As author of the longest-standing New York Times non-fiction bestseller, John Berendt introduced the true-crime genre to a wider audience with his spellbinding descriptions of Savannah and its bounty of flamboyant characters ripe for their literary debut. His writing was so intoxicating that Midnight reinvigorated Savannah’s tourist industry and made celebrities of many of its characters. Now, 24 years after its first publication, this incredible true story is given its Folio debut.
The ‘Bird Girl’ image, a photograph of the bronze statue that once stood in Bonaventure cemetery, now adorns the binding of this new edition. Jack Leigh’s iconic photograph featured on the 1994 first edition dust jacket and is synonymous with the book. More of Leigh’s original images of Savannah have been beautifully reproduced alongside seven further atmospheric photographs by Georgian photographers. Like courtroom evidence, the series of ten atmospheric photographs offer tantalising snapshots of the Old South and the city that captured the imagination of millions.
Bound in blocked vinyl-coated paper with an inset printed paper label
Set in Albertina
10 integrated black & white photographs
9½˝ x 6¼˝
When fact is stranger than fiction
Berendt’s meticulously researched work goes far beyond the realm of a real-life whodunit. Although based around the high-profile murder of a male prostitute, the crime itself plays a supporting role to the southern gothic charm of Savannah with its rambling garden squares, antebellum mansions and dilapidated terraces. Geographically isolated, the historic Georgia is full of eccentrics, socialites and miscreants, as well as a collection of basement clubs, workaday diners and quirky societies that are hot-beds of gossip. Berendt’s inquisitive journalistic nature leads him directly to Savannah’s most interesting individuals, while his affable demeanour results in warm welcomes from the LGBT community, Savannah high society and even The Married Woman’s Card Club.
An incredible cast of characters
Berendt first visited Savannah on a whim; a break from work to a city with a nice-sounding name. However, in the space of just a few days he fell head over heels in love with the place and kept returning until it became his permanent home. This affection is apparent on every page and made even more evident in his new personal introduction.
First to be introduced in the book is the debonair antiques dealer Jim Williams, who endears himself to Berendt and is soon revealed as the focal point of the book. However, despite being indicted for murder, Williams is by no means the most complex or fascinating character. Mr Glover still gets paid to walk a dog that died 20 years ago; Luther Diggers keeps flies tied to his jacket on tiny thread leashes and owns a bottle of poison that’s 500 times deadlier than arsenic; The Lady Chablis performs in The Pickup cabaret club and used to be called Frank; Minerva practices voodoo magic in the city’s graveyard. And then there’s Jim Williams’s on-off lover, Danny Hansford. A local prostitute and hustler, Hansford is unhinged, violent and vulnerable … and living on borrowed time. His luck finally runs out one afternoon in Williams’s study, and although it initially seems like a simple case of self-defence, the evidence increasingly points to murder. And so, once the characters have been introduced and the stage set, the remainder of Berendt’s extraordinary book follows the lead-up to the multiple trials and the eventual hard-fought outcome.
Twenty-five years after midnight
‘The Savannah I wrote about, and lived in for much of the 1980s, was a gracious, sultry, self-absorbed city. Its physical beauty should have made it the envy of every other American city. But in those days, the outside world was largely unaware of it’
Four decades after his first visit, Berendt returned to his story in the introduction specially written for this edition, providing an intriguing and nostalgic update on the characters and city that enthralled a generation. Many people were still living there, with some having gained celebrity status following the book’s incredible success – The Lady Chablis starred as herself in the film adaptation.
A spike in tourism and international notoriety has changed the landscape of Savannah, but the crumbling beauty is still present for those prepared to wander off the tourist trail. And as for Bird Girl? She had waited patiently in Bonaventure Cemetery for half a century before Jack Leigh happened upon her. Commissioned to take a photograph for the cover of the first edition of Midnight, this was the only image he submitted, but it was the only one needed.
About John Berendt
John Berendt was born in Syracuse, New York, to parents who were both writers. He studied English at Harvard University before moving to New York City in 1961. He became associate editor of Esquire and was later editor of New York magazine. Following a lengthy career working as a columnist, Berendt published Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1994 and became a best-selling author. His second book, The City of Falling Angels, was published in 2005.
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