June 22, 2024 11:59 pm
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‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ turns 30: How the book left a lasting mark on Savannah

Credit: Benjamin Payne / GPB News

Benjamin Payne, GPB News

To the outside world, it’s called Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But to Savannahians, like tour guide Angela Sergi, it’s simply known as “The Book.”

The owner of Savannah Heritage Tours has been giving historical tours centered around Midnight for a long time now — almost since it first hit bookstores 30 years ago this month.

“I heard people say, ‘She’ll be gone in a couple of months,’” Sergi said of the early days. “I guess I showed them.”

Part courtroom drama, part character study, part travelogue through the Hostess City of the South, Midnight defied genres, as well as expectations — even to the author himself.

“I didn’t think that it was going to be anywhere as popular as it’s turned out to be,” said John Berendt, reflecting during an interview with GPB on his surprise smash hit that sat on the New York Times Best Seller list for a combined 216 weeks.

On its surface, Midnight was about the legal drama that surrounded Jim Williams, a wealthy antiques dealer and socialite who shot and killed his employee and occasional lover Danny Hansford in the dead of night on May 2, 1981, inside Williams’ extravagant home.

But the book bucked the true-crime genre by weaving in Savannah’s colorful cast of characters — most of whom had little or no involvement in the four murder trials of Williams, who was eventually found not guilty in 1989 after two tossed convictions and a hung jury.

The book gets its name from the Beaufort, South Carolina grave of Percy H. Washington, known in the book as “Dr. Buzzard.” Voodoo priestess “Minerva” (whose real name was Valerie Fennell Boles) went here at the behest of Jim Williams to put a hex on the district attorney prosecuting him for murder.

Caption

The book gets its name from the Beaufort, S.C., grave of Percy H. Washington, known in the book as “Dr. Buzzard.” Voodoo priestess “Minerva” (whose real name was Valerie Fennell Boles) went here at the behest of Jim Williams to put a hex on the district attorney prosecuting him for murder.

Credit: Benjamin Payne / GPB News

“One critic said I had cherry-picked my characters, and I plead guilty to that,” Berendt said. “Of course I cherry-picked them! Who would want to read about boring people? So, I picked the most interesting people I met.”

There was Emma Kelly, the encyclopedic pianist widely known as “The Lady of Six Thousand Songs,” who for decades, as Berendt wrote, “had spent the better part of her waking hours driving across the landscape of south Georgia to play piano wherever she was needed.”

There was Mr. Glover, a former Pullman porter who regularly walked an “invisible” dog through downtown in order to collect a monthly $10 inheritance.

And then there was “the most theatrical” of them all, as Berendt remembers her: The Lady Chablis, a Black transgender nightclub performer who went on to become a queer icon through the book and its 1997 film adaptation, in which she played herself.

“I have a man’s toolbox, but everything else about me is pure lady,” she said in a courtroom scene from the movie, addressing the jury from the witness stand. (In real life, Chablis did not testify.) “I love to dress in women’s clothes, I love to go shopping, I love to have my nails done and I love men.

“And by the way, ma’am,” Chablis said to one of the jurors seated on the front row during the scene, “blue is definitely not your color.”

While Chablis was very open about her life, not all Savannahians were forthright with Berendt, a New Yorker, right away. But after living in Georgia for several years — seemingly no closer to finishing the book than when he started — folks began letting down their guard.

“They would say, ‘If he asks for you to sit for an interview, do it. Your words will never see the light of day. He’s not writing a book,’” he recalled.

Berendt himself had become one of Savannah’s eccentrics: a Yankee who had stumbled across Savannah on a whim, relocating here to write a book seemingly as real as Mr. Glover’s imaginary dog.

It was only fitting, then, that Berendt’s writing process was a tad peculiar: “When I was in Savannah, I would pick up the phone and call my apartment in New York, and the answering machine would pick up. I would read what paragraph or page I had just written, and then hang up and call back and listen to the message, which was what I just read into it. And I almost invariably would find something that pointed out to me what was off about what I’d written or how it could be improved.”

In 1993, Random House announced it would indeed publish the book in just a few months — to the bewilderment of many a Savannahian.

“People all over Savannah panicked: ‘It’s about a murder! And bizarre people!’ ‘Am I in it?’ ‘Did he quote me? I don’t even remember what I told him.’ ‘Will I ever be able to show my face in public again?’” Berendt recalled people saying. “But then Midnight was finally published. There were a few grumbles, but one reviewer called it a love letter to Savannah. And I have no quarrel with that.”

Nor does Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau president Joseph Marinelli.

“In 1994, our estimated number of visitors to the Savannah area was 5 million,” Marinelli said. “In 2022, we had just over 17 million.”

Midnight‘s economic impact isn’t just anecdotal: in 2009, three university economists published a study in which they concluded that the book “had a positive and statistically significant impact on hotel tax receipts.”

Savannah might soon see another bump in tourism from Midnight, when a Broadway musical based on it debuts this summer in Chicago before moving on to New York.

Of course, Marinelli doesn’t attribute all of Savannah’s tourism growth to Midnight. But has it had a significant impact on the local economy?

“Oh, no question,” Marinelli answered. “We continue, to this day, to see people on the street corner holding the book, looking at certain buildings.”

Yes, you can still get a delicious breakfast at Clary’s Cafe, where Luther Driggers would bring his pet fly. The Mercer-Williams House, where the killing took place, offers tours (and a gift shop). And the iconic Bird Girl sculpture, featured on the book’s haunting cover, is still around — albeit no longer at Bonaventure Cemetery, but rather the Telfair Academy art museum, where she enjoys her own room.

But all the major characters, except for Berendt, have since passed away, following last year’s death of defense attorney Sonny Seiler.

“Before the book came out, Savannah was an inward-looking town,” said Berendt, now 84 and living back in Manhattan. “They didn’t care what was going on outside. I think now, with all the attention on it and people coming to visit it, they’re looking more to the outside. They’re aware of the outside world as they were not before.”

As Berendt writes in his new afterword to the 30th-anniversary edition of Midnight, “Savannah is still Savannah. But it’s a Savannah on steroids and growth hormones. Its pulse has quickened. Its background sound is higher in pitch and volume than that overarching hush I remember so well.”

This story comes to Savannah Sun Times through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

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