Berendt, John 1939–
Berendt, John 1939–
(John Lawrence Berendt)
PERSONAL: Born December 5, 1939, in Syracuse, NY; son of Ralph Sidney and Carol (Deschere) Berendt. Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1961.
CAREER: Writer, editor, and producer. Esquire, New York, NY, associate editor, 1961–69; Holiday, New York, senior staff editor, 1969; worked in New York as associate producer for the David Frost Show, 1969–71, and for the Dick Cavett Show, 1973–75; New York Magazine, New York, editor, 1977–79; Esquire, columnist, 1982–94.
MEMBER: PEN, Century Association.
AWARDS, HONORS: Southern Book Award, 1994, and Pulitzer Prize finalist for general nonfiction, 1995, both for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story (nonfiction), Random House (New York, NY), 1994.
(Author of introduction) Lady Chablis and Theodore Bouloukos, Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1997.
(Author of introduction) Paula H. Deen, The Lady and Sons: Savannah Country Cookbook, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
(Author of introduction) Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2004.
The City of Falling Angels, Penguin Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals.
SIDELIGHTS: John Berendt has been a journalist and an editor at the well-known Esquire and New York magazines, but he is probably best known as the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story. An account of life in Savannah, Georgia, as observed by Berendt in the 1980s, the book provides portraits of Savannah's more colorful citizens, notably the transvestite performer Lady Chablis and various members of the storytelling Married Woman's Card Club. In addition, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil reports on the murder case in which Jim Williams, a respected antiques dealer, was accused of the murder of his youthful companion, Danny Hansford.
The details of the Hansford killing and the four ensuing murder trials occupy the second half of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Williams, who was eventually acquitted, died in 1990 with the distinction of being the only Georgian to be tried by the state four times for the same murder. "In recounting the tale of Williams's trials, [Berendt] frequently veers off and includes overheard conversations, funny vignettes and bits of historical and architectural data—a method that a lesser observer might have botched but that works wonderfully here," commented Glenna Whitley in the New York Times Book Review. One of Williams's strategies to fight off a conviction is to employ Minerva, a voodoo priestess. As Jean Hanff Korelitz remarked in the Times Literary Supplement, "When Minerva's roots and spells fail to stop Williams's subsequent trials, he nonetheless puts her on a kind of retainer, and has her called to appear as a defense witness to put curses on the D.A., the judge, and the jury…. The results are uncertain, but Williams is philosophical: 'She'll never cost me a fraction of what I've had to pay my lawyers.'"
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has been deemed by critics to be a quirky, fascinating work. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly commended Berendt for his "smart, sympathetic observations," while in Newsweek, Malcolm Jones, Jr. noted that the author "has fashioned a Baedeker to Savannah that, while it flirts with condescension, is always contagiously affectionate. Few cities have been introduced more seductively." Whitley, who in the New York Times Book Review described the book as "a peculiar combination of true crime and travelogue," stated that "Berendt's writing is elegant and wickedly funny." In the Times Literary Supplement, Korelitz summed up Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as "a strange but satisfying brew." The book ultimately "smashed the 186-week record in February  for staying on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list" noted Marcel Dufresne for the Columbia Journalism Review.
In late August of 1998 Berendt suffered a mild heart attack while visiting Savannah. He was hospitalized for four days. One year later he hosted a travel forum for the city, as tourism to Savannah had "increased forty-six percent after [his] book hit the bestseller list," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. That same year, during an interview for Writer, the author stated that "Savannah is a beautiful place that has been completely overlooked by the rest of the country and writers. The story [of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil] would not have worked as well in a different setting." When asked "What advice would you give writers?" Berendt responded, "Writing is never easy—even for professionals. 'Write and keep on writing' is the best advice I can give."
Berendt took his own advice to keep on writing, but it took him over a decade to publish his next book, The City of Falling Angels. He began the work in 1996, shortly after a suspicious fire destroyed Venice's famous Fenice opera house. Berendt had previously planned to take a vacation in that Italian city, a vacation that began a mere three days after the fire. Once there, however, he became intrigued by the rumors that the fire had been a case of arson, and he began conducting his own investigation. Although questions about the fire provide the book's connecting thread, as Charles Matthews noted in a review for the San Jose Mercury News, Berendt was distracted by the many other stories that Venetians have to tell: "There are long sections that have nothing to do with the Fenice, and an abundance of characters who turn up just because Berendt can't resist writing about them." This was fine with Miami Herald reviewer Connie Ogle, who wrote: "For the roaming Berendt, of course, the goal was not to uncover evidence about the fire but to capture the feel and sway of a time and place, and, for the most part, he achieves it marvelously."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Architectural Digest, May, 1995, p. 56.
Columbia Journalism Review, May-June, 1998, Marcel Dufresne, "Why Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story May Be Darker Than You Think," p. 78.
Entertainment Weekly, September 18, 1998, "Recovering," p. 16.
Library Journal, January, 1994, Wilda Williams, review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, p. 139.
Los Angeles Times, December 30, 1993, review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, p. E4.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 23, 1994, review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, p. 6.
Miami Herald, October 5, 2005, Connie Ogle, review of The City of Falling Angels.
Newsweek, February 28, 1994, Malcolm Jones, Jr., review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, p. 62.
New York Daily News, May 11, 2005, Paul D. Colford, "Midnight Author in Venice Follow-Up."
New York Times Book Review, March 20, 1994, Glenna Whitley, review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, p. 12.
People, April 11, 1994, Judith Newman and David Hutchings, "Georgian Gothic," p. 108; September 21, 1998, "Back Home," p. 131.
PR Newswire, July 12, 1999, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Author to Host Fodor's Travel Forum," p. 9172.
Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1993, review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, p. 58; July 26, 1999, "Midnight Strikes Again," p. 20.
San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, CA), October 5, 2005, Charles Matthews, "Venice Unmasked: John Berendt's New Book Looks at a City That Loves to Play Make-Believe."
Time, April 3, 1995, review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, p. 79.
Times Literary Supplement, July 29, 1994, Jean Hanff Korelitz, review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, p. 7.
Washington Post, February 24, 1994, "Just Savannah Good Time: Writer John Berendt Fell in Love with the City, and So the City Fell in Love with Him," p. C1.
Washington Post Book World, February 6, 1994, review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, p. 3.
Writer, January, 1998, Kristine F. Anderson, "A Conversation … with John Berendt," p. 17.
International Creative Management (ICM) Web site, http://www.icmtalent.com/ (January 20, 2006), "Lectures—Speakers: John Berendt."
Lyceum Agency Web site, http://www.lyceumagency.com/ (January 20, 2006), "John Berendt."