25 Years After ‘Midnight’

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The book that changed a city

Written by SARA DOMET

In physics, the “observer effect” explains how the act of observing fundamentally changes that which is being observed. This principle is often applied to the process of measuring. Take, for example, a bicycle tire. To measure the pressure of the tire, one must first remove air with a pressure gauge. To observe is to change.

This principle applies to human behavior, too. After all, aren’t you on your best behavior when you know your boss is at the cocktail party? Or when your genteel grandmother sits next to you at church?

Twenty-five years ago, John Berendt’s observations of Savannah in his iconic 1994 book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, altered the course of this nearly 300-year-old city in inestimable ways. His nonfictional work, which follows the 1981 murder of Savannah native Danny Hansford by his lover, well-known antique dealer Jim Williams, spent a record 216 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Savannah was never the same. Berendt’s book describes a city whose “resistance to change was its saving grace” and marvels at the stubborn timelessness he found here. Ironically, it was his act of narrating Savannah’s story that changed the city forever. To observe is to change.

What fascinated many with Midnight wasn’t necessarily the novel’s central crime, but the darkly majestic city lamplit in its pages. The 1994 New York Times Book Review playfully noted that Midnight “might be the first true-crime book that makes the reader want to book a bed-and-breakfast for an extended weekend at the scene of the crime.”

The book is woven together by a series of vignettes featuring a cast of idiosyncratic Savannah characters: Failed genius inventor Luther Driggers, who attaches flies to his lapel with thread; pianist Emma Kelly, who knows Johnny Mercer’s songbook better than he did; the Married Women’s Card Club, comprised of gossipy socialites; and William Glover, who walks an invisible dog for a fee. Berendt writes of Savannah: “[I]ts people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.” Savannah is the setting of the book, and something more: It’s the single most mesmerizing character.

The success of Midnight proved to be a pivotal point in the history of Savannah’s regrowth, boosting an already flourishing tourism industry. Joseph Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, points to the irrefutable facts: In 1994 Savannah boasted 5 million visitors to the city and 7,500 hotel rooms. These visitors contributed roughly $630 million dollars a year to our local economy. A mere five years later, this number climbed to $1.5 billion—that’s a nearly 140 percent increase. Fast forward 25 years later, and these numbers had grown exponentially: Savannah hosts 14 million visitors a year who leave $3 billion dollars behind. Our local hotels now boast 16,000 rooms. “There is no doubt that ‘The Book’ has had a very positive impact on Savannah’s tourism … and played a large role in the development of Savannah as an internationally recognized tourism destination,” Marinelli says.

The popularity of the book had a ripple effect: As tourists flocked to the city, so did the businesses required to sustain them, and as the book drew attention to the region, the region responded. Here, as ever, the act of observing changed that which was being observed. Since the book’s release, as Marinelli points out, Savannah has consistently been on Top Ten lists in a range of publications, from Travel + Leisure to Southern Living. As result, even more tourists flocked to Savannah, drawn by our sun-dappled squares, our moss-draped trees, our historical architecture, our quintessential Southern gothic charm.

To meet demand, airlines like United and Delta expanded their offerings to and from Savannah, and other airlines such as JetBlue, Allegiant, and Sun Country added Savannah as a destination. “Savannah is no longer a sleepy little sultry Southern town,” Marinelli says, “but a vibrant, hip and exotic place that people want to visit and live in.” (Perhaps this is why Vogue recently described Savannah as the “Brooklyn of the South.”)

One can hardly believe Berendt expected such growth from the small town he observed — and so eloquently depicted — twenty-five years ago.

Still today, tourists can be seen walking down Broughton Street holding a copy of the book, many of these sold at E. Shaver Booksellers, Savannah’s beloved independent bookstore. Jessica Osborne, owner of E. Shaver, says that barring natural disaster, she sells at least one copy of the book every day. To wit, more than 700 copies of the book walked out the door at E. Shaver in 2018, and the store is on track to double that number this year. A signed first-edition jacket cover hangs in the store — a tribute to the man whose love letter to the city started it all.

John Berendt himself has twice visited the store on Osborne’s watch. On one such occasion, a couple of young students stumbled in and noticed he was signing books. “Is it any good?” one youngster presumptuously asked, picking up the book and turning it over.

“This book?” Berendt jokingly replied. “It’s the reason you’re here.”

He was right: Savannah’s population is increasing not because of a thriving tourism industry, but because of a thriving culture. Osborne, a native Savannahian, credits this shift in large part to Midnight, noting that the book spurred interest in moving downtown, which in the early nineties was floundering, an urban necropolis of beautiful buildings in varying degrees of disrepair. Jim Williams, owner of the Mercer House at the time of the book’s events, was a renovator-pioneer, of sorts, and he knew it. Berendt’s description of Williams’ exploits (along with his depiction of historic preservationist Lee Adler) drew other professional preservationists and amateur renovators to Savannah’s urban core and ushered in cultural changes.

“When the book came out, it was shocking. My grandmother didn’t want me to read it,” Osbourne says with a laugh. Did she read it, anyway? “Of course! It was scandalous.” 

Twenty-five years later, tourists raise their phones outside the Mercer House to snap selfies. Until the death of Lady Chablis in 2016, they lined up to buy tickets for her drag show. The Savannah depicted in Midnight urges readers—visitors and locals alike—to embrace diversity, and this, too, had a lasting effect.

Billy Wooten, president of the Savannah LGBT Center, one of only two such centers in Georgia, believes the book opened up a dialogue about the LGBTQ community. Midnight “enabled our community and culture to be more out, more visible, more vocal. A drag queen came out of the shadows. Club One became a destination,” he says. The book’s portrait of Savannah’s gay subculture paved the way for broader acceptance and greater visibility for the LGBTQ community. In twenty-five years since the book’s first publication, Savannah has become “more progressive, more accepting, more welcoming, and more willing to care.” Wooten sees examples of this every day at the Savannah LGBT Center, where one can find a range of services and events, from mental health counseling and HIV testing to yoga, lectures and book clubs.

In this age of technology, it’s difficult to believe that an artifact of ink and paper had such a dramatic effect on our city. Jim Morekis, the veteran editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah, who has authored books on the region, believes the book “was key in establishing a persona for the rest of the world to see, and possibly identify with.” Twenty-five years ago, this Savannah native is quick to point out, the city had only a regional reputation. To most people outside of Georgia, Savannah was a romantic notion, not a vacation destination.

A quarter-century later, the city is awash with museums and restaurants, shops and galleries. An ever-increasing number of film sets temporarily cordon off our streetscapes, and a flood of festivals and cultural events dot the calendar throughout the year. According to Morekis, “the brilliance of Midnight is that it was both an accurate work of reporting on the part of John Berendt, and it also inspired an entire mythology for Savannah. It helped to give us a more individual identity to the world at large, as well as to ourselves.”

What Berendt saw was a quirkiness, a comfort with oddity and darkness, that shocked and delighted him. In Clint Eastwood’s 1998 film version, Berendt’s character, sent by Town & Country magazine to write a pithy “literary postcard” about Jim Williams’ Christmas party, frantically calls his agent in New York to change course, scrap the little piece: “This place is fantastic. It’s like Gone With the Wind on mescaline,” he says. “They walk imaginary pets here, and they’re all heavily armed and drunk. New York is boring!”

In Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Berendt held a mirror up for the world to see Savannah, and for Savannah to see itself, in all its strange glory. Savannah’s natives murmur opinions along the way, watching and withholding their final judgments as Jim Williams’ case winds its way through the justice system. Ultimately, a jury of Williams’ mostly churchgoing peers absolved him of the killing. He was found not guilty, but fate handed him a different verdict: He died shortly thereafter of a heart attack in the same spot where he had killed his lover. Some claim he was cursed.

Do older Savannah natives find it ironic that a book of journalism about an ultimately fatal gay lovers’ quarrel spurred such change in a deeply religious, deeply conservative, deeply Southern city? Some might never say. But one thing is clear: Berendt captured the essence of a city ready to embrace the spotlight