'Midnight' author revels in the spell cast on Savannah

May 01, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

"I'd cast Tommy Lee Jones as Jim Williams, definitely," he says. "And for Danny Hansford, somebody like Brad Pitt . . . you know, the whole young hunk thing."

Writer John Berendt is sipping coffee at the Dunhill Hotel in Charlotte, N.C., one recent morning, imagining the movie version of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (Random House, $23), his best-selling book about Savannah, Ga.

He's negotiating a sales price with Hollywood deal-makers, and though he didn't plan it that way, he concedes that the book has "all the ingredients" for a box-office hit.

"It satisfies people's taste for the quirky," he says.

That's an enormous understatement about this saga of life in Georgia's endlessly partying "Hostess City," where the moss-draped squares and debutante balls coexist with voodoo spells, steamy sex . . . even murder. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," though nonfiction, reads like a spicy novel. At its center is socially prominent antiques dealer Jim Williams, charged with murdering his young handyman and lover Danny Hansford.

Mr. Berendt's dead-eye reporting and elegant prose have won well-deserved critical praise.

A former editor of New York magazine and an Esquire columnist, Mr. Berendt, 55, lived in Savannah off and on for eight years, gathering material.

"I didn't write it for the amusement of people who live in Savannah, but the reaction there has been overwhelmingly positive. One bookstore has sold close to 4,000 copies. And the tourists are going crazy. The statue on the book jacket [in Bonaventure Cemetery] has had so many tour buses pulling up, with people trampling the grave, that the family finally removed it."

What's next for Mr. Berendt? The movie deal; resuming his column at Esquire. And he wants to write another book -- maybe about another city, possibly New Orleans. "The trouble is, I'd be setting myself up for comparisons," he says. "And what city could measure up to Savannah?"

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