It’s seven o’clock on a December evening in Savannah, Georgia, and the Steamboat House—a private residence named that by its owners because it resembles just such an old-fashioned river vessel—is lit up dramatically against the dark sky. Its two wraparound porches, one on each floor, glitter with oversize, ball-shaped red and green ornaments. Visible through the bay windows are two ten-foot Christmas trees twinkling with more than 2,500 lights and an enormous buffet laden with silver chafing dishes and pink towers of boiled shrimp.
Soon, more than 175 people will pass through the front door for the annual Christmas party hosted by Jim Burke, 41, a gynecological oncologist, and his partner, Doug Orr, 29, a pharmaceuticals sales representative. Among the guests are a mayoral candidate and a hairdresser, a grad student and a Victorian-architecture expert, high-profile society figures, and a few transplanted Yankees. The men wear tuxedos, the women gowns (more than a few of which are gold, hot pink, or iridescent purple), and despite the 60-degree temperature, fur coats are a popular accessory. The effect is of a prom for grown-ups, only here no one hides the booze.
Savannah is a green city, verdant even in wintertime, and a gothic one, in both appearance and spirit. Buttresses, vaults, and arches adorn public buildings and homes alike, and the influence of the Gullahs—people of African descent settled in the coastal South, whose practices involve communing with spirits—is sometimes palpable. Georgia’s oldest city, Savannah was founded in 1733 and was a big trading port in colonial times. Noteworthy for its antebellum architecture, it is a crown jewel of the South, mentioned in the same breath with such charmed locales as New Orleans and Charleston.
The cooking of Savannah is well regarded, and its seafood is particularly famous. But even more important to the personality of the place, especially during the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, is its legendary party culture, its flair for celebration—the origins of which likely date to the end of the Civil War. In late 1864, the Union general William Tecumseh Sherman mounted his final siege on the Confederacy by marching through the South and burning everything in sight; “I can make Georgia howl!” he cried, before torching my hometown, Atlanta, 200 miles northwest of Savannah. Having thoroughly dismantled the rebel army by the time he reached Savannah, he offered the city, on December 21, as a Christmas gift to President Abraham Lincoln. Ever since, the city’s residents have apparently taken up partying as their mission—perhaps in gratitude, perhaps in noble defeat, perhaps just because….
I’ve been invited to Burke and Orr’s party by a friend of a friend, a stately advertising executive turned socialite named Charles Sawyer, and I get there by 7:30, the official starting time of the fete. (I’m told that folks in Savannah have never heard of the concept “fashionably late”.) Within half an hour, Mr. Boston—a veteran Savannah bartender with a name too real to be right (his first name is James), stationed at a wet bar in the kitchen—is already pouring second rounds. “After the fifth drink,” he confides, “I cut the booze in half, and they never know the difference.”
Barring the odd martini, whiskey—bourbon, scotch, or Irish—is the drink of choice. Nat King Cole sings “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” from wall speakers, and people are elbow to elbow at the buffet in the dining room, piling plates with miniature bacon and cheddar quiches, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese, and pigs in a blanket. Unlike many other hosts in the city, Burke and Orr prepare their own party food, using favorite, time-honored recipes supplied by family and friends. As I survey the spread, composed mainly of simple, salty, bite-size items, Sawyer, seemingly reading my mind, tells me that in Savannah, hosts do not necessarily feel a need to provide overly modern, complex, or especially costly food. Generally speaking, the fare is designed to enhance a good cocktail. A few hors d’oeuvres (and drinks) later, I’m sold.
Sawyer points out Swann Seiler, the elegant daughter of lawyer Sonny Seiler, immortalized in John Berendt’s 1994 best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which was based on a murder allegedly committed by local antiques dealer Jim Williams. Williams resided in the grand Mercer House, and the book features scenes from a black-tie Christmas party held there.
I take a last sip of my drink, and, as if on cue, a tall, 30-something gentleman in a navy-and-green tartan kilt, worn in honor of his family’s Scottish heritage, leans over and asks whether I need a refill. When he returns with bourbon and sodas in hand, he tells me that his name is Charlie Roy, he owns a local construction company, and he’s been to New York City, my adopted hometown, once. “I stepped out of a taxi and spotted a dead rat in a gutter,” he recalls excitedly. “Whoo-hoo! That’s what I came to see, I thought to myself.”
I circulate through the house and eavesdrop. People are discussing Savannah’s urban-planning strategies (“If you look at Charleston, hotels that have commercial complexes in them are bursting with business”), talking shop (“One of the guys that succeeded me is the department head now”), dissecting relationships (“I have dated so many dorks…”).
At about 10 p.m., I literally bump into Wanda Brooks, a real-estate agent who had a cameo in Berendt’s book. She is a dynamo, all five feet or so of her: platinum hair in perfect helmet mode, red-and-silver sequined top shimmering, plastic flamingo tumbler in hand, as always. (A guest later tells me that at a Halloween party a few years ago, ten people came dressed as Brooks.) Within minutes of our meeting, she is rambling on about all manner of things, from her kitchen cabinets to her ex-husband. Of the man to whom she was married briefly, she says, “He was good-looking, he had class, he had charisma. He said he had a book club in Hawaii, but he probably didn’t. But he probably did.” By now, I have become accustomed to such candor from strangers. One gent told me almost straightaway that he had gained a hundred pounds in his 15 years of living in Savannah.
At the buffet, servers replace bowls of tangy, rich artichoke dip, clear plates littered with shrimp tails, and bring out more piping-hot rumaki. Guests swarm in for the toothpick-skewered chicken livers wrapped in bacon—a classic hors d’oeuvre from the ’60s that Burke and Orr now favor. At the same time, Burke, who earlier told me that he plans to spend “about three minutes” with each guest, gives tours of the house—a century-old, postbellum, Thomas Square Streetcar District beauty with six fireplaces and nearly-11-foot ceilings.
When Burke and Orr bought the property in 1999, it was in disrepair. The couple had it restored, preserving as much of the original woodwork as possible, and furnished it with the help of interior decorator Mary Presnell, a friend from Tennessee. Presnell is in charge of readying the house for the annual holiday party, which the couple instituted partly to show off the joint. She always changes the decor, and every inch of the house is covered when she’s finished, Burke says. This year’s scheme involves sheer purple curtains hung around the living room, tiny Christmas trees on the upstairs landing, and strands of gold beads dangling from all the light fixtures.
As Burke leads people from room to room, Orr visits with the smokers outside. The pair’s temperaments fit neatly. Burke is the more restrained and resembles a young William Holden; Orr is a prankster with twinkling blue eyes and a wicked sense of humor (“I love me,” he says).
Around midnight, two men carry out a woman as she yelps, “I’m not ready to go yet!” Here comes Charlie Roy: “Girl, I’m not leaving ’til I kiss your cheek,” he says to me on his way out, having endured many “What’s under the kilt?” jokes (at one point, I saw him reveal the answer).
Before I know it, it is 2:30 a.m. “I’ve been cheated,” a lanky, spiky-haired brunette in a beaded black halter suddenly croons. The last 20 or so weary guests—flaunting mussed comb-overs, crooked bow ties, and smudged mascara—gather for this impromptu impersonation of Linda Ronstadt, circa 1974. “Been mistreated. When will I be loved?” she belts out, smoky voiced and full throated but, unfortunately, off-key. It’s time to go home: the skinny lady has sung.