One of the icons of Savannah is its “Bird Girl.” A 50-inch sculpture in bronze, the statue depicts a young girl, standing wistfully with two bowls in her hands.
The original Bird Girl was the creation of Sylvia Shaw Judson, a highly-regarded sculptor whose works have been displayed at prestigious art museums and even the White House.
For more than half a century, the Bird Girl stood undisturbed in Bonaventure Cemetery (it is now on display at the Jepson Center, downtown). In the early 1990s, it was spotted by photographer Jack Leigh, commissioned to produce a cover image for an upcoming book about Savannah.
That book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, catapulted Savannah into the national spotlight, and with it, the statue of the Bird Girl that became the emblem of that work and of the city it portrayed.
Sylvia Shaw Judson sculpted the Bird Girl around 1936, at her family’s summer home in Lake Forest, Illinois. She based the design on the likeness of a young girl, Lorraine Greenman, whom Judson spotted at a dance recital at the Eli Bates settlement house, which ran dance classes near Greenman’s home in the then working-class immigrant Cabrini-Green neighborhood of Chicago.
The Bird Girl was originally commissioned for a garden in Massachusetts, but Judson eventually produced four copies of the work: one went to Massachusetts, another to a garden in Washington, DC, and another to Lake Forest, Illinois.
The fourth statue was purchased by Lucy Boyd Trosdal, of Savannah. Naming it “Little Wendy,” she installed it at her family’s grave plot in Bonaventure Cemetery. On the base was placed an inscription from Corinthians 5:8, appropriate to the statue’s role as funerary art: “We are confident, then, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
The Bird Girl would remain in that spot for decades, unnoticed except by the handful of mourners and visitors who chose that particular path through the burial ground.
Sylvia Shaw Judson died in 1978, long before Leigh’s photograph and Berendt’s book made her Bird Girl one of the most widely-recognized statues in the United States.
In 1993, Random House, publishers of Midnight, commissioned Savannah photographer Jack Leigh to create an image for the book’s cover. Its author John Berendt suggested that Bonaventure Cemetery might yield a suitable subject, and Leigh sent two days there searching for the perfect picture.
He happened across the Bird Girl towards the end of the second day. Dusk was gathering and he was obliged to compose and shoot the photograph quickly.
The shot he took centered on the Bird Girl, standing serenely amidst a landscape of graves and memorials, an eerie light filtering through the dense foliage and strands of moss of Bonaventure’s canopy of oaks.
The aura against which the statue stands out was not original to the scene. It was instead manually augmented by Leigh in the dark room, using the pre-digital photograph-enhancing technique of dodging (lightening) to give the impression of a scene illuminated by the light of the moon.
Some stories have Leigh, confident of the completed work’s suitability, send this one photograph alone in his submission to Random House. Others say he sent several images, and it was the publisher that selected the photograph of the Bird Girl for the cover of the book.
John Berendt professed himself delighted with the photograph’s visual strength, a reaction that was apparently shared by the book-buying public: Jack Leigh’s arresting photograph of the Bird Girl is considered to have been a major factor in the success of the book.
Soon after the publication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, visitors began to flock to Bonaventure Cemetery to see the iconic Bird Girl statue.
As the popularity of the book rose, the stream of visitors became too much. The peace of the Trosdal’s grave was disturbed. Visitors eager to photograph or inspect the statue up close trampled adjacent plots. Some people allegedly even attempted to chip off parts of the Bird Girl to take home as souvenirs.
To restore the sanctity of their burial plot, the Trosdal family was obliged to remove the Bird Girl statue from Bonaventure. At first it was hidden in a private residence, and later lent to the Telfair Museums. Until December 2014, it was displayed at the Telfair Academy, after which it was moved across the street to the Jepson Center, where it can presently be seen.
The original site of the statue on the Trosdal family lot has since been altered by new plantings, and no longer resembles the surroundings of the statue as depicted in Leigh’s photograph. At the family’s request, cemetery officials no longer give out the lot’s location.
With the publication of Midnight, the statue of the Bird Girl had already become a well-known cultural icon. The 1997 release of a film adaptation of Berendt’s book renewed public and commercial interest in the statue, which has since been embroiled in various lawsuits over the rights to the use of its image.
After the death of its creator, Alice Judson, the copyright to the Bird Girl passed to her daughter, Alice Judson Hayes (it is now owned by Hayes’s own daughter, the artist Francie Shaw).
Hayes gave her permission to Warner Brothers, producers of the 1997 adaptation of Midnight, to make a fiberglass copy of the statue for their movie on the condition that it be returned to her after filming (it was, and she gave it to the Cliff Dwellers Club of Chicago, a civic arts organization to which the Judson family had a connection).
Warner Brothers used the Bird Girl both in the movie itself and in its publicity and poster art. However, although Hayes was the owner of the copyright to the likeness of the statue, its photographer Jack Leigh felt that Warner Brothers’ use of the images was too similar to his own photographic work. Having earlier attempted to negotiate with the studio over the use of his work, Leigh now sued them for copyright infringement.
The court decided that the movie scenes in which the Bird Girl featured did not constitute infringement, but a subsequent reconsideration of the case found that the film’s promotional photography did. Warners Brothers eventually settled with Jack Leigh out of court.
Both Jack Leigh and Alice Judson Hayes have also vigorously pursued copyright infringment in and connected with Savannah itself. Attempts to capitalize on the success of the book and film led to a proliferation of tourist-oriented merchandise – T-shirts, mugs, dish towels, keyrings, jewelry, and so on – that employed the image of the Bird Girl.
Hayes has additionally attempted to prevent the production of unlicensed replicas of the statue, which at one time were available in an array of sizes and materials, and of variable quality.
She was eventually persuaded to allow some – properly licensed – reproductions to be manufactured and sold as outdoor ornaments, the iconic Bird Girl today gracing many hundreds of gardens across the country and perhaps, the world.