The Lady Chablis, a transgender performer who became an unlikely celebrity as a figure in the 1994 bestseller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and who acted in the 1997 film of the same name, died Sept. 8 at a hospital in Savannah, Ga. She was 59.
Her sister, Cynthia Ponder, confirmed the death. A close friend, Cale Hall, said Lady Chablis had been hospitalized for pneumonia.
“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” author John Berendt’s nonfiction account of life in Savannah, was a pop-culture phenomenon of the 1990s and featured Lady Chablis as a sassy, blunt-spoken character who exposed some of the city’s dirty laundry.
Lady Chablis insisted on playing herself in the 1997 movie directed by Clint Eastwood and published an autobiography, “Hiding My Candy,” in 1996.
Berendt’s book had no shortage of quirky, true-life characters — a voodoo priestess, a man who tied live flies to his lapels and a piano player with an encyclopedic command of 6,000 songs. Lady Chablis was easily the most popular, Berendt said Thursday in an interview with the Associated Press.
“She’s the one that people asked me about most often,” Berendt said. “At that time, transsexuals weren’t that well known and weren’t that well understood. There weren’t that many in show business. And she was one of the first to be accepted by a wider audience.”
Lady Chablis was featured in Time magazine and appeared on “Today,” “Oprah” and “Good Morning America.” In her autobiography, she wrote about an abusive and misunderstood youth growing up in a small town in Florida.
“I couldn’t help the way I walked, that I had a sexy strut,” she told the Guardian newspaper of Britain in 1998. “When people said I shouldn’t do it, I couldn’t understand why. I am what I am — I’m black, I’m gay, and I wear dresses.”
Lady Chablis was born Benjamin Edward Knox, but she legally changed her name to The Lady Chablis around the time of the “Midnight” movie, said Hall, who knew her since the 1980s.
In his book, Berendt described his first meeting with Chablis as she left a doctor’s office following her latest estrogen injection: “Her big eyes sparkled. Her skin glowed. A broken incisor tooth punctuated her smile and gave her a naughty look.”
Chablis tells Berendt she’s a showgirl. She describes her act and reveals the origin of her name.
“I dance, I do lip-sync, and I emcee,” Lady Chablis says in “Midnight.” “My mama got the name Chablis off a wine bottle. She didn’t think it up for me though. It was supposed to be for my sister.”
Lady Chablis had performed at Club One in downtown Savannah since its opening in 1988, said Hall, the nightclub’s co-owner. When “Midnight” mania hit in the 1990s, her act became a popular draw for tourists. Hall said Lady Chablis gave her final performance at the nightclub on Aug. 6, before being hospitalized with pneumonia.
Berendt also noted that while Lady Chablis could be playful and humorous, “she had a very tough inner core.”
“She would always say, ‘Don’t be fooled by this dress I’m wearing,’ ” Berendt said. “When Clint Eastwood announced he was doing the movie, 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.”
After the initial success of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” Lady Chablis performed at clubs from Boston to Florida, making up to $4,000 a night.
“It’s more fun being Lady Chablis since the book was published,” she said, “because now I can upgrade my superstardom . I don’t have to stay in the Holiday Inn any more — I can stay in a Hilton, and I get limo service.”
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