The Fred Ebb/John Kander musical Chicago, conceived and choreographed by Bob Fosse, is now a Broadway standard with productions touring the world. The 2002 movie version of the musical, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellwegger, is an Academy award-winner. The 1926 Maurine Watkins play on which the musical is based, however, has been largely forgotten, and is currently out of print. Even less has been known about Watkins herself and how she came to write the play, until now.
With his book The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, Douglas Perry has done us all a great service by chronicling the real events that inspired Maurine Watkins to write her play. Perry’s work is a vivid mix of biography and history that relates Watkins’ life and development as a writer, and recreates Prohibition-era Chicago in all of its seedy glamour.
Maurine Watkins would at first seem an unlikely person to write a satirical play about celebrity criminals. She was from the small town of Crawfordsville, Indiana.
Her father, George Wilson Watkins, Crawfordsville’s minister, had sent his only child to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, a school affiliated with their Disciples of Christ faith, to study Greek and Latin poets. The Reverend Watkins wanted to keep his daughter in a religious, culturally-conservative environment, as well as cultivate her Southern roots. She had been born in Louisville, about seventy-five miles from Lexington, at her grandmother’s house.
When Watkins finished her undergraduate degree she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to do graduate work in classics at Radcliffe college. Shortly after she began a playwriting class taught by Eugene O’Neill’s mentor George Pierce Baker, she decided that the academic life was not for her. Impressed with her talent, Baker urged Watkins to seek out a job in journalism, believing it would be good training for her writing and provide plenty of experiences to write about.
The soft-spoken, polite, and reserved Watkins was hired as a crime reporter at the Chicago Tribune because the editor thought female criminals would be more likely to open up to her than to male reporters. Seeking experience for her writing, Watkins would get it during that Spring and Summer in 1924 by covering two of the biggest murder trials in the city. The accused killers, Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan, would provide the basis for Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart.
Gaertner and Annan were the two most popular (and pretty) women on Cook County’s Murderess’ Row. The women of the Row dominated the front pages of Chicago’s six daily newspapers. Unfortunately for the cause of justice, women were rarely if ever convicted of murder. As Watkins wrote, “it feeds a juryman’s vanity and sex pride to feel that a woman is weaker and less responsible than a man would be in a similar situation.” This same patronizing attitude towards women could be found everywhere. It was why there were no women on juries and why there were so few women journalists, let alone women journalists working the crime beat.
What at first glance is the story of a writer, two murder trials, and the public fascination and media-frenzy that surrounded them, turns out to be a story about the changing role of women in the country. With the confluence of the successful Women’s Suffrage movement, the devastating effects of the carnage of World War One, and the political corruption and violent crime brought about by Prohibition, a social revolution was taking place. Women made their way into new roles previously held exclusively by men.
Yet despite their newfound freedom, many women struggled to free themselves from the corset-like strictures prevalent thanks to still-dominant Victorian attitudes. While others, like Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, would use those same antiquated attitudes to their advantage.
Watkins was infuriated by the fawning coverage given to the two women. She sought to deflate the public fascination and victim image Annan and Gaertner cultivated, and portray them as the killers that they were. It was to no avail. Both women were found not guilty.
When Annan was acquitted, she thanked and shook hands with every member of the jury, even kissing one on the cheek. The verdict disgusted Watkins, who wrote, “Beulah Annan, whose pursuit of wine, men, and jazz music was interrupted by her glibness with the trigger finger, was given freedom last night by her ‘beauty-proof’ jury.”
Before the year was through, Watkins would leave Chicago for the East Coast to work on the play Chicago. The play premiered in New York at the end of 1926. It was an immediate hit. A silent film version was made in 1927, helmed by Cecil B. DeMille. Ginger Rogers starred in the 1942 movie Roxie Hart, based on the play, but several plot elements were changed; most significantly, Roxie Hart did not commit murder. Watkins wrote another play and worked for a number of years as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but she would never write anything as successful as Chicago.
Thanks to Perry’s skillful culling of information gathered from newspaper accounts, court records, trial transcripts, and other sources, we get an excellent and enjoyable account of Watkins journey through Chicago’s 1920’s justice system. That Watkins’ satire has provided the basis for a handful of movies and a world-wide musical success shows how perceptive her vision of our media-filled culture was, even eight decades later.