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The impact of 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' on Savannah over 30 years

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Courtroom drama, character study, travelogue through Savannah, Ga. - "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil" is all of the above. Thirty years ago this month, the nonfiction book by author John Berendt was published. It quickly became a smash hit, sitting on The New York Times bestseller list for 216 weeks. Benjamin Payne of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports on its lasting legacy in Savannah.

BENJAMIN PAYNE, BYLINE: To the outside world, it's called "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil." But to Savannians (ph), like tour guide Angela Sergi, it's simply known as The Book.

ANGELA SERGI: Y'all mind if I make a little detour? You don't mind a detour. You're on vacation, for goodness' sakes. You got to relax.

PAYNE: Sergi has been driving visitors through Savannah for the past 30 years, giving historical tours centered around the book. The most infamous stop on her tour - the Mercer Williams House, a three-story redbrick mansion occupying an entire city block downtown.

SERGI: On this side of the house, the first two windows - that is the library or study, and that is where the shooting of Danny Hansford took place.

PAYNE: Around 2 in the morning on May 2, 1981, 21-year-old Danny Hansford was shot and killed by his employer and occasional lover, Jim Williams. He was a wealthy antiques dealer. Williams claimed self-defense, saying Hansford had tried to shoot him first. Nevertheless, Williams was charged with murder. What ensued were four trials, ultimately ending with a jury finding him not guilty in 1989.

JOHN BERENDT: I still am uncertain as to the truth of the matter.

PAYNE: Author John Berendt chronicled it all in "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil."

BERENDT: I didn't think that it was going to be anywhere as popular as it's turned out to be.

PAYNE: Berendt stumbled upon Savannah in the 1980s and became so enamored by the town that he decided to relocate here from New York City. What followed were 10 years of writing the book. While it follows the murder case, the book is primarily about Savannah's colorful cast of characters.

BERENDT: One critic said I had cherry-picked my characters, and I plead guilty to that. Of course I cherry-picked them. Who would want to read about boring people? Chablis, of course, was the most theatrical and very funny.

PAYNE: He's referring to The Lady Chablis, a Black transgender woman who performed at nightclubs, becoming a queer icon through the book and its 1997 film adaptation in which she played herself. Here's Chablis in the movie, addressing the jury from the witness stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL")

THE LADY CHABLIS: (As herself) I love to dress in women's clothes. I love to go shopping. And by the way, ma'am, I hope you don't mind my saying, blue is definitely not your color.

BOB GUNTON: (As Finley Largent) OK, OK, OK...

PAYNE: While Chablis was very open about her life, not all Savannians were forthright with Berendt - at least, not right away. He says after living there for several years, seemingly no closer to finishing the book than when he started, folks began letting down their guard.

BERENDT: 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.

PAYNE: But then Random House announced it would indeed be publishing the book.

BERENDT: 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? 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.

PAYNE: Nor does Joseph Marinelli - he's president of the Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau.

JOSEPH MARINELLI: In 1994, our estimated number of visitors to the Savannah area was 5 million. In 2022, we had just over 17 million.

PAYNE: Of course, Marinelli doesn't attribute all the growth to "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil," but has it had a significant impact on tourism?

MARINELLI: Oh, no question. We continue, to this day, to see people on the street corner holding the book, looking at certain buildings.

PAYNE: Yes, Clary's Cafe is still open. The iconic Bird Girl sculpture is still around at a local museum, but all the major characters have since passed away except for Berendt. Now 84 and living in Manhattan, he reflects on how Savannah has changed over the past three decades.

BERENDT: Before the book came out, Savannah was an inward-looking town. 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.

PAYNE: As Barrett writes in his new afterword to the 30th anniversary edition of "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil," quote, "Savannah is still Savannah, but it's a Savannah on steroids and growth hormones. Its pulse is quickened. Its background sound is higher in pitch and volume than that overarching hush I remember so well." For NPR News, I'm Benjamin Payne in Savannah, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUICE WRLD SONG, "THE LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Benjamin Payne
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