Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
by John Berendt
“Have you read The Book?” people asked in 1995 when they learned we were going to Savannah, Georgia, to enroll my daughter in a promising new arts college.
The Book--I don’t remember hearing it called by any other name--was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt’s story of the murderous side of the place Le Monde described as the most beautiful city in North America.
Published the year before my daughter entered Savannah College of Art and Design, SCAD for short, Midnight quickly hit the New York Times best seller list. The 1981 murder (or not) at the book’s core, followed by the socially-prominent defendant’s series of bizarre trials, had jolted the sleepy Southern backwater of a city.
But as Berendt himself said in numerous post-book interviews, I’m in danger of destroying the suspense of his story.
Not that he didn’t believe in teasing his readers. Although the killing doesn’t occur until halfway through the book, Berendt opens with his interview of wealthy antiques dealer Jim Williams, gossiping about Savannah’s pursuit of fame as a movie setting. “The mayor and the city councilmen think it’s wonderful,” Williams tells Berendt, “because the film companies will spend money here, and Savannah will become famous, and that will help tourism. . . (but) Savannah doesn’t get publicity after all, because the audiences usually haven’t the vaguest idea where the movies have been shot.”
Little did Williams know the book--and movie--based on his own life and death would
make Savannah’s landscapes known worldwide.
The interview is interrupted by the appearance of a handsome young he describes as his employee, although described by more than one witness as a male hustler and Williams’ lover. The young man is Danny Hansford, bursting into the house in a ferocious temper, then departing with a squeal of his black Camaro’s tires.
Given Hansford’s volatility, Williams’ enjoyment of the power he wields over the young man, and the multiple loaded weapons Williams kept in the house, upper crust Savannah should hardly have been surprised when an early morning shootout left Hansford dead and Williams facing the first of four trials for murder.
After three convictions were overturned, a jury finally acquitted Williams. A few months later in January 1990, he died of natural causes in, as Berendt writes, “the very spot where he would have fallen eight years earlier, if Danny Hansford had actually fired a gun. . . .”
The book draws its title from a scene in which Williams enlists the aid of a voodoo priestess on a trip to “the flower garden”--a cemetery. “Now, you know how dead time works,” the woman tells Williams. “Dead time lasts for one hour--from half an hour
before midnight to half an hour after midnight. The half hour before midnight is for doin’ good. The half hour after midnight is for doin’ evil.”
Through his tale, Berendt inserts some of Savannah’s quirkiest citizens, most famously, transgender performer turned movie star, The Lady Chablis.
Chablis, born Benjamin Edward Knox, played herself in the 1997 movie version. As Berendt writes in the introduction to her autobiography, Hiding My Candy, “it is not enough to say that Chablis is a drag queen, or even that she is a black drag queen. She is both, of course, but she is . . . a gifted comedienne whose humor is instinctive and whose power to amuse comes from exquisite timing, a flair for the outrageous, and--I trust she’ll forgive me for saying so--balls.”
For an update on Chablis, I liked the profile in featured in
Both Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Hiding My Candy are available on Amazon.
(Next Wednesday--Adventure classics continues a January of true adventures with aviator Amelia Earhart’s 20 Hrs., 40 Min.: Our Flight in the Friendship.)