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Graveyard turns into tourist haunt : A bestseller has brought busloads of the curious, and a perilous fame, to an old cemetery in Savannah.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the past three years, Savannah’s formerly peaceful Bonaventure Cemetery has become a bustling necropolis.

During the daylight hours when its massive iron gates are open to the public, tour buses lumber along the dusty pathways, past its ivy-covered crypts and terraced garden graves. Throughout the 600 acres that were once a thriving antebellum plantation, clusters of disposable cameras now flash at antiquated headstones and perpetually mourning stone angels. And children fearlessly romp through the azaleas or tug at the wraith-like tendrils of Spanish moss.

Such lively curiosity about the city’s long dead is not because of a sudden revival in Southern history or a new concern about preserving Savannah’s oldest burial grounds. It is because of “The Book,” as Savannah residents refer to John Berendt’s bestseller, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

And increasingly it is because of “The Movie,” which is Clint Eastwood’s version of “The Book,” scheduled to begin filming in Savannah in March.

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What role Bonaventure Cemetery has in “The Movie” is unknown. But several scenes in “The Book,” which gives what locals call a “true-ish” picture of the city’s seamier underside, occur under the cemetery’s shadowy bowers, where almost any misbehavior could have gone virtually unnoticed in the pre-Berendt era.

Moreover, the book’s cover features a statue from the cemetery--a girl holding two bowls that seem to be balanced between good and evil (even though she is actually supposed to be offering cups of water and seed to a flock of imaginary birds).

“I must tell you that I’m not a fan of this book,” Terry Shaw, chairman of the Bonaventure Historical Society, explained recently as he launched a tour of his lush and historic territory. “Dirty linen, it is, and it brings, well, a certain low-class tourist to Bonaventure.”

“Midnight,” which has boosted tourism in the city by almost 50%, tells the story of a prominent antique dealer who murdered his gay lover 15 years ago. Officially listed as nonfiction, the book is considered to be fictionalized fact to many native Savannahans. Berendt argues in a postscript that he has taken “certain storytelling liberties” and that his intention was to remain faithful to the characters and the “essential drift of events as they really happened.”

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Such arguments have not slowed interest in “The Book” or anything to do with it.

In fact, the invasion of tourists into this historic tract has already resulted in two losses from Bonaventure’s store of monuments. One disappeared when a “tourist” backed up a truck and acquired a sundial as a ghoulish souvenir.

The other monument missing is the bird girl from Berendt’s cover. The owners of the plot removed it.

“We were just afraid something could have happened to it,” said Einar Trosdal, a member of the old Savannah family whose plot included the statue dedicated to peace and serenity. Only a few feet tall, the bronze girl was small enough to fit in somebody’s trunk.

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As a result, tour guides and Bonaventure experts like Shaw concentrate on the other historic attractions of the cemetery--some of which would fit in any tabloid version of Savannah’s history.

For example, there is the story of Joseph Bryan (1812-1863), who was appointed first chief of Savannah’s mounted police and then retired to become a notorious local slave trader.

“He had a reputation of being able to sell more slaves per day than anyone else,” Shaw said as he pointed out Bryan’s grave site. “The obituary in the newspaper said that he was a man young people should model their lives after.”

Conrad Aiken, who won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1929, is buried there, his grave marked by a bench so that visitors could sit and contemplate the beauty around them. But as one site of a late-night encounter in the book, the bench is now anything but serene.

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Under the large oaks and towering palm trees also reside former mayors, bankers, newspaper editors, soldiers, doctors and local figures like Little Gracie Watson, who died of pneumonia at age 6 in 1889. Gracie was beloved by guests at the hotel where her parents worked, and her death warranted a marble marker by a well-known local sculptor.

Shaw, who was talking on a recent visit about how he has to take pennies left by visitors out of Gracie’s lap because they erode the stone, stepped back for a moment to allow a visitor to admire the girl’s statue. Suddenly, a live girl about Gracie’s age crashed through the shrubbery and squealed as a younger boy chased her and growled like some netherworldly creature. A few yards away on the nearest path, another tour bus stopped and unleashed its clientele.

Shaw shook his head as the crowd of tourists and their cameras moved toward young Gracie.

“It’s been here a long time,” he said of the Bonaventure community. “I just hope we can preserve it even longer.”

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