THE DEATH of Lady Chablis—aka The Doll, aka The Grand Empress, real-life star of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and its film adaptation—has hit Savannah, and indeed the world, hard.
For some, the blow is even more personal and deeply felt.
Jeffery Hall was Chablis’s friend and longtime personal assistant—in his words, “the Dollkeeper”—and one of the people closest to her for the longest time.
“I first met her when I was show director at Club One. ‘The Book’ was already out by then, so it was intimidating, all this hoopla around her. I was a nervous wreck,” remembers Hall.
- Photo courtesy of Jeffery Hall
“Eventually we became friends. I was going to start doing something else, and she said, ‘You can quit these bitches but you can’t quit me.’ And I said, ‘Then pay me, girl!’ So that’s how it started. I’d travel with her, we’d take off and do a show.”
The professional relationship became a deep friendship, but Hall says the two aspects didn’t always mingle.
“She always differentiated between the personalities. Her birth name was Benjamin Edward Knox. She actually lied when she told John Berendt her birth name was Frank, that was her dad’s name,” Hall says.
“So Chablis was ‘Benjy.’ And when Benjy started to transition—of course we didn’t call it that back then, it was just called dressing like a girl—she became Brenda Dale Knox.”
Simply put, Hall says, “Brenda Dale was my friend. Chablis was my employer.”
Hall describes Brenda Dale as the one “who’d cook you steak and eggs and bring it to your bedroom, she’d buy you a wonderful birthday present. She’d cuddle herself in a blanket and talk for hours.”
Chablis and Hall’s young son became close as well, he says.
“I was a single father, and my son lived with me. Brenda Dale would move into my house on Tuesdays before a show. She’d be polishing her fingernails while Clayton was reading a Harry Potter book to her. She’d cook for him and he’d draw her things,” Hall says.
But when it was time to go to the club and perform, the Lady Chablis emerged.
“And that sort of became the problem —Chablis took over,” Hall says. “And eventually I saw less and less of Brenda Dale. Chablis became her prime personality.”
For Hall, Chablis’s passing is all the more poignant in that it came on the heels of last month’s death of Midnight character Nancy Hillis, aka “Mandy” in The Book. He knew them both very well.
“Nancy was my best friend. If I’d been straight, she’d be my wife. After Joe Odom died, I guess you could say I took his place in her life. We played piano together, traveled together. We were joined at the hip.”
Hall says he always understood the pressures on Chablis, and had compassion for her struggle to maintain privacy.
“There were always hangers-on who wanted something. It really got to her. She would always say, ‘I don’t know them, but they know me.’ That was one of the most striking lines of hers,” Hall says.
“Chablis was hard to work for. It was stressful, but it was fun. And what you see in the movie was one tenth of reality.”
- Photo courtesy of Jeffery Hall
Hall remembers one particularly vivid encounter, during the filming of an interview for a show on the Lifetime network.
“She was sitting in a beautiful pink suit, as ladylike as could be. I was sitting next to her during the interview. The interview went well until the guy from Lifetime said, ‘Remember, Chablis, this is a family friendly show. We need you to watch your language,’” Hall recalls.
“Well, that’s when all hell broke loose. That was literally the worst possible thing you could have said to her,” he says.
“She said, ‘Oh no, motherfucker! The only goddamn reason you’re here is I am the Lady Chablis! And people come to see me because of who I am. You are out of your goddamn mind. You know that fucking bleep machine you got? You gonna need five of them motherfuckers,’” Hall recalls.
“They call her the Grand Empress for a reason,” he laughs.
Hall’s association with Chablis “changed my whole world. I met movie stars, I hung out with Oscar de la Renta.”
Travis Coles has managed Club One, Chablis’s home performance venue, for the last 12 years.
“When I started working at Club One in 2004 I hadn’t even seen Midnight. I wasn’t aware of how big an impact she had. I quickly learned!” laughs Coles.
“To me it was more my personal interaction with her. Getting to know her as a person. I think she initially saw me as the next young guy to run the club who’d be promptly fired within a few months. When she realized I just wanted to be there to work, we became friends.”
Coles speaks passionately of the extended family of Club One and its impact on the Savannah community. And Chablis, he says, was the matriarch of that family.
“When my parents came to see the show, Chablis introduced them during the show as her future mother and father-in-law. She was always having fun with me like that.”
Coles says Chablis’s true impact wasn’t just being a groundbreaking transgender figure. It was how she broke that ground.
“Particularly with Midnight, it was the first time you saw a transgender person in a lead role in a major motion picture. But what I really appreciated was that it was not cartoonish,” Coles says.
“While she was a larger than life character in the movie, she wasn’t insulting. That allowed people, especially in the straight community, to feel comfortable seeing her show. Because they saw her in a major motion picture in everyday theaters, not ‘special’ theaters,” that made it OK.”
- Photo courtesy of Jeffery Hall
Coles recalls Club One staff and regulars joking about the often-ironic effect Chablis had on the world, and by extension on the LGBTQ community.
“You’d get these older white Republican straight couples coming in to see Lady Chablis. Then when the show was over they’d basically say, ‘OK, let’s get out of this fag bar,’” Coles laughs.
“But it’s certainly changed a lot in the 12 years I’ve been there. Hearts and minds have changed tremendously. Then again, we don’t hate the bachelorette parties so much anymore, so it works both ways!” Coles jokes.
Hall is even more blunt about Chablis’s impact, particularly on Savannah.
“I know for a fact that Lady Chablis was personally responsible for a huge percentage of tourism in this city. I know people who have flown from Australia for the sole purpose of coming to Club One to see Chablis,” Hall says.
“I have seen church buses parked in front of Club One with congregation members lining up to go in to see Chablis. I have personally carried more than one little old lady in a wheelchair and an oxygen tank up those damn stairs to sit in a smoke-filled bar to see Chablis,” he says.
And Chablis would always give those audience members what they came for, and then some.
“That’s where I got my jollies, was watching her in those situations. She’d go out of her way during the show to pick on them and play with them,” Hall remembers.
Chablis continued thrilling audiences at Club One up until the end, though everyone in her inner circle knew how difficult her physical struggle had become.
“She’d been sick for ages. I knew she was sick, but we all tried to keep it quiet and away from the gawkers and onlookers,” Hall says.
Coles was one of those who visited Chablis in the hospital in her last hours. Indeed, it was the Club One Facebook page which broke the sad news to the world.
“I got to see her at the hospital on Monday. Within 15 minutes she woke up and still had her sharp wit about her. I said, ‘I love you, Lady.’ And she shot back, ‘Why now?’ Coles recalls.
“I was getting texts, and she tried to snatch the phone out of my hand. Her spirit was still there—it was just her body that couldn’t go on.”