The son of two writers, John Berendt grew up in Syracuse, New York. He earned a B.A. in English from Harvard University, where he worked on the staff of The Harvard Lampoon. After graduating in 1961, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in publishing. Berendt has written for David Frost and Dick Cavett, was editor of New York magazine from 1977 to 1979, and wrote a monthly column for Esquire from 1982 to 1994.
Berendt first traveled to Savannah in the early 1980s, when he realized that he could fly there for a three-day weekend for the price of "a paillard of veal served on a bed of wilted radicchio" in one of New York's trendier restaurants. Over the ensuing eight years his visits became more frequent and extended, until he was spending more time in Savannah than in New York.
Part of the appeal, Berendt says, lay in the city's penchant for morbid gossip: "People in Savannah don't say, 'Before leaving the room, Mrs. Jones put on her coat.' Instead, they say, 'Before leaving the room, Mrs. Jones put on the coat that her third husband gave her before he shot himself in the head.'"
Since the publication and unprecedented success of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Berendt has become a Savannah celebrity and was even presented with the key to the city. "I took it down to City Hall one night to see if it would work, but it didn't."