Write place, right time Books: Of all the delights in 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,' Jennifer Kohn found one that only she can enjoy.

April 18, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Jennifer Kohn had hoped the best-selling "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" would be a treat, a literary lagniappe for her first free evening. So when the Towson woman finally cracked the book's spine, she felt like a million.

Make that a millionth.

Kohn had found a prize she didn't know existed inked into the flyleaf of the book. As the owner of the 1 millionth copy of "Midnight," she was entitled to a free trip to its setting, Savannah, Ga., and cocktails with its author, John Berendt, who had inscribed the invitation.

Berendt's publisher, Random House, had decided to offer this unusual prize to commemorate one of the most unusual success stories in publishing. The publisher had done the same thing for the 400,000th copy, but "Midnight" is the book that just won't quit -- 1.25 million in print and the paperback edition as yet unscheduled, because people keep buying it in hardcover.

For those of you who haven't glanced at the best-seller lists since the summer of 1994, it should be noted that "Midnight" is the mostly nonfiction account of an ugly event in a beautiful place. A Savannah antiques dealer, already a somewhat

controversial figure, was tried three times in the slaying of a young man described as a "walking streak of sex."

The story was well-known in Savannah. But the outside world ate it up -- much as it may soon be eating up official "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" cookies. (Key lime coolers in a special tin; all of Berendt's proceeds to go to charity.) "Midnight" also set off a tourist boom in Savannah and created hundreds of jobs.

Berendt, reached by phone in San Francisco, says he has stopped trying to figure out why the book has been so successful. "I've stopped pinching myself," he says, "because I'd be black and blue."

Kohn bought her copy of "Midnight" at Bibelot in Pikesville last November for the usual reasons -- she had heard it was a great, one-of-a-kind read. "My mother told me about it and I had been working very hard, decided to treat myself to a fictionalized nonfiction. I hadn't bought such a book in 25 years." Actually, the year was 1978, and the book was a Taylor Caldwell novel, purchased because she was "mad at my boyfriend. Just furious."

Anyway, Kohn, head of the portrait division at Bendann Art Galleries, didn't find time to open her copy of "Midnight" until late December. Another month went by before she alerted Random House of her discovery, and her work schedule kept her from making the trip until next weekend, when she and her husband, John Murtah, will finally fly to Savannah.

That means they will be too early to catch the start of filming on "Midnight" the movie: Clint Eastwood begins directing the screen version on location in May. However, they will be there for the launch of the official "Midnight" cookie.

"It's very sugary, but also very tart," Berendt says.

And while we're on the subject of sugary and tart: "Midnight" fans will be interested to know that drag empress Lady Chablis will play herself(?) in the film.

Pub Date: 4/18/97

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