When Douglas Perry saw the Broadway revival of Chicago in the late 1990s, he became fascinated with the factual events that inspired the show. He expected to be able to find a book about the real-life "killer dillers," but found that there wasn't one. An accomplished journalist, Perry sought to rectify the situation by producing a tome of his own.
The result is The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and The Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago (Viking, 2010), a fascinating tale of the decidedly skewed sense of justice holding court in 1920s Chicago. Along with the Jazz Age came a rash of homicides committed by females, but the city's all-male juries were reluctant to condemn women murderers, especially the pretty ones.
Much of the general public ascribed such heinous acts by women to a loosening of moral values, and an overindulgence in the cabaret lifestyle and bootleg liquor. Or perhaps it was more of a general social malaise. "Something about Chicago was destroying the feminine temperament," writes Perry, not from his own point of view, but from the perspective of the general 1920s Chicago zeitgeist.
Enter Maurine Watkins, an aspiring journalist, playwright, and moralist seeking to acquire some first-hand experience as a crime reporter. Watkins became one of the few female crime reporters with the venerable Chicago Tribune. The Tribune considered itself the "hanging paper," in contrast to the Hearst publications, which sought to wrench as much human melodrama as possible from any given tragedy -- whether or not the details were actually true -- in the shameless pursuit of newsstand sales.
Shortly after Watkins arrived in Chicago, two sensational murderesses hit the real-life Cook County jail: Belva Gaertner (think "Velma"), a stylish former cabaret singer and three-time divorcee, accused of gunning down her married lover. And Beulah Annan (think "Roxie"), the beautiful car-mechanic's wife, who allegedly shot her lover and danced over his dying body to the strains of a jazz record playing over and over on her Victrola. What follows is a scandalous tale of sexism, racism, xenophobia, yellow journalism, and miscarriages of justices.
In The Girls of Murder City, Perry's descriptions of various murder cases and the attendant media circus are heavily detailed and thoroughly compelling. I did have to wonder, however, how he got as specific as he did with the precise descriptions of what the various characters were doing and feeling. Perry provides an extensive bibliography, and one can assume that his accounts are taken from those sources, but sometimes the level of specificity strained credulity. How, for instance, could he know that Beulah Annan, when attending church services, would be "leaning her cheek against her mother's elbow during services"? Perry's bibliography lists no source for this reference, so perhaps it's meant to be fanciful projection?
In any case, Perry certainly knows how to effectively set the scene. His descriptions of the rampant mob mentality during the funeral of one of the minor murderesses was alternately heartbreaking and terrifying. Perry also demonstrates a knack for building suspense during the trials of Gaertner and Annan, wringing compelling drama out of the court proceedings. Perry does devote a bit too much attention to the Leopold and Loeb case, which admittedly occurred during the time period, but would seem to be outside the scope of Perry's thesis.
Based on her experiences covering the Gaertner and Annan trials, a disgusted and outraged Maurine Watkins decided to turn these travesties into the play Chicago, which ran on Broadway during the 1926-27 season, and later toured the country. The play was made into a film twice, once in 1927 under the title "Chicago," and again in 1942, this time called "Roxie Hart." Watkins was unhappy with both versions, and to her dying day refused to entertain offers of a musical treatment.
When Watkins died in the early '70s, Bob Fosse approached her estate about creating a musical with John Kander and Fred Ebb, and you probably know the story from there. Fans of the musical Chicago will notice in Perry's book elements that have survived intact from the news reports and court documents, all the way to Watkins' play and Fosse's and Ebb's libretto. This includes actual lyrics, such as "We both reached for the gun," as well as plot elements, including Roxie's fake pregnancy.
One of the reasons the musical Chicago struck a nerve upon its 1996 revival was that the show's focus took on a new relevance alongside the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, a miscarriage of justice in a very different vein, which nonetheless made household names out of Marcia Clark, Kato Kaelin, Judge Ito, Johnnie Cochran, and Mark Fuhrman. I'm frankly appalled that even now, after 15 years, I can still recall those names. That's the insidious power of the media, and Perry's book puts a fascinating perspective on how another media circus evokes its own particular place and time.
NOTE: New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations require bloggers to disclose when they accept anything of material value related to their blog posts. I received a complimentary review copy of The Girls of Murder City .