In January 1994, a little book with a big title put Savannah on the tourism trail.
Locals refer to “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” — published 20 years ago this month — simply as “The Book.” And that book is credited with attracting masses of tourists who have driven the city’s economic health in the years since.
John Berendt’s best-selling book features Savannah, its beautiful scenery, and its colorful citizens — club performer The Lady Chablis, piano player/con man Joe Odom, attorney Sonny Seiler, voodoo priestess Minerva and paino virtuoso Emma Kelly, just to name a few.
Berendt spent eight years in Savannah writing the book and even makes himself a character in the nonfiction account. The story centers around antiques dealer Jim Williams, who was prosecuted four times in the shooting death of Danny Hansford on May 2, 1981. Williams was acquitted on the fourth trial and later died in his home, the iconic Mercer House on Monterey Square.
“Midnight” contributed to a much needed boost in tourism during the mid-1990s, says Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah.
River Street and Rousakis Plaza had been developed to be more user and tourism friendly before the book was published, Marinelli said, and that had a lot to do with the initial boost in tourism in the first six or seven years afterward.
“Savannah already had great hotels and restaurants, but the attraction offerings were still pretty thin in those days.”
After 20 years, some would expect the “Midnight” fans to settle a bit, but Marinelli says that is not the case.
“People will tweet while they are reading the book and put little nuggets out there, and the responses from people really take off. The chatter takes on life of its own, which is fun to watch,” Marinelli says.
“If we post pictures about the book on our Facebook, we see a huge spike, too.”
“Midnight” books and movies also continue to be top sellers in the gift shop at the Visitor’s Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
The most popular requests Marinelli hears from tourists are lumped into “the big four:”
“Everyone wants to know how to get to Mercer House, how to see Lady Chablis, where is the Bird Girl statue, and of course, how to get to Bonaventure Cemetery.”
The Lady Chablis
Marinelli notes that Lady Chablis’ recent appearance on the hit Bravo show “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” created quite a buzz on Visit Savannah’s social media sites.
“She is still in demand and has an incredible following that has certainly outlived the book,” he says.
Visitors can still climb the dark, narrow stairwell to the second floor of Club One on Jefferson Street to see The Grand Empress perform in her monthly cabaret show.
After watching her performance, it’s hard to believe she will turn 57 in March.
So, after 20 years, does The Doll still like the book?
“Oh girl, oh yes, I adore the book,” Chablis says. “I love the book. I worship the book. Why? Because I’m still making money off it, honey.” She laughs. “It is still providing me with an income. I’m still getting calls to do TV appearances.
“I will always be a fan of the book. I think I am the only character that is still as popular. Nobody calls John Berendt anymore.” She winks to indicate she might be kidding.
Chablis says she and Berendt became friends while he was writing the book, and she recalls the first time she met him.
“I was one of the first people in Savannah John got to know,” she says.
During one of Chablis’ shows at a local night club, someone introduced Chablis to Berendt and told her he was from New York and was writing a book.
She says the idea that the book would take off never occurred to her.
“I just thought it was going to be some little paperback that I would have to buy to help him out.”
Rumors still circulate on local tours that Chablis was mad at Berendt when the book came out because it put her in a bad light. She’s says that is not true.
“While he was working on the book, John would call me and read to me what he had written about me. He asked how I felt about a situation or how I would say something.
“So basically, I was a part of him writing the stuff about me.”
Chablis says she has a good working relationship with some local tour companies and they bring folks by to see her when she is in Savannah, but she adds that even after 20 years some people haven’t embraced her way of life.
“… There are still some people who like to keep it hush-hush or look at it like it’s a bad thing,” she says.
Chablis says she feels the media was fair to her after the release of “Midnight,” but she can’t say the same of some of the locals in Savannah.
“I can’t say they were unfair to me, but I would say Savannah didn’t know how to deal with me,” she says.
“It was the first time Savannah was thrown into the spotlight. Along with ‘Midnight,’ which a lot of Savannahians didn’t care for, here comes this black, loud-mouthed, and as far as they are concerned, drag queen who was a big character in the book and was getting more popular.
“Savannah didn’t know how to deal with it, but they had to, so they had to learn.”
Impact of publicity
Despite the negative reactions from some locals, fans of the book embraced Chablis when she went to book signings with Berendt.
“When the book came out and people read it, I became so popular just from them reading the book, but they didn’t have a face to put with the character.
“I would just be sitting there with John and people would just think I was John’s assistant. And to watch people when they would realize it was me, to see their reaction, it was amazing.”
But Chablis says the fame had a dark side.
“After the book came out in Savannah, it was really hard because all my life, since I was like 14 or 15, I had always lived as a girl – not because I wanted to be a woman or anything, but because that is the only way I feel comfortable.
“But all of my life I had been able to go out in public and just be myself and all of the sudden I’m being labeled as the black drag queen, and I had really never heard that before … and it affected me mentally.
Chablis says she left Savannah after the book became popular. She feared for her safety and never moved back.
“Like for two years I became a recluse. If I had to fly somewhere, I would fly as ‘incog-negro’ (Chablis’ catch phrase) as possible so no one would recognize me. Finally I just had to own it.”
She continues to receive movie and TV offers and hopes to have her book “Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah” (1996) made into a movie.
She also says her recent appearance on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” has put her on Bravo’s radar and she plans to do more work with the network.
She also has a new gig as an ordained minister.
“I got to thinking, girl, now that all these gay folks can get married, and they got all this money and they are really going to want to throw a big wedding, who better than me to marry them?”
The experience, she says, has had a profound impact on her own spirituality.
There is no telling what is next for The Grand Empress, but one thing is for sure, she never forgets a friend.
“The most important message I want to get out there is I think Savannah and everyone else needs to remember Emma Kelly and what she brought to Savannah, what she brought to the book. We need to make sure we never forget The Lady of 6,000 songs and the mother of 10 children. I still miss her very much.”
Berendt devoted all of Chapter 6 to Kelly, who got her nickname from songwriter Johnny Mercer who challenged Kelly to play numerous songs he named and estimated she knew 6,000 songs from memory.
The author writes that Kelly spent her “waking hours driving across the landscape of south Georgia to play piano where she was needed.” He describes her as a devout Baptist and teetotaler who played cocktail lounges on Saturdays and church on Sunday.
The book made her famous. She made multiple TV appearances and was invited to New York in June 1995 with the late Ben Tucker and Chablis to play a concert based on the book featuring Johnny Mercer songs at Lincoln Center.
Spawning an industry
“Midnight” not only has contributed to a thriving industry of local tour companies, it has spawned tours dedicated solely to the book.
Kelse Palko, owner and tour guide for Noble Jones Tours, has dedicated hours of research to reading court transcripts, news clippings, history books and Berendt’s book to put together such a tour.
By 2002, he says, 25 to 30 tour companies were doing a “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” tour.
Palko says he has lived in Savannah for 17 years and decided to come to the Coastal Empire based on his love for “Midnight.”
“I was a bookseller in Colorado Springs, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be selling this book, I want to be where this book was written.’”
According to Palko, Berendt wrote the perfect book for tour guides.
“When you read the book, it almost reads like a tour,” he says. “Berendt gives us addresses and names and ways to map out the book easily. It’s really quite brilliant.”
Palko’s tour begins in Reynolds Square and makes its way to Monterey Square, passing by familiar spots in the book like the supposedly haunted Hampton-Lillibridge House, Colonial Park Cemetery, Clary’s, Forsyth Park and, of course, Mercer House – Jim Williams’ former home and the site of the shooting death of Danny Hansford.
According to Palko, the Mercer House tour is worth the visit if you want to see some of the “most beautiful antiques inside an architecturally amazing home.”
But don’t ask about Jim Williams and don’t expect to see the spot where they found Hansford’s body.
Never-ending book sales
While tour docents at Mercer House remain mostly mum about Berendt’s book, one set of neighbors is happy to discuss the book. John and Ginger Duncan own V&J Duncan Antique Maps & Prints and live just off Monterey Square.
John Duncan, a former Armstrong Atlantic State University professor, became one of Berendt’s Savannah tour guides while he was writing the book, and Ginger has a small blurb written about her on page 142 of the book.
The couple still have a friendly relationship with the author and even house sit for him on occasion.
“John has been extremely generous to everyone who was a part of the book,” Ginger says. The couple joke about the car they were able to buy with the money they earned from selling signed copies of “Midnight” at their store.
“John called it the ‘Midnight’ mobile,” she says.
The Duncans estimate they have sold 11,000 copies of the book.
“I had a tour group come by this morning, and we sold 13 copies of the book,” she says. “People are still interested in it.”
John admits he bought two cases of the book from the first printing and socked them away “just in case.”
“I have four of those books left today,” he says. “They sell for $400 apiece.”
Ginger says it doesn’t seem like 20 years since the book came out.
“It seems like it has always been here,” she says. “I have a hard time remembering a time when there was no book.”
John says it’s not just the story of the book that intrigues people but the cover and title as well.
“When John (Berendt) called and told me the title of the book, I said, ‘Oh, no, don’t name it that. It’s too long,’” Ginger says. “Well, what did I know?”
Local bookseller Esther Shaver of E. Shaver Bookseller says she quit counting book sales when she hit 10,000.
“It just keeps on and on,” she says. “I order them by the case or two cases every month — they just sell and sell and sell.”
Shaver says she knew the book was going to be a best-seller as soon as she read it.
“Nothing evokes Savannah like that book. I mean you feel it,” she says. “If you have never been here, you read it, and you feel it.”
Shaver says it’s been a fun ride to watch the book’s success over the years.
“One of my friends heard a tour guide say — this was 15 or 20 years ago — he said, ‘Ms. Shaver has sold so many copies that she bought a new Mercedes and she bought one for her husband, too!’”
While some locals were able to cash in on the success of “Midnight,” attorney Sonny Seiler says he didn’t feel he should be “doing any of that.”
Seiler made his name known as Williams’ tireless attorney in Berendt’s book. He says he met Berendt when he came into his law office at the historic Armstrong House after Williams’ first trial.
“John knew what my legal responsibilities were, and I got to know him,” he says. “We never discussed the case itself.”
So does a Yankee-penned book make much of an impact in the life of a big-named Savannah attorney?
“No,” Seiler says. “Life goes on.
“The book has a life of its own. People still come in Armstrong House where my office is, and they don’t realize it’s a law office … and they want to see the rooms where the movie is shot. The ladies at our reception desk are trained to handle them nicely and remind them it is a law office.”
Seiler says fans of the book always ask him what it was like to try the same case for eight years.
“You get to where you know it by heart almost. You know the answers by heart. You do the best with what you got, and you never quit working.”
Despite the negative press that Williams garnered after the death of Hansford, Seiler stills sticks up for his client.
“A lot of people know Jim because he was a hell of a citizen,” Seiler says. “We have a lot of restoration that we wouldn’t have if it had not been for Jim Williams.”
One of Seiler’s favorite book-related memories is more recent. He says he had the opportunity to take all the principal people working on the new Broadway production of “Midnight” on a tour of Savannah — including the famed playwright Alfred Uhry who wrote the Academy-Award winning script for “Driving Miss Daisy.”
While Seiler made an appearance in the movie version of “Midnight” he jokes about the idea of a role in the musical adaptation.
“I’m working on it now,” he says. “…Nobody has asked me to try out, but I’ve been doing singing lessons.”
Seiler says the producers for the play were most interested in seeing Bonaventure Cemetery “because that is where the story talks.”
According to Jerry Flemming, the city’s cemeteries director, Bonaventure hosts 350,000 people a year and “can handle it.”
Flemming says the 100-acre historic cemetery was mostly a heritage and cultural tourism draw for people researching genealogies and for history buffs before the book came out in 1994.
“The most significant impact from the book would be bad information,” he says. “Some people come out to see the Bird Girl statue and won’t believe she’s not out there. They assume what they saw at the Telfair is a replica. The same with Jim Williams — he’s not buried here. We actually had to have someone go to the burial site in Macon to take photos to show people his real grave.”
Lee Maltenfort, president of the Bonaventure Historical Society, says people still ask about Dan Hansford and Jim Williams, but “we don’t get much about Minerva any more.
“They will ask where Jim Williams is buried and are very disappointed when they find out he’s in a cemetery outside Macon and Danny is at Greenwich, not Bonaventure. Then we tell them all the great things we do have here.”
And what about those folks who show up with martinis in hand to reenact the picnic scene Berendt describes in the book?
“No, you can’t do that. It is city property,” Maltenfort says. “No alcohol allowed.”
But Maltenfort heard a story about a time someone did turn a blind eye to Conrad Aiken’s granddaughter when she traveled from London to Savannah about three years ago to sit at the late poet’s grave to drink a martini.
“She asked if the story about her grandfather’s bench was true and they told her it was and she sat out there and had her little drink,” he says.
While some tourists may be upset they can’t have their martini picnic at the cemetery, more seem to be upset that the Bird Girl no longer resides at Bonaventure.
“When we explain why she was removed — the damage that was done to that plot and to surrounding plot by tourists — then they understand.”
You don’t have to read “Midnight” to know who the Bird Girl is; you simply need to look at the book’s cover.
The hauntingly mysterious cover of the book is a photograph of the now iconic Bird Girl statue by the late Jack Leigh of Savannah. Susan Laney heads Leigh’s estate, the independent art dealership known as Laney Contemporary Fine Art, and began working with him in 1993 just before the book came out.
Laney says Berendt recommended Leigh to his publishers at Random House to take the cover photo.
“They gave Jack two days to make an image,” Laney says. “He was apprehensive at first because he didn’t know if he wanted to be a part of the book.
“He finally said, ‘It might be controversial, but it’ll have a great cover.’”
Random House sent Leigh excerpts from the book to give him a feel of what they were looking for and he decided to make an image in Bonaventure.
Laney says Leigh was given the keys to the cemetery gate and permission to stay there for two days. On the second day, he wandered around until almost all the light was gone and happened upon the statue.
“He had never seen the statue before,” Laney says. “He had spent a lot of time in the cemetery because his mother and father are buried there, and when he saw it, he couldn’t believe that he had never noticed the Bird Girl before.”
Leigh shot the photo and left. It was the only image he submitted to Random House.
“He went into a dark room with the negative and enlarged it and worked with it for three days, working with different filters,” Laney says. “He used a method he was known for called burn and dodge technique.
“He did about a hundred passes of light. … Now you wouldn’t have to work so hard but at the end of 1993, it was not that way. He really created something that wasn’t in reality.”
The Bird Girl
The photograph brought attention not only to Leigh’s gift for storytelling through photos but also to the family who owned the plot where the Bird Girl was perched.
“At first the family was all smiles, but as crowds grew, it changed this whole town in such an incredible way and that it all happened at Bonaventure cemetery, too,” she says.
The 4-foot bronze Bird Girl statue was sculpted by Illinois artist Sylvia Shaw Judson in 1938 as a garden fountain. Savannah resident Lucy Boyd Trosdal bought one of three copies for the family plot in Bonaventure.
Trosdal’s survivors removed Bird Girl in March 1994 after ‘’Midnight’’ fans began scouring the cemetery and trampling gravesites in search of the statue. Now it’s on loan at the Telfair Museum. Visitors can view her, but no photos are allowed.
The Telfair sells authorized postcards and prints of Leigh’s photograph, but store director Lisa Ocampo says the most popular item is a replica of the statue.
“Everyone wants a Bird Girl of their own to take home with them. Some have to be happy with a print, but they all want a real statue.
“… The story, the mystery, the characters and especially the Bird Girl seem to be synonymous with Savannah in the minds of many visitors. That’s what they come to see.”
IMPACT BY THE NUMBERS
According to Visit Savannah, in 1993, the year before the book was released, Savannah tourism numbers looked like this:
• 5 million visitors
• $587 million in visitor spending
• Average length of stay was 2 days
• Savannah had 7,268 hotel rooms available
In 2013, the numbers look like this:
• More than 12.5 million visitors*
• More than $2.2 billion in visitor spending*
• Average length of stay is 2.5 days
• Savannah currently has 15,195 rooms available