March 11, 1957 –The Lady Chablis:
“It’s like my mom always said: ‘Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it’.”
She was already famous in Savannah, but she became world famous because of the fabulous book, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil (1994) by gay writer John Berendt. It was a New York Times bestseller for 216 weeks. It has sold more than four million copies in 101 printings, has been translated into 23 languages, and has brought hundreds of thousands of tourists to Savannah to visit this loveliest of crime scenes.
Berendt, was an editor at Esquire and New York magazines before moving to Savannah in 1985 to research Midnight In The Garden. He took an apartment and for eight years lived in the city, interviewing locals and gathering material.
The book is a slightly fictionalized focus on the cast of characters that Berendt encountered in the atmospheric Southern city: Chablis is easily the best character in the book and film. It centers on the shooting of male hustler Danny Hansford by internationally known antiques dealer Jim Williams in May 1981 and the subsequent four murder trials that lasted more than eight years. Williams was finally acquitted, but the main interest of the story is the exquisitely drawn characters from every level of society and the anecdotes that create a vivid glimpse Savannah. Among memorable Savannahians depicted are singer/pianist Emma Kelly, “The Lady of 6,000 Songs” as she was dubbed by Savannah songwriter Johnny Mercer; Joe Odom, a lawyer who covers his bad checks with southern charm; an inventor, Luther Driggers, who possesses a vial of poison strong enough to kill the whole city if it were to be added the water supply; Minerva, a “root doctor” who works spells; Sonny Seiler, Williams’s defense attorney and owner of a bulldog names Uga who is the University of Georgia’s famous mascot; and, of course, The Lady Chablis.
The book gave Chablis the spotlight and she was invited on news shows and she was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey who had the most popular daytime talk show.
In 1996, Chablis published her own book, a memoir, Hiding My Candy, and she played herself in the 1997 film adaptation of Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil directed by Clint Eastwood, starring poor old Kevin Spacey, John Cusack and Jude Law, where she was the best thing in the movie. She became one of the first transgender people to be accepted by a wider audience, and her fame brought attention to Savannah’s thriving and exotic LGTBQ scene.
Berendt said that Chablis could be playful and humorous, but she was also very tough. Berendt:
“When Clint Eastwood announced he going to make the film, Chablis made an announcement of her own. She said, ‘If I’m not cast as myself in that movie, there won’t be a movie’. So, he cast Chablis as Chablis.
During her audition, a casting director had the audacity to compare Chablis to Whitney Houston. She slapped him so hard that her nails drew blood. But she got the role.
“She’s the one that people asked me about most often. At that time, trans people weren’t that well known and weren’t that well understood. There weren’t that many in show business.“
Her birth name was Benjamin Edward Knox, but she legally changed it to The Lady Chablis. She was brought up by her grandmother and an aunt. Benjamin’s mother had gone to Chicago, to work as a nurse. Benjamin did not meet her until he was nine years old; he met his father when he was 12.
In the book, Berendt describes first meeting Chablis, hoop earrings jangling, sashayinng into his life as she left her doctor’s office following a hormone injection. Berendt:
“She had both hands on her hips and a sassy half-smile on her face as if she had been waiting for me. Her big eyes sparkled. Her skin glowed. A broken incisor tooth punctuated her smile and gave her a naughty look.“
He offered her a lift home, during which she confided that she was a showgirl. She told him:
“Mama got pregnant when I was 16, and she wanted a little girl. She intended to call the child La Quinta Chablis but she miscarried. I said, ‘Ooooo, Chablis. That’s nice, I like that name’. And Mama said, ‘Then take it, baby’.“
In a building originally built in 1893, Savannah’s Club One was Chablis’ home. She was very first entertainer for the club, famous for its drag revues, officiating at the grand opening in 1988. Thousands of visitors come to Savannah, visiting the locations from the book, including Club One.
Club One hosts drag shows, pageants, standup, live theatre, karaoke, and RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing parties. There is an upstairs cabaret level and a dance floor on the main level. Hundreds of The Lady Chablis fans pack the club each year on her birthday.
Chablis has long supported the Savannah LGBTQ community. She worked closely on various campaigns for the American Diabetes Association, donating thousands of dollars raised by her performances to the cause. She was the headliner for Savannah’s very first Pride celebration and hosted their Miss Gay Pride Pageant. She performed for, donated and contributed to many charities throughout her career.
Much has changed as far as acceptance in the LGBTQ community of Savannah in the past two decades and many southern queers give Chablis much of the credit. Chablis was a trailblazer for Savannah, especially in the black and transgender community.
She never wanted to be called a drag queen. In her shows, she joked that she was a rich white woman. She didn’t like labels; she had a no-nonsense style and attitude that inspired a lot of people and she showed trans people how to live their truth. She was unapologetic.
Chablis said that certain labels were hurtful to her because she spent much of her youth being bullied. Getting to the point where she was comfortable in her own skin was something she had to fight for, like wanting to be referred to as “she” rather than “he”.
“You have to remember that there was a time when I was a young, gay black man living in Savannah. That was during a time when the black folks shopped on Broughton Street and all the whites went to the mall. There were no jobs to be had unless you got lucky and your uncle died or a cousin moved away and you could take their job. Those were hard times for blacks and gays in Savannah, and I try to remind the youth today that they were lucky to have people like me to pave the way. I didn’t know what it’s like to be a woman, and I don’t try to pretend to be a woman; I just try to be who I am without all the labels people try to put on you. After the book came out in Savannah, it was really hard because all my life, since I was like 14 or 15, I had always lived as a girl – not because I wanted to be a woman or anything, but because that is the only way I feel comfortable.“
But, all of my life I had been able to go out in public and just be myself and all of the sudden I’m being labeled as the black drag queen, and I had really never heard that before… and it affected me mentally. For two years I became a recluse. If I had to fly somewhere, I would fly as ‘incog-negro’ as possible so no one would recognize me. Finally, I just had to own it.
She owned it. One of Chablis’ last appearances was on Bravo‘s The Real Housewives Of Atlanta in late 2013 when the housewives traveled to Savannah. The wives stopped by Club One and got schooled. Afterwards, she was in talks with Bravo to create her own show. But, she became ill and had to slow down. She was taken by pneumonia in September 2016 after spending a month in the hospital. The Lady Chablis was just 59 years old when she left this world.
“I did what I did then, but when I knew better, I did better!“