good light. The book had a lot in it about his homosexual tendencies, which most of his friends knew. Anybody who stayed around him should know. But that got publicized and ballyhooed by the paper here, which really, they were trying him for being “queer,” as we said. Not for murder.
Back in those days, (homosexuality) was an unpardonable sin in a sleepy Southern town like Savannah. It offended juries. We couldn’t escape that.
Little did they know what went on in this city. And gradually, whether they liked it or not, (the book) became popular.SM: But the details of the book are mostly accurate?
Sonny: He changed a lot of the names to—as they used to say—“protect the innocent.” Well, I don’t know how innocent they were, but he didn’t change any of the facts.SM: Was there backlash from the book?
Sonny: Not on me, except that people would call and harass me for representing Jim—accuse me of being sympathetic to homosexuals and all that stuff. My wife got used to that. I got used to it. And we just ignored it.
On the other side, it’s been very rewarding to see how the legal community received it. I have made hundreds of talks on this book to different audiences. I have one talk strictly for lawyers and judges that highlights the evidentiary facts and all.SM: The case went on for eight years. I can only imagine the toll that took on everyone.
Sonny: That case cost Jim Williams millions. It went to the Supreme Court three times. And you don’t go up there on buttons. All that takes time and money.SM: How did you come about getting involved in the 1997 film adaptation of the book?
Sonny: I got a call from somebody who was working on the movie and said, “Clint Eastwood wants to come to Savannah.” He came with (production designer) Mr. (Henry) Bumstead, who was a two-time Academy Award winner for art direction. They wanted to go over to Mercer House. And I said, “Good luck with that, but I will call (Jim’s sister, Dorothy “Dot” Kingery) and see if she will receive you,” because I still represent her.
So they flew down here, five or six of ’em, and (Eastwood) wanted to see Uga because he was going to be in the movie. So my wife brought Uga down here and we were sitting right in that white chair there. (Gestures at a chair in the foyer.)
Clint Eastwood didn’t wait to be introduced to anybody. He dropped down on the floor—you know, they wear jeans and all that there, they don’t ever dress up—and he started rubbing Uga’s head and he said, “Uga, I’m gonna make you a celebrity.”
And my wife said, “Mr. Eastwood, Uga’s already a celebrity.”SM: How did things go with Dorothy?
Sonny: I told Clint, “She ain’t gonna let you use this house in this movie because she’s very sensitive about what happened here.”
Damn if she didn’t do it. Clint is a charmer. I’ll tell you what: He has no problem with the ladies or anybody else. But she had one deal: That they could not film any of the “unpleasantness,” as she calls it, there. So they did all of that out at Warner Bros. But she let them film the house, the parties in there, and they were very pleased with it and so was she.SM: Was that a long time coming?
Sonny: Dot Kingery didn’t like the book. She kept everything hush-hush, but now she lets tourists go through Mercer-Williams House. But they cannot talk about the unpleasantness or what went on in that study on the first floor.
It just shows you how people have warmed up and what the book and the movie have meant to Savannah. Before this (movie), Dot wouldn’t have anything to do with John Berendt, or anything that would demean her brother. She wanted her brother to be known as a reconstructionist—which he was. Preservationist—which he was. Antique dealer—which he was. But not somebody who shot somebody. A “lover,” as they say.SM: In the film, Jack Thompson plays your character, but you still ended up having a role.
Sonny: I had a deal with (screenwriter) John Lee Hancock that he would get me on the jury. I wanted to be the foreperson who stood up at the end and said, “We the jury find the defendant not guilty.” That’s what I wanted more than anything because that would quietly stick my tongue out at a lot of people.
But Phyllis Hoffman, she was the casting director, she says to me, “You’re gonna be the judge.” She said, “Lemme tell you how this works. Clint says that you’re the right age, you have the right looks, you have the right voice and if you’ll be the judge, he won’t have to hire a voice coach to transpose somebody’s other lingo into being a cracker boy down here in Savannah.” (Laughing.)
I said to myself, “I’ve been before enough goddamn judges to know how to do this part.” I thoroughly enjoyed it.SM: But you began as a consultant on the film?
Sonny: Yeah. And I’m listed as that in the credit. Every time I suggested something, they would immediately do it. Nobody argued with me. The only thing I could never get them to do was eliminate Chablis. Now, I like Chablis. She’s an interesting guy. But Chablis did not know Jim Williams. And she certainly didn’t find the records at Candler hospital that lead to the acquittal.
I said, “Clint, really it’s almost unforgivable. She’s got no place in this if you want it to be real.” He said, “Sonny, don’t worry about it. They like people like her out there.”
And she did a good job in the movie. In the scene when she gets down from the stand and tries to take over the trial, I told Clint that she was apt to just take off on her own and ad lib. And damned if she didn’t do it. Clint never criticizes anybody on the set; never hollers at anybody. But I saw him quietly take her over to the side and they were talkin’. She never ventured away again. And she did a very good performance, I thought—and he thought, too.SM: So many of Savannah’s characters made it into the book and the film.
Sonny: In the Historic District, down here where it all happened? Same people. Same families. We don’t have much turnover down here. I mean, Ed Hill’s been there for years. The Duncans, they ain’t going anywhere. (Emma) Adler, she’s not going anywhere. Dorothy’s not going anywhere.SM: You’re a character, too.
Sonny: I’ve accepted that over the years. (Laughter.)
Then they had a big reception for all the people that had anything to do with the book. That was the first time I ever saw Chablis. She stood out. Of course, she was one of the few black ladies at the party. But she had on this knit St. John’s dress that clung to every curve. And she really looked good. She does not buy cheap stuff.SM: What other characters have stuck with you?
Sonny: One of the people that impressed me most was the real Minerva (Valerie Fennel Aiken Boles). She was very, very nice. She liked John Berendt. Of course, she loved Jim. I remember her because Jim had introduced me to her a couple of times out in (Forsyth Park). She’d come hang out there and Jim would give her $20 or something because she’d tell him what was going on in the community, which he valued. She was his mole.
He’d say, “C’mon Sonny, there’s Minerva sitting out there. Let’s go talk to her.” I said, “No, Jim, you go talk to Minerva, I’ll go back and work on your case. We’ll let her handle magic and I’ll handle the law.”
She died not long ago.SM: Even after two decades, does “The Book” continue to shape how people see Savannah?
Sonny: To show you that this book has a life of its own, as we say, people still wander in this building off the street because they recognize it being in the movie. They want to see the rooms that the movie was shot in. That happens all the time because they’re traveling around with that map in their hands that tells them different places, like the Oglethorpe Club. They try to get in the Oglethorpe Club all the time, but of course they can’t get to first base there.
To my knowledge, there are now three tour companies that give tours of Midnight. And they’re very good. They lie a lot and it pisses off some of my partners—mainly Walter Hartridge. When they come by here, they’ll say, “This is the law firm of Sonny Seiler. He represented Jim Williams.” Well, that pisses 23 other lawyers off.
But all of those things are indication of the fact that this book lives on. It reaches its peak every April when all the azaleas come out and all the people come to Savannah. This has taken the place of a lot of the old historic tours. They want to see Savannah, but they want to see it through the eyes of John Berendt and Midnight.SM: Will there ever be another “Book?”
Sonny: They write a book about Savannah every day!SM: No, a good one.
Sonny: Somethin’ good has got to happen first.
In an open letter, a local artist urges city leaders to embrace our creative spirit.
Words and illustration by artist and visual strategist Katherine Sandoz
We all know about Savannah’s first plan for success. But what about the second? In 1730, Gen. James Oglethorpe drafted the urban infrastructure of town squares that we fiercely preserve today. But in 1903, a marriage vow took place.Promises, Promises
At the turn of last century, Savannah city planners and strategists decided to build a testament to the “progressive spirit” of the new century and erected a new city hall at Bay and Bull streets. Then, as now, city leadership focused itself on the theme of “A Greater Savannah,” with special interest in “public improvements, harbor work and national exposure for the growing city.” Then, as now, protests centered on the cost and the unknown effects of change.
Pushing on, search committee members appointed Hyman Wallace Witcover the architect of record. He, in turn, commissioned Savannah-based artist C.W. Winstedt to create two sculptures to sit atop city hall. One named “Art” and the other named “Commerce,” these two statues were meant to stand for and usher in a new era when cultural exchange and industrial development would thrive because of one another.Gray Disenchantment
“Art” with her painter’s palette and “Commerce” with her model ship still stand guard over Oglethorpe’s trusted grid; however, our stewardship and support of art and commerce pales next to the love and honor we have shown our buildings and squares.
Art and culture are the hallmarks of a city. Savannah’s existing infrastructure, along with its 1903 strategy for cultivating art and commerce, suggest that we re-adopt and fulfill this very sound concept. Today our city’s trees are ready to bear fruit—a fruit that will last for more than one century and one that will enhance and create public improvements, harbor work and national exposure for a growing city.
It’s time we re-invest ourselves in Savannah’s second plan for modernity. Shall we not, with patience and kindness, foster a progressive spirit wherein art and commerce partner and thrive?Marriage Counseling
Sadly, economic, social, academic and community prosperity flounders outside of SCAD’s vibrant halls and diverse population. According to the Savannah Economic Development Authority, 32 percent of Savannah’s workforce labors in management, science, business and the arts. Our interests are not separate and they should not be served independently of one another. City Hall and its public servants should recommit to this relationship of art and commerce starting today (now) by developing an efficacious strategy for engaging art and culture on all levels and from all of our citizens.
In the past three years, there is no doubt that art in the public sector has delighted, engaged, improved sites and brought national exposure. City-permitted projects by See Savannah’s Art Walls (SeeS.A.W.) have been published nationally in print and online. These public works of art envelop every neighborhood regardless of the site and result in service to individuals, communities and organizations. Aside from the aesthetic value, those creating public art often make improvements to the buildings and landscaping. Who else should partner with creatives and become a partner in these “public improvements?”A Cry for Help
City Hall must commit to a “Greater Savannah” by fulfilling its promise and acting as stewards of art and commerce. It can loosen permit application timelines and lengths of active permits. It can ask creatives to advise, train, provide community service and act as ambassadors to our city. City leadership and those invested should oversee and moderate, but trust our artists and artisans to represent the city with vision and professionalism.
The marriage of art and commerce is the right one for those seeking revitalization, but more importantly, it is the right one for Savannah. Upholding the vows of this marriage guarantees that our city will shine nationally and that our harbor and airport will be busier than ever. Public improvements will become financially and logistically feasible. Finally, our community, in its entirety, can work shoulder to shoulder toward these goals.
City planners, engineers, designers, elected officials, community leaders and historians should be encouraged to collaborate with Savannah’s creatives to mark—and remark on—this time and place. Should we not invite the world to see our city dressed in its contemporary best? Could Savannah’s version of the marriage of art and commerce be the one upon which other cities model their own?
We may be a hundred and eight years late, but we’re not too late to become “A Greater Savannah.”Katherine’s Checklist for a Robust Art City
- Regional fine art and craft museums
- Independent professional galleries
- Creative and arts-based businesses
- Arts-related non-profits
- A thriving art market
- Art/culture residencies
- Professional/community exchanges/workshops/cultural art centers
- Documentation of contemporary artistic endeavors, i.e. museums hold permanent collection of local fine art, artisan and folk works
- Dialogue and discussion by art/culture historians
- Partnerships/exchanges with local corporations
- An online presence: lists of artisans, artists, cultural venues, blogs
- Publicists dedicated to advancing the arts in Savannah
- Annual and seasonal celebrations of all disciplines
- Public art by both local, regional, national and international artists at every square’s corner and in/on local institutions, organizations and schools
- Proliferation of institutional, corporate and government commissions
- A review committee of artists’ peers (art historians, arts educators, architects, urban planners, working artists, etc.) who review proposals and permitting