04/11/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE PERFUME OF BLOOMING WISTERIA WAFTS THROUGH the air as John Berendt strolls through one of his favorite places on earth—the serene, haunting Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Ga. In the shade of oaks webbed with Spanish moss, he pauses to point out the town luminaries: poet Conrad Aiken ("Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown" reads Aiken's tombstone), songwriter Johnny Mercer ("And the Angels Sing") and, of course, the statue of the child that graces the cover of his seductive, funny bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Random House). "In colonial times the cemetery was a plantation, which was destroyed during an elegant party when the roof caught fire. The host invited the guests outside; they toasted southern gentility while it burned down," he explains. "This cemetery is a summation of Savannah—the eternal party. Can you see what a magical place it is?"
So magical, in fact, that Berendt, 54, fell hopelessly under the spell of what Margaret Mitchell once called "that gently mannered city by the sea." The Esquire columnist and former New York magazine editor, who had first visited Savannah in 1982, returned in 1985, decided to write a book—and stayed for seven years, renting an apartment, with only occasional forays back home to Manhattan. "Basically I was sopping it all up, taking notes and interviewing people," he says. "I spent an entire year researching before starting to write." Working without a book contract, Berendt set out to write a gossipy travelogue capturing the Georgian city's serenity, whimsy and Gothic foreboding; midway through his research, the book became a compelling account of a local murder. The result, said The New York Times Book Review, "...might be the first true crime book that makes the reader want to call a travel agent...and take an extended stay at the scene of the crime."
Berendt tells the tale of Jim Williams, a dashing, fifty-something antiques dealer who lived in one of the grandest mansions in this house-proud city. An outsider who made millions in savvy real estate investments, he was perceived by some as an arrogant upstart; nevertheless, he was embraced by Savannah's high society. Accused in 1981 of murdering Danny Hansford, his young, troubled lover and a sometime hustler, Williams was tried four times before being acquitted in 1989, when a crucial new piece of evidence was discovered. In the meantime the scandal tested the manners and mores of a community that manages to be both tradition-bound and wildly eccentric.
There's Minerva the Voodoo Queen, who gathers graveyard dirt to hex the district attorney prosecuting Williams. There is the Married Women's Card Club, the scions of Savannah society who are kicked out of the club if they're divorced. Sonny Seiler, the lawyer hired to defend Williams, is a fanatical fan of the U. of Georgia football team, whose bulldogs—each named Uga—have served as the team's mascot. Luther is the mild-mannered inventor said to possess a bottle of powerful poison that he. in his darker moods, has reportedly threatened to slip into the city's water supply. And then there's the town con man, Odom, and his sexy moll, Mandy, who has learned how to drive her Mercedes with her knees while applying makeup. "Talk about scandal!" said Tom Freeman, a hotel manager. "John has named so many names he's got people squirming in church. You see, Savannah's just like New Orleans or Key West, except they lend to import their crazies. All ours are homegrown."
But the character who chews up the most scenery is Lady Chablis, a black transsexual drag queen whose nightly lipsynching performance at a local nightclub has been a sellout since Good and Evil came out. Although she takes hormones to enlarge her breasts, Chablis won't get a sex change—"because when I get to heaven, honey, and the Lord says, 'Let me see what I gave you, Chablis,' I want to be able to say, 'It's still here, Lord. Let me through the gates!' "
Not surprisingly, Hollywood has come calling. The rights for the movie have been auctioned for about $500,000 to a producer associated with Columbia Pictures. Berendt exacted one promise: "Anyone in town who wants lo play themselves will be screen-tested," he says. Lady Chablis is first in line. "If they don't hire me, honey," she warns, "there will be no movie!"
A native of Syracuse, Berendt says his prior experience of the South was limited to his Harvard senior thesis on William Faulkner. His mother, Carol Deschere, published what she called a housewife's novel in 1951 and never wanted to write again; his father, Ralph, a salesman for an industrial coating company, has just written his first book, at age 85, disputing Stephen Hawking's version of the big bang theory. Good and Evil is also the first book from Berendt, who has never married and now lives full-time in New York City. "I took so long because I wanted to get this one right."
Of course not everyone in Savannah thinks he did. "Some of the socialite people are all aflutter over this," says Esther Shaver, owner of a Savannah bookstore that has sold 3,000 copies of what residents refer to as The Book. "They'd prefer Savannah to be magnolias, Spanish moss and lovely pictures, but you wouldn't have a book if that's all you told about Savannah," she says.
In fact, Berendt had been warned that when the locals learned what he was up to, the doors of genteel Savannah would be politely shut in his face. But the martinis were mixed, the chairs were pulled up, and the stories gushed forth like black gold from a rig. "The conversation would continue as the sun went down, and it got darker and darker," Berendt says. "Eventually, there'd be only these mouths and teeth moving in the darkness. Terrific stories, drink after drink. Somehow, there would never be any dinner. You'd just wander off into the night, tipsy and unfed."
Berendt is visibly moved when he discusses those he has come to know and love—especially Jim Williams, who died in 1990, apparently from a massive coronary; he was 59. These days Berendt, who has spent the last few months crisscrossing the country talking about Good and Evil, is trying to decide what he'll do for an encore. He's leaning toward a book on another city—but, he says wistfully, "I'm sure I'll never find another city like this—an isolated environment with its own rules, where each person you meet is stranger than the next."
DAVID HUTCHINGS in Savannah