By Philip Wallace, Marketing Systems & Content Analyst
A couple of recent events prompted me to revisit my favorite book, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story. First, a sad development, celebrated Savannah drag performer Lady Chablis passed away at the age of 59. Chablis figured prominently in Berendt’s 1994 nonfiction bestseller and went on to play herself in Clint Eastwood’s 1997 film adaptation. Secondly, a much more upbeat trigger, a colleague at work was preparing to visit Savannah for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show and wanted my advice on what to explore if she happened to have some free time.
Midnight chronicles the protracted series of events surrounding the murder case against prominent Savannah antiques dealer Jim Williams for the shooting death of Danny Hansford, a young male escort with a long list of prominent clients (and would-be-clients) among the historic city’s elite circles. In a style that draws comparisons to literary giants Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, Berendt brings vivid attention to characters and setting to recount his time spent alongside Williams and a host of other Savannah residents. As with Capote and Mailer, the fusion of true crime writing with elements of novelization is not without controversy in some circles, but with over five million copies sold worldwide, Berendt’s indelible mark on the book world can’t be denied.
In addition to Chablis, a number of other real-life figures featured in Berendt’s colorful narrative embraced—or at least learned to not shy away from—their Midnight connections. Williams’ defense attorney Sonny Seiler—also well known as the keeper of a long line of bulldogs who have served in the role of beloved University of Georgia mascot Uga—also appeared in Eastwood’s movie, though he played a judge presiding over the case rather than himself. The late Savannah singer and pianist Emma Kelly, aka “the Lady of 6,000 Songs” also made a cameo in the film.
As a devotee to the book, what stands out as I remember first devouring its pages back in the late nineties, is that the mysterious, eccentric, and charming city of Savannah itself takes center stage as the leading character. From the well-mannered precision of the Married Women’s Card Club to the banter of customers at the lunch counter of Clary’s Drug Store to the macabre beauty of Bonaventure Cemetery, the sense of place becomes palpable in a manner that transfixes the reading experience.
I had visited Savannah as a child in the mid-to-late seventies. It’s always been a destination for its colonial history and architecture. Yet, as a grown-up and Midnight fanatic, I couldn’t resist taking the plunge and visiting there as a tourist in 2004. At that particular time, some of the quarters of the city that had initially rejected the sordid nature of Midnight publicity had managed to come around. In fact, the Mercer-Williams House—the scene of the crime itself—had just recently opened to visitors, with the caveat being that the tour would focus primarily on architecture and not include the upstairs room where the shooting took place.
My experience as a Midnight tourist was everything I had hoped it would be. I realize that the line between commerce and exploitation can indeed be thin, but most of what I encountered seemed to fit with Savannah’s refined sensibilities. Evidently the legacy of the tourism explosion that begun with publication of “the book,” as locals refer to Berendt’s literary blockbuster, continues to endure.
On the occasion of the Midnight’s twentieth anniversary, a local newspaper article presented the economic impact through a series of facts and figures. During the two decades that followed the initial publication of the title, Savannah’s annual tourism had grown from 5 million visitors spending $587 million annually to 12.5 million visitors spending $ 2.2 billion annually.
Granted, I am not saying that aspiring writers should undertake their book projects with tourism and economic development in mind. Yet, given the digital media age in which we now live, I find it gratifying that a single book—particularly one written for a serious audience about serious subject matter--can have such a lasting impact on its readers. It makes me optimistic about the continued future of publishing, even with all of its changes and challenges.