The Women Who Inspired Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly

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Look at those eyes. In their time, in their prime, they must have held all the power of incantatory spells. They were the eyes of a killer.

They belonged to Beulah Annan, who was the inspiration for Roxie Hart of Chicago — the 1924 play, the 1927 silent, the 1975 musical and the 2002 Oscar-winning film (and that 1942 Ginger Rogers flick). A married woman accused of shooting her lover in the back, Annan’s murder trial was inescapably tabloid-ready.

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And as Douglas Perry explains in his new book, The Girls of Murder City: Fame Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, all Chicago was ready for a ripping-good yarn. Except, arguably, for Belva “Belle” Brown, more formally known as Mrs. William Gaertner as well as “Stylish Belva,” whose own sordid accused-murder tale scored headlines a few weeks before Annan’s. A multiple divorcee and cabaret performer, she was the inspiration for the one and only Velma Kelly.

The creator of these inspired characters was Maurine Dallas Watkins, an aspiring Indiana-born playwright who created Chicago after covering the trials of Annan and Gaertner at the bootleg-era began to crest. Raised proper and prim but smitten with the idea of writing, Watkins had the good luck to become a “girl reporter” at the Chicago Tribune as these cases came to light. Women reporters beyond the society or fashion beats were exceptionally rare; Watkins faced most of her competition from the hard-charging Genevieve Forbes and the unyielding Ione Quimby.

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Yet Perry’s jazzed-up, sexed-up, swinging history of that 1924 spring is a more comprehensive than one might suspect. Annan’s attorneys — yes, there were two, and I’ll let you guess which is closer to Billy Flynn — are vividly portrayed:

William Scott Stewart and his partner, W.W. O’Brien, had come on the case that morning, with some reluctance. The two lawyers always fretted about getting stiffed for the bill. Sometimes it seemed that running down payment from clients took as much time as trying cases. Stewart, at the age of thirty-four, and O’Brien, a decade older, demanded cash up front, though for the right client, they still accepted partial payment, along with an acceptable explanation for how the rest would be raised. [Beulah’s husband] Al Annan didn’t have an acceptable explanation — no wealthy family members, no significant assets he could liquidate. But after seeing Beulah Annan’s picture in the morning papers, Stewart and O’Brien decided to make an exception. They took the case.

While Stewart, married with a son, “prided himself on being a reliable man on the darkest of days” and “loved the law and his own intellect above all else,” O’Brien, for 12 years after law school a theatrical promoter, regarded women to be of “paramount interest.” Just Beulah’s luck.

Perry would be playing too broad, mostly to the upper mezzanine — in other words, to cheap sentiment — if his history of Watkins’ play and the women who inspired them ceased right there. After all, two accused glamor-puss murderesses, however crafty or sympathetic, do not a crime wave make. Chicago’s problem at the time was all-male juries could not — would not — convict women of capital crimes no matter how much evidence weighed against the defendant. Barely half a decade after universal suffrage, clearly rights in the voting booth were one thing, and grudgingly granted at that. Absurd vestiges of chivalry were something else.

This is where color enters Perry’s black-and-white saga. There is Katherine Malm, also called the “Wolf Woman” and the “Tiger Girl.” Malm and her husband, Otto, began with the attempted robbery of a factory and ended by offing a security guard. Unlike the confessing Otto, Kitty “decided to trust in Illinois’ all-male juries.” Bad move. Her conviction, Perry notes, suggested “the days of women getting away with murder were finally over.” (Then again, Perry recalls a string of 35 acquitted “husband killers” in Chicago that ended in 1919.)

And enter the Italian immigrant Sabella Nitti, “a poor, rough-looking, middle-aged ethnic woman who spoke almost no English” and was convicted of killing her husband. Turns out not only were Chicago juries notoriously sexist, they were notoriously racist, for the newspapers of the time did not consider Nitti’s conviction “a true win for the state.” Fongul.

Perry’s affection for tabloid wars of 1920s Chicago is, like 1920s attitudes toward race and gender, a candle that refuses to burn out. The promotional tactics, the finger tipping the scale of objective journalism, the screaming headlines, the megalomania, the agenda of William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers is decked out with spiffy new feathers by the author and paraded forth like Roxie and Velma singing “Nowadays.” Less overtly theatrical, though less remembered by posterity, was Helen Cirese, the woman lawyer who took up Nitti’s appeal. Perry, though, likes melodrama, for not a woman on earth could have been wilder than Wanda Stopa.

Stopa was, like Cirese, a rare woman lawyer, yet unlike Cirese, she fell seriously afoul of the law. Indeed, unlike Roxie, she reached for the gun, the gun, the gun all by herself. In love with a man who didn’t love her back, Stopa stomped off to New York City, where the Greenwich Village bohemians literally doped her, then she returned to Chicago, where her first order of business was to burst into the man’s house and try shooting his wife. A 68-year-old handyman intervened was killed. Stopa then went on the lam and wound up a cyanide suicide. Her funeral drew 20,000 people.

Inevitably, though, Perry returns to Watkins, tracing the process by which Chicago was written and produced and the toast of Broadway. Unfortunately for her, much as the murderesses’ moments in the spotlight were fleeting as a jury’s deliberations, Watkins career as a dramatist rose and fell with astonishing speed. Perhaps it’s fitting that Beulah, Belva, Kitty and Sabella — ensemble players in a pageboy-cut drama about class division and crimes that stunned a city and captivated a nation — are joined by Maurine for a final bow.