People Supporting the Arts

The True Story of the Bird Girl

Bird_Girl__01by Alice Ryerson Hayes CD ’74

A recognizable figure of a girl with outstretched palms stands motionless in full view of diners at the Cliff Dwellers. It is the famed Bird Girl, whose statue has become forever associated with the John Berendt bestseller, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” and the subsequent movie. The full-size replica made for that film is the one that is on extended loan to the club. Here’s the story:

The statue of the Bird Girl was made by my mother, Sylvia Shaw Judson. An original edition of four bronzes was sold at the time, one of them to a family in Savannah who put it in their family plot in the Savannah cemetery. In 1994 a book about Savannah came out called Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, which has had a stunning success. On the book jacket is a marvelous picture of the Bird Girl taken in the Savannah cemetery by Jack Leigh, a superb local photographer

The book has made its author famous, and the photograph has made its photographer famous, but the two together have made the Bird Girl very famous indeed. She has become the icon of Savannah. The original statue from the cemetery is now in the Telfair Museum, but the image has been sickeningly commercialized. Bracelets, tie pins, dish towels, key rings, candles, doormats, etc. flood the shops in Savannah.

I am the holder of the copyright on the Bird Girl, so I was not happy about all these small souvenirs of Savannah. But my real worry was that someone would make a full-sized “copy” and sell it as the actual Bird Girl. By threatening a law suit, all full-sized statues were eliminated, all except one grotesque version called by its makers “Rebekah.” They have been sold as such. You can see why I was shocked to see the Bird Girl referred to as “Rebecca” in the January 2001 newsletter! And I marvel at how the name arrived at the Cliff Dwellers?

A few years after the book came out, Warner Brothers made a rather second-rate movie of Midnight, and they wanted a Bird Girl to use in the film. So, for a price, I let them have an epoxy-fiberglass copy, to be returned to me when she had played her small part. This is the copy we have. If you look closely, you will see that her arms are on backwards (thumbs in front, not in back). The arms must have been broken off somewhere in transit and been carelessly glued back on, probably when she was on loan to a big function in New York after she came back from Hollywood.

Sylvia was the daughter of Howard Van Doren Shaw, a charter member of The Cliff Dwellers and designer of the original Kiva at the top of Orchestra Hall. So I thought the Bird Girl would be at home here, and I gave this copy to the Club.

There will be very few genuine bronze Bird Girls besides the original four. However, I have allowed half-size (two-foot) and thirteen-inch versions to be made in epoxy. An amazing number have been sold. They are good copies and the royalties on them help the Ragdale Foundation. Sylvia’s father built his Ragdale house the year she was born, 1897, and she lived and worked in her studio there for many years. She was extremely pleased when it became an artists’ retreat several years before she died. So, although she would not want the Bird Girl to become like a flamingo on every lawn, I don’t think she would mind helping Ragdale in this more protected way.

The foregoing was originally published in the April, 2001, issue of the Cliff Dwellers’ newsletter, On and Off the Cliff.