by Jesse Garon
In the early 1980s, John Berendt was a die-hard Manhattanite. The former editor of New York magazine, he was making his living writing and editing for various magazines, including a regular column in Esquire. One night, he realized that a three-day weekend in any number of Southern cities was, due to super-saver airfares, less expensive than a meal at one of New York's fancier restaurants. He began to travel frequently; one of the places he visited was Savannah. His first visit was in 1982, and he was so enchanted that he found himself returning repeatedly, until it became, for five years, his primary home. "I would inquire, observe and poke around wherever my curiosity led me or wherever I was invited," he would write of his travels, and as time unfolded, "I found myself in an adventure peopled by an unusual assortment of characters and enlivened by a series of strange events, up to and including murder."
"An unusual assortment of characters" is understating the case. As Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Random House, $24), Berendt's account of his relationship with the town, reveals, Savannah's population runs the spectrum from well-bred WASP socialites to outrageous black drag queens, from a reclusive pesticide tester to the "lady of six thousand songs." While the different strata of Savannah's society might not mix with each other, Berendt was able to mingle freely with almost anybody, and everybody was happy to take the time to tell him why they thought Savannah was one of the world's most wonderful places.
Had things continued along at that pace, Berendt might have left Savannah with a series of colorful reminiscences, but perhaps not with the stuff of which bestsellers are made -- until one Saturday morning in May, when he woke up to a phone call from Chablis (the aforementioned drag queen, who had entered his life by announcing that he was going to give her a ride back to her apartment), informing him that Jim Williams, an antique dealer and the owner of Mercer House, one of Savannah's most prestigious historical landmarks, had shot and killed his housemate, 21-year-old Danny Hansford. The second half of the book deals with the circus of events following the shooting, including Williams' four murder trials, a Georgia record.
Still, in 1992, when Berendt showed the manuscript to his agent, she told him that the book was too regional in nature and that it would never appeal to a large general audience. Another agent had greater faith in the material, and when Midnight was published in early 1994, it quickly became one of the decades hottest selling titles. Nearly two years later, the book remains on the New York Times bestseller list, has sold over 700,000 copies in America alone, and has been translated into, among other languages, Japanese, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Norwegian, Swedish, Portuguese and Dutch. "I've accomplished something that nobody can take away from me," Berendt says in a recent conversation. "I can't be fired from my book; it can't be rolled back or negated."
As with any successful book, the movie rights to Midnight have been snagged, but the success of Berendt's "nonfiction novel" has manifested itself in other, more unusual ways. Tourism in Savannah, for example, skyrocketed in 1994 and 1995, although Berendt says that the city has absorbed the increase in visitors without disrupting its quiet charm. Clary's, which was a combination drugstore and cafe when Berendt lived in the city, was bought by new owners shortly before the book's publication; when they realized what they had on their hands, the owners shut down the drugstore, expanded the cafe, and created a restaurant that is always packed by the locals and the tourists. Chablis is now one of the hottest entertainers in the South, and recently signed a book deal of her own. And the New York Jazz Festival held an outdoor concert called "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which interspersed readings from the book with renditions of Johnny Mercer tunes.
Berendt, who still keeps in touch with many of his friends from Savannah, says
that most of the city has responded positively to the book, although one woman
told him, through her husband, that she considered his portrayal of her as the
"literary equivalent of a drive-by shooting." Berendt says he is tremendously
thrilled and surprised by the success of Midnight ("I never imagined I
would still be talking about this book for articles a year and a half later"),
but also remains eager to find a focus for his next project.