This character study of the city of Savannah, Georgia in the 1980s is non-fiction, according to author John Berendt—or at least the people portrayed are real. Some of the names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved and Berendt admits to taking liberties with the timing of events, but only to remain true to the characters.
Berendt is from New York City. Indeed, he was for a while the editor of New York magazine.
The first person the reader meets is Jim Williams: “tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features.” Jim Williams’ eyes are like the tinted windows of a limousine—he could see out, but you couldn’t see in. He lived alone the Mercer House, one of the last privately-held great houses in Savannah. As he smoked a King Edward cigarillo, Williams told Berendt: “What I enjoy most is living like an aristocrat without the burden of having to be one.”
Equally closely drawn is the portrait of the Lady Chablis, a black drag queen who, upon coming across Berendt as she’s leaving a clinic where she receives her hormone injections, picks him as her semi-permanent chauffer. Another is that of Joe Odom, a neighbor of Berendt’s early on who has people coming in and out of his house at all hours of the day. Odom is a lawyer, but makes his living off the tourist and entertainment trade, showing people through houses, whether he has any right to or not. It’s hard not to like him but you wouldn’t want to live near him.
One particularly beautiful portrait is that of Emma Kelly, the “Lady of Six Thousand Songs.” She’s a guest of Joe Odom’s and is known for travelling across Georgia to perform at graduations, weddings, reunions, and church socials. She remembers people by their favorite songs. Her repertoire is vast. It is a wonderful character portrait, but it’s almost incidental to the plot of the book.
A young man, Danny Hansford, a sometime lover and gofer for Jim Williams, is shot to death in the Mercer House. Hansford is a hothead who’s had his owns minor scrapes with the law. There is no question the Jim Williams pulled the trigger. Was it in self-defense, as Williams claims? Did Williams stage the scene? Why is there no gunpowder residue on Hansford’s hands?
Williams relies on voodoo in the form of one Minerva to help sway the jurors. Now believing Berendt, the reader must concede she really existed, perhaps even threw graveyard dirt at her enemies and tried to get lottery numbers from the great beyond. This is entertaining, but I have to ask: Is this true? The same question I ask when the Lady Chablis crashes (and scandalizes) the black cotillion: Did that happen, or is Berendt pulling the reader’s leg?
While the book is a great, entertaining read, it is not true crime reading, nor does it claim to be.