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The Bird Girl and Savannah are victims of Berendt’s ‘Midnight in the Garden’ book

Jan Hearne • Oct 1, 2012 at 12:25 PM

The Bird Girl and I finally came face to face last Sunday at Telfair Academy in Savannah. She stands alone on the marble third-floor landing of Mary Telfair’s former home. A guard sitting in a folding chair keeps watch over her.

When asked if he was keeping her company, he said, “I’m just doing my job.” His look suggested it wasn’t a job he was excited about. I can imagine sitting in a folding chair all day looking at the back end of a sculpture and answering idiotic questions from tourists wouldn’t be on the Top 10 list of any job seeker.

Still, he kindly pointed out where crazed tourists had chipped off chunks of the Bird Girl’s base to take home for souvenirs following the publication of John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” in 1994.

The “garden” refers to Bonaventure Cemetery in the small town of Thunderbolt just outside of Savannah. It was The Bird Girl’s home before “the book” was published.

The statue was created in 1938 by Sylvia Shaw Judson of Illinois, who made three copies. The Trosdal family of Savannah bought one for their family plot in Bonaventure. They called her Little Wendy.

For decades, The Bird Girl stood unmolested, her simple lines eclipsed by the ornate Victorian statuary populating Bonaventure.

As the publication of Berendt’s novel neared, Random House commissioned Savannah photographer Jack Leigh to take a photo for the book cover. His image of the statue made The Bird Girl an instant celebrity, and her existence was threatened by vandals. First, the statue was moved to a private home for protection, then it was loaned to Telfair.

Bird Girl mania continued. Replicas of the statue popped up in gardens across the country. One of Judson’s unhappy heirs likened them to the ubiquitous plastic flamingo. Soon there were questions of copyright infringement. Judson’s daughter was furious and clamped down on wholesale reproduction of the statue. Jack Leigh sued Warner Brothers for copyright infringement when it used the Bird Girl image to promote Clint Eastwood’s deplorable film adaptation of the book.

The Trosdal’s Little Wendy became the Paris Hilton of statues.

So, she stands, separated from the live oaks and Spanish moss, gravestones and grieving angels, that kept her company for so long.

“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” was a blessing and a curse for Savannah.

It revived the economy, but the runaway development has changed the temper of the town so that it bears little resemblance to the eccentric enclave depicted in the book.

The people who flocked to Savannah to be a part of it have chipped away its cultural foundation, just as the vandals chipped at the statue’s granite base. It was sad to realize the Savannah accent of my father’s generation is gone.

Still, I hope for a kind future in which Little Wendy can be returned to her home among the live oaks, and Savannah can reclaim its authentic self.

Reach Jan Hearne at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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