SURFSIDE SIXThe Rowans could safely ignore their neighbors' whispers. But their good luck started to change when they hired a popular Savannah eccentric named Gordon Varnedoe as a fund-raiser. Varnedoe, whose older brother Kirk is the director of painting and sculpture at New York's Museum of Modern Art, is a burly fifty-eight-year-old rugby enthusiast with a disarming gap-toothed smile and a legendary obsession with Batman. When I first met him, he wore a winged Batman logo embroidered in his pin-striped shirt, embossed on his belt buckle, and printed on his tie. Varnedoe drove around Savannah in a black Dodge van-the "Batvan"-with logos stamped on the wheel covers. He also owned a small outboard he christened the "Batboat." Varnedoe sometimes wore a cape.
He was gregarious (friends call him a "cuddly bear") and an asset to the aloof, chilly Rowans. They provided Varnedoe, whose career in real estate was foundering, with a steady, respectable job. He used his undeniable skill-socializing-for SCAD, placating persnickety downtown neighbors and talking up the school to local businessmen. He became the art school's most zealous booster.
In the fall of 1991, Batman, in the role of fund-raiser, stumbled onto a business opportunity that would eventually spoil his relationship with the Rowans and contribute to the unraveling calm at their school. A plastic surgeon from Florida wanted to donate a floating restaurant to SCAD for a tax break. "It was called Surfside Six," Varnedoe recalled. "Back in the Sixties, it was featured in a television show of the same name." The Rowans had accepted gifts of buildings, but they had little use for a modestly famous floating restaurant-what would they do with it? They wanted cash. So Varnedoe proposed a solution beneficial to all: He would put up $200,000 of his own money to buy the boat. The doctor, in turn, could donate the proceeds to SCAD and get his write-off. Varnedoe asked only that SCAD's attorney help him complete the paperwork necessary to get the thing open. All parties agreed, and Varnedoe bought Surfside Six and had it towed by tug all the way from Jacksonville to Savannah.
The barge soon became a financial sinkhole. Varnedoe took out a loan and, in all, tied up $352,000 in the venture. SCAD wasn't helping him though, Varnedoe said, and the entire episode became an intense psychological drain as well. Exhausted from stress, he took a month off from his work at SCAD to see his family and deal with Surfside Six.
When he returned, in February 1992, Varnedoe did something he knew would get him in trouble: He had lunch at a popular Savannah restaurant with the head of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, a group of downtown residents who had clashed with SCAD over parking spots and historical preservation. When the Rowans, who put enormous stock in employee loyalty, heard about the meeting, they fired Varnedoe, saying he'd stabbed them in the back. The Rowans and Batman, though, weren't through with each other. Growing unrest among the students would put them on a collision course.
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