SAVANNAH, Ga. — The Lady Chablis, the transgender performer who became an unlikely celebrity for her role in the 1994 best-seller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” died Thursday in Savannah. She was 59.
Chablis’ sister, Cynthia Ponder, confirmed she died at Candler Hospital. A close friend, Cale Hall, said Chablis died from pneumonia and had been in the hospital for the past month.
A modern, nonfiction take on Southern Gothic storytelling, author John Berendt’s “Midnight” thrust Savannah into the pop-culture spotlight. And the sassy, blunt-spoken Chablis rode the book’s popularity to a level of fame that was rare for transgender performers at the time.
“The legacy that she wanted to leave was one of ‘believe in who you are and never let the world change who you are,'” Ponder said. “Love yourself first and respect yourself first and others will love and respect you.”
Chablis insisted on playing herself in the 1997 “Midnight” movie directed by Clint Eastwood. That same year she published an autobiography, “Hiding My Candy.”
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. Chablis was easily the most popular, Berendt said Thursday.
“She’s the one that people asked me about most often,” Berendt said in a phone interview. “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.”
Her birth name was Benjamin Edward Knox, but she legally changed it to The Lady Chablis around the time of the “Midnight” movie, said Hall, who knew Chablis since the 1980s.
In his book, Berendt describes first meeting 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,” Chablis says in “Midnight.” ”(Expletive) like that. 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.”
Chablis had performed at Club One in downtown Savannah since its opening day in 1988, said Hall, the nightclub’s co-owner. When “Midnight” mania hit in the 1990s, her act became a popular draw for tourists lured to the Georgia coast by Berendt’s book.
Hall said Chablis gave her final performance at the nightclub on Aug. 6, right before she was hospitalized with pneumonia.
“She was a breakout star, no doubt about it,” Hall said. “I think it was the pure honesty she gave people. She didn’t hold her tongue. She told you what she thought.”
Berendt also noted that while 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.”