'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil's' Lady Chablis dies at 59

Story highlights

  • Despite having no formal acting experience, she played herself opposite John Cusack and Kevin Spacey in the movie
  • Chablis: "If y'see my life as I do, y'realize it's been one big metaphor for that journey to ... respect"

(CNN)The Lady Chablis, the unabashed Savannah, Georgia, transgender queen who became a gay icon after finding fame in the 1990s through the "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" book and movie, has died. She was 59.

She died Thursday at Candler Hospital in Savannah, St. Joseph's Candler Health System spokesman Scott Larson confirmed to CNN. No cause of death was given.
    Club One, a Savannah nightclub where Chablis was a regular performer, said on its Facebook page that she "passed this morning surrounded by friends and family."
    Born Benjamin Edward Knox near Tallahassee, Florida, Chablis became the self-styled "grand empress of Savannah," performing in clubs as a female impersonator and speaking coyly of "hiding my candy" to appear more feminine.
    Chablis as she appeared in her one movie role.
    She was a regular on the Southern drag-pageant circuit before author John Berendt featured her prominently in his 1994 nonfiction book about the colorful residents of Savannah and their crimes. She wasn't the book's main character, but she may have been its most memorable.
    Three years later, despite having no formal acting experience, she played herself opposite John Cusack and Kevin Spacey in director Clint Eastwood's movie adaptation.
    "It is not enough to say that Chablis is a drag queen, or even that she is a black drag queen. She is both, of course, but she is much more," Berendt wrote in an introduction to Chablis' 1996 memoir, "Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah."
    "She is a gifted comedienne whose humor is instinctive and whose power to amuse comes from exquisite timing, a flair for the outrageous, and -- I trust she'll forgive me for saying so -- balls."
    Her fearless persona inspired other minorities who overcame similar hurdles to become accepted.
    "I was captivated seeing an actual black trans woman in a major Hollywood motion picture killing it," said transgender actress Laverne Cox on Instagram. "She was salty and brash in her stage act and represents a generation of trans women entertainers we must never forget."
    Berendt's book sold more than 4 million copies, was published in 29 languages and spent more than four years on The New York Times bestseller list. Within months of its publication The Lady Chablis was being featured in magazines and appearing on Oprah.
    Long before the term "transgender" was commonly used or understood, Chablis was most often described as a drag queen or a transvestite. She wrote in her autobiography that while she took hormone pills to enlarge her breasts, she had not had gender-reassignment surgery.
    "If y'see my life as I do, y'realize it's been one big metaphor for that journey to the human state of being known as respect," Chablis wrote in the epilogue to her book.
    "If y'think being gay is tough, try being a transie!" she added. "Professionally speaking, drag has served as an obvious pursuit for a girl like me. Where else could I enjoy the limelight in an evening gown? It's a career that allowed me to earn a good living while being entirely who and what I believe myself to be at the same time."
    Busloads of tourists descended on Savannah to tour the locales from the book and see Chablis perform her saucy show at Club One downtown. Up until her death she appeared regularly at the club, which paid tribute to her Thursday on Facebook.
    "She was Club One's very first entertainer, officiating our grand opening in 1988, and paving the way for female impersonation in Savannah," the club said. "No one, however, could outshine the Grand Empress herself."
    In more recent years Chablis headlined gay pride events and made occasional cameos on TV, including an appearance on "The Real Housewives of Atlanta."