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This short summary and analysis of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story includes:
- Historical context
- Chapter-by-chapter overviews
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- What’s what in Savannah
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- Supporting material to enhance your understanding of the original work
About Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt:
John Berendt’s engrossing bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil tells the story of his time spent in Savannah, Georgia. Berendt didn’t just observe the city’s lovely locales and its quirky characters—he also became immersed in a murder case that would shock and fascinate much of Georgia.
Part true crime saga, part travel diary, part reportage, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a suspenseful, sharply observed account of Berendt’s sojourns in Savannah and the murder trial of one if its socialites.
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Summary and Analysis of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Based on the Book by John Berendt
By Worth Books
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
John Berendt eases into his part-time life in Savannah, meeting Savannah's wild and wonderful inhabitants while getting to know the city's culture, architecture, and history.
Chapter 1: An Evening in Mercer House
Berendt visits wealthy Savannah socialite Jim Williams at his home, an Italianate mansion known as Mercer House. Unlike Savannah's "old money" gentlemen, Williams is a self-made man: Born into a working-class family, he made his fortune dealing antiques and restoring old houses. Every year Williams hosts an exclusive Christmas party regarded as the event of the season by Savannah socialites, many of whom curry favor with Williams all year in order to secure an invitation. Williams gives Berendt a tour of Mercer House, pointing out the antique treasures he has acquired, and fills Berendt in on Savannah lore and intrigues.
Williams is an eccentric. He believes in the actualizing power of mental focus; he practices his own powers of concentration with dice, willing them to fall a certain way. During Berendt's visit, one strange event occurs: A young man bursts drunkenly into Mercer House, demands money, and slams out in a rage. Williams refers to the stranger as Danny Hansford, an employee, but offers Berendt no further explanation. He does, however, invite Berendt to his next Christmas party.
Need to Know: Great wealth and great eccentricity are to be found in the gossip-rich locale of Savannah, Georgia — and the two qualities meet in Jim Williams, a businessman whose fabulous public persona conceals an enigmatic private life.
Chapter 2: Destination Unknown
Berendt's love for Savannah started in New York, where he has worked for years as a magazine writer. Instead of using his spare money on dining out in New York, Berendt and a few friends begin buying cheap airfares. One weekend, Berendt flies into Charleston alone and drives down the coast to Savannah, where an acquaintance named Miss Mary Harty shows him around. He admires the city's many wide squares and gorgeous antebellum architecture. Beguiled by the city, Berendt decides to make it his second home — he'll continue his regular life in New York and fly to Savannah on the weekends. He spends more and more time in Savannah over the next 8 years, immersing himself in the city's history, its various social circles, and one particular murder case.
Need to Know:Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has its genesis in a pleasure trip to Savannah, Georgia. There, John Berendt found a gorgeous city full of quirky people and juicy happenings.
Chapter 3: The Sentimental Gentleman
Berendt explores the city and learns more about its history: Once the world's leading cotton port, Savannah is now a genteel, but isolated, city of 150,000 people.
Berendt sets up his part-time home in Savannah on the second floor of a carriage house. Down the street, people come and go incessantly from a yellow stucco house; music emanates from the yellow house at all hours. One evening a voluptuous blonde woman comes to Berendt's door asking for ice. She introduces herself as Mandy — she lives in the yellow house with her fiancé, Joe Odom. Odom is a thrice-married former lawyer who spends his days and nights drinking, carousing, and playing Johnny Mercer tunes on the piano. Odom welcomes Berendt to Savannah, offers him a drink, and bums twenty dollars off him before the night is through.
Need to Know: Joe Odom, "the sentimental gentleman from Georgia," is a true Savannah character: A hard-drinking, chivalrous man with a great love for music and a talent for mischief.
Chapter 4: Settling In
Berendt becomes acquainted with several more of Savannah's quirky inhabitants. He buys furniture from a junkshop salesman who wears makeup on only half his face and keeps the made-up side turned away from the store owner at all times. Berendt observes a black man and a white woman jogging separately at the park every day at the same time — he infers a romance, but learns from Odom that interracial relationships are still taboo in Savannah. Berendt also notices a well-dressed black man who walks what seems to be an invisible dog each day; he learns that the man collects $10 every month from the estate of the dog's now-dead owner. The estate's executor is in on the joke.
Berendt also learns more about Joe Odom. Odom was once wealthy, but he defaulted on a construction loan he took out to convert a hotel into apartments. Odom now rents the house he used to own and makes money by hosting lunches for Savannah tour groups.
Need to Know: The small city of Savannah, isolated from the rest of the country and comfortable in its old, courtly ways, is an environment friendly to oddballs and peculiarities.
Chapter 5: The Inventor
Berendt takes to dining at Clary's, a local restaurant. At Clary's he meets Savannahians and picks up local gossip. He meets Luther Driggers, Savannah's resident inventor; rumor has it that Driggers plans to poison Savannah's water supply. Some years earlier, Driggers invented the technology for the flea collar, but another man stole his idea and patented it. Driggers is known as an oddball — he "walks" flies by attaching them to strings and tying the strings to his lapels. He also tries to come up with new inventions, including fluorescent goldfish for cocktail-lounge aquariums.
Berendt goes out one night with Luther Driggers and his girlfriend Serena Dawes, a once-gorgeous widow of a steel millionaire. Driggers tests out his goldfish in one bar's fish tank, but the sight of the fish's glowing innards disgusts the patrons. Driggers invites Berendt back to his apartment. There, Driggers shows off a bottle of sodium fluoroacetate, a powerfully lethal poison, and Berendt realizes that the rumors about Driggers may be true after all.
Need to Know: The story of Luther Driggers, the mad inventor — and his possible plan to poison all of Savannah by contaminating the water supply — is a staple piece of Savannah lore. But the story may hold more truth than Savannahians know.
Chapter 6: The Lady of Six Thousand Songs
Berendt meets an elderly woman named Emma Kelly at Joe Odom's house one day. Kelly is a piano player, beloved by people all over the state of Georgia. For 40 years she's spent her days driving back and forth across the state, playing at bars, churches, parties, clubs, weddings, graduations, and reunions. She once befriended Johnny Mercer, the famous songwriter and Savannah native. Mercer estimated the number of songs in Kelly's head at about 6,000.
Kelly and Joe Odom open a nightspot together called Emma's — Kelly plays the piano and sings while Odom tends the bar. The bar is a success, as Emma Kelly's fans come each night to drink and hear her play.
Need to Know: Music is a fixture in Savannah's culture, as it is the natural accompaniment to any night of drinking, dancing, or general carousing. And where there's music, there's often Emma Kelly, the "lady of six thousand songs."
Chapter 7: The Grand Empress of Savannah
Joe Odom has to move out of his yellow house — he's never paid rent, and besides, it burned down. Missing the constant hubbub once Joe has left for a different neighborhood, Berendt decides to buy a car in order to explore Savannah. He chooses a beat-up 1973 Pontiac Grand Prix. Berendt's new ride leads to a friendship with Lady Chablis, a beautiful black woman who asks him for a ride home from her hormone injection appointment one day.
Lady Chablis grew up with the name Frank. A transgender woman, she's a celebrated fixture at the local drag show. Berendt attends her show one night. Chablis's act is a rousing success, but she quits when her boss refuses to pay her what she says she's owed. With the help of friends and admirers, Chablis takes her costumes out of the dressing room and dances out of the club and down the street, with a crowd following behind.
Need to Know: The Lady Chablis, an ostentatious and charismatic drag performer, is "the grand empress of Savannah."
Chapter 8: Sweet Georgia Brown's
Joe Odom and Mandy establish an 1890s-themed bar named Sweet Georgia Brown's. Odom left Emma's in order to prevent his creditors from going after it, and now he and Mandy are preparing to open the doors of their new bar. Odom has moved into yet another house, and continues hosting tour groups and nonstop parties. Berendt watches as Odom writes checks to the carpenters and builders, who seem to trust Odom (though Berendt wonders why, as Odom has a notorious history of bouncing checks). Odom chastises Berendt for the company he's been keeping in Savannah: for starters, there's the maybe-homicidal inventor and the black drag queen. Berendt reassures Odom that he's about to make a respectable new acquaintance: Jim Williams, sole resident of Mercer House.
Need to Know: Berendt has now brought readers up to speed on everything that preceded his meeting with Jim Williams at Mercer House. As a part-time Savannah resident, he's met a strange and colorful assortment of Savannah's varied social sets.
Chapter 9: A Walking Streak of Sex
A beautiful young art student named Corrine tells Berendt more about Danny Hansford, Jim Williams's mysterious young acquaintance, with whom she once spent a wild afternoon. Corrine ran into Danny for the first time on the street outside of Mercer House. Danny, cocky and eager to impress, invites her inside and gives her a tour of the house as if he owns it. They have sex in the upstairs bedroom. When Jim Williams comes home, Danny grows sullen and stalks outside. Corinne follows. Danny drives her down the coast in his black Camaro. They drink and talk, and Danny grows irrationally jealous when Corinne speaks to other men. He drives her back to Bonaventure Cemetery, where they have sex again. Back in the Camaro, Danny asks Corinne to marry him. She laughs — they only just met! Her answer enrages Danny, and he begins to drive recklessly. Corinne, frightened, wonders whether he means to crash and kill them both. But the police pull them over and arrest Danny; Corinne, shaken, never sees him again.
Need to Know: Danny Hansford, who works for Jim Williams in some mysterious capacity, is charming, wild, handsome, and volatile — he is, according to Corinne, a "walking streak of sex."
Chapter 10: It Ain't Braggin' If Y'Really Done It
Berendt meets Lee Adler, Jim Williams's neighbor and nemesis. Like Williams, Adler was instrumental in the preservation and revitalization of Savannah's historic district. Unlike Williams, Adler set up a "revolving fund": He bought the old houses and sold them to buyers who promised to restore them rather than restore them himself. Adler shows Berendt his newest project, affordable housing for poor blacks in Savannah's Victorian district.
A week later, Berendt attends a meeting of the exclusive Savannah Married Woman's Card Club. There, he learns that Adler didn't tell him the whole story. Adler's autocratic behavior led to his humiliating expulsion from the Historic Savannah preservationist group; he didn't leave on his own, as he told Berendt. One man at the club meeting speculates that Adler seeks recognition for his preservationist efforts because he feels slighted by Savannah society for his Jewish heritage.
Need to Know: Housing preservation in Savannah is fraught with tension and strife. The beautiful old houses of downtown Savannah were once in disrepair — but it's debatable whether Lee Adler, who is a controversial figure among elite, conservative Savannahians, deserves the credit for the restoration of the city's downtown.
Chapter 11: News Flash
Berendt begins spending more time in Savannah than he spends in New York. Chablis has taken her act on the road — she tours clubs in Augusta, Columbia, Jacksonville, and Atlanta. She returns to Savannah between gigs to freshen her wardrobe and receive her weekly hormone shot. When she's in town, Berendt drives her back home from the doctor's office — she calls him her chauffeur. One afternoon, Chablis breaks some shocking news to Berendt: Jim Williams has shot and killed Danny Hansford, and the authorities are charging Williams with murder.
Need to Know: After half a year of living part-time in Savannah, Berendt has met a cast of colorful characters, soaked up the city's history, and become familiar with local gossip and legends. Now, Jim Williams's shooting of Danny Hansford jolts Savannah out of its peaceful complacency.
The book's second half covers the events surrounding Jim Williams's four trials for the murder of Danny Hansford.
Chapter 12: Gunplay
The circumstances surrounding Williams's shooting of Hansford slowly come to light. Williams claims self-defense: On the night of the shooting, says Williams, Hansford went into a rage, destroyed some of Williams's antiques, and then fired three shots at Williams while Williams was seated at his desk. The shots missed and then the gun jammed, giving Williams time to get another gun from his desk drawer and shoot Hansford dead.
The killing captivates Savannah, as does the revelation of Williams's sexual relationship with Hansford, who was a male hustler. Still, most of Williams's friends believe the charges will be dropped — Hansford was notoriously violent, after all, and Williams is wealthy and respected. But a month after the shooting, a Savannah grand jury indicts Williams on the charge of first-degree murder after the testimony of Savannah's new district attorney, Spencer Lawton.
Need to Know: Jim Williams's shooting of Danny Hansford reveals the dark side of Williams's private life — it appears that he paid Hansford in part, at least, for sex. Though many Savannahians assumed the case would be dismissed — it seemed a clear case of self-defense — the indictment suggests that the physical evidence tells a more complicated story than Williams revealed.
Chapter 13: Checks and Balances
Joe Odom must move yet again. He has been living in an empty house on Liberty Street — the realtor went on a six-month vacation, and Odom moved in to the empty house while he was away. But the realtor is due back tomorrow, so Odom spends a long day vacating and cleaning the house.
Odom has also been in trouble for writing bad checks during the construction of his bar, Sweet Georgia Brown's. He went to court, but convinced the plaintiffs — whom he knows, and who are mostly friends of his — that he had written the bad checks unknowingly. The judge lets him off on the condition that he pays the $18,000 he owes. Odom gets lucky: A rich young couple, frequenters of Sweet Georgia Brown's, loan him the money. He finds another house to live in, a beautiful old mansion whose landlord knows and approves of Odom's fondness for parties and tour buses.
Need to Know: With charm, luck, and very few scruples, Joe Odom manages to live for free and evade jail time. Despite several close calls with the law, life is good for Odom.
Chapter 14: The Party of the Year
Though many Savannahians assume that Jim Williams would not throw his Christmas party under the shadow of his murder indictment, engraved invitations arrive in the mailboxes of Savannah's elite. Instead of wondering who has been invited, the Savannahians wonder who will go — is it in bad taste for Williams to throw a Christmas party so soon after being accused of murder?
Williams is pleased with the turnout: Those of his friends who are secure enough to publicly support him come to the party and enjoy themselves. Williams introduces Berendt to an assortment of characters: influential financiers, heiresses, heirs, and Savannah scions. Gossip about the trial is threaded through the night's events: Berendt overhears one couple discussing the results of the police tests. Apparently, the police did not find gunshot residue on Danny Hansford's hand or on his shirt, and there were no fingerprints on his gun. The evidence suggests that Jim Williams shot Danny, wiped the gun clean, and placed it in his hand.
Berendt chats with Blanche Williams, Jim Williams's mother. Blanche is devoted to her son, and she believes Hansford is all to blame for her son's legal tangle.
Need to Know: Jim Williams's Christmas party, always an important social event, carries extra meaning this year: to attend is to support Williams in light of his murder indictment. The party is a success, albeit swirling with gossip about Williams's coming trial.
Chapter 15: Civic Duty
John Wright Jones, one of Williams's defense attorneys, pays a visit to the coroner's office. The coroner, Dr. James C. Metts, has bad news for Jones: There's no evidence that Hansford fired the gun found in his hand, and it looks like Williams manipulated the crime scene after Hansford's death. In addition to the coroner's damaging findings, Williams's defense must contend with Williams and Hansford's homosexual relationship. Savannahian juries have not been kind to homosexuals in the recent past: A few months before Williams's indictment, four Army Rangers stomped a gay man to death. The Rangers were charged with simple battery and sentenced to one year in prison.
Excerpted from Summary and Analysis of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Worth Books. Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
What's What in Savannah,
Cast of Characters,
Direct Quotes and Analysis,
What's That Word,
About John Berendt,
For Your Information,