Reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil pt. 3: The Lady Chablis

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I want to thank the lovely readers here at the Mill Pages for being patient. Rest assured, I haven’t forgotten. My lovely hardcover edition of this  Welcome back to my Let’s Read adventure with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. 

As we know, Midnight is set in Savannah in the 1980s, and is autobiographical. That isn’t immediately apparent, since it’s structured and presented much like a novel. That’s important to this month’s installment.

Along the way, the narrator has introduced us to a number of quirky people he knew during his stay in Savannah. Functionally, they’ve each got their own ‘episode’ in the story. This chapter’s heroine is The Lady Chablis, a black trans woman who performs in drag shows in Savannah’s club scene. She’s confident, fun-loving, and shows her sexuality as an honest part of herself. 

When she was introduced, I had a moment of dread. How would a book written in the 90s, which takes places in the 80s, handle the representation of a trans woman? How will the narrator respond? Berendt’s narration is often quite reactive, since the story is more focused on the people he meets than his own actions, at least so far. So, what will his NYC journalist think of meeting a black trans woman in the sweltering south?

Much to my interest and relief, his response is almost nothing. When she reveals her identity, he barely blinks an eye. When she talks about it, he asks questions. They aren’t deep questions, but they’re asked with genuine curiosity. How do the hormones make you feel? Who do you like to date? Do you tell your dates up-front? He asks things like that, which are crucial to her experience, and she is happy to answer. Chablis is eager to talk about her experiences, and shows no hesitation in sharing with Berendt as they form a quick friendship. 

Now there’s the matter of Berendt’s physical description. I was concerned that Chablis might be over-sexualized. That’s a common problem with how trans women are described in fiction, and this is the account of a real person. Would Berendt be fixated on describing her body? The answer is ‘yes’, but only in the club scene, where Chablis does a provocative dance for the howling, hungry crowd. She talks dirty and gives a masterful dance, and she does it without removing a scrap of clothing. Otherwise, Berendt is far less interested in describing her body and far more interested in her lengthy, kinetic dialogue. 

There are three things that fascinate me about Chablis. First is her comment on the of the dangers of dating. When Berendt asks whether or not she tells her partners about being transgender, she tells him no, and explains that she’d suffered through violence as a result. This is still relevant today. Trans women face a disproportionate amount of assaults and murders in the US, and trans women of color are even more at risk. Chablis is quite candid about the risk she takes every time she simply goes on a date.

Second, I’m fascinated by the conclusion of her arc. Obviously, spoilers lie ahead.

After the raunchy, enthusiastic show that Berendt witnesses in one of Savannah’s steamy nightclubs, he follows Chablis backstage for a look around. She discusses the show with a colleague and shows off a bit of her wardrobe, but the tone changes when her boss arrives on the scene. He and Chablis get into an argument about her pay. Earlier, she’d already expressed some grievances about this very topic to Berendt. He now finds himself watching as the matter blows up right in front of him. 
Chablis has had enough. In her powerful rebuke, she tells the club owner that she’s tired of playing the character that keeps him in business only to be treated poorly. She calls him out on his mistreatment of his workers, the racism in his business practices, and his ignorance of the struggles she faces day to day. “He thinks I have so much fun puttin’ on dresses and shakin’ my butt that I don’t care if I get paid or not,” she says. And then, she leaves. She moves on, gone from the story and Berendt’s life as suddenly as she arrived.

My third and final point of interest is this: Midnight is non fiction. The Lady Chablis is not a character, but a real person. Berendt isn’t describing a caricature, or some uneducated perspective of what a transgender woman was like in the 1980s. He met one, and for a brief time, he glimpsed her life. Later, in what would become a best selling book, he wrote about her. I wanted to know more about The Lady Chablis, so I googled her. I expected to find a couple posts critiquing the book, or maybe a wiki page or something on IMDB relating to casting in the film.

I found much more. It turns out that The Lady Chablis enjoyed a long and successful career. Her appearance in Midnight made her a LGBT icon, and many ostracized transgender people watched her star as herself in the film version of the book. She became a beacon for people who shared her struggle. She died in 2016 at the age of 59, from complications of pneumonia.

I’d never heard about The Lady Chablis before Midnight. I’m glad that I did. Rest well, Grand Empress of Savannah.

Now, I must wonder – who will I meet next?


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