Q&A with Doug: Sex, murder and fame in Jazz Age Chicago
Q: Why did you write The Girls of Murder City?
A: Because no one else had. When I first saw Chicago: The Musical, back in the late ’90s, I read in the playbill that Maurine Watkins had based the original play on actual murder trials she covered for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. I expected to be able to find a book about the real events, but none existed. This surprised me, because the real story is so amazing. It has beautiful women, wanton sex, cold-blooded murder, all-consuming corruption, devastating heartbreak. Even Al Capone and Leopold and Loeb make appearances.
Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, the “beautiful killers” at the heart of the book, admitted shooting down their boyfriends. But they expected to get off scot-free. How come?
Because they were women. In the early years of the twentieth century, people considered violence an unnatural act for a woman. When it happened, there had to be extenuating circumstances -- mostly likely a brutish man. A woman who killed surely had been overwhelmed by alcohol or feminine emotions, or both, and so she was not responsible.
The big city could be even more devastating to a woman’s delicate constitution. Experts believed modern cities caused “nervous prostration.” If you have subjected yourself to the “deafening and never-ceasing noise” of the city, one academic journal reported, “you will not be surprised to learn that insanity is terribly on the increase in Chicago.” Two respected researchers, Drs. Adolph G. Vogeler and T.B. Wiggin, determined that 85 percent of Chicagoans were insane.
Maurine Watkins didn’t buy any of this. She and the Chicago Tribune -- the city’s “hanging paper” -- made a perfect match. It infuriated Maurine that Beulah and Belva were using their gender and sex appeal to manipulate the justice system. She did everything she could to try to secure convictions for them.
Wanda Stopa: Beautiful, brilliant -- and unhinged.
(Photo courtesy of the Western Springs Historical Society)
The 1920s are considered the “Golden Age” of newspaper journalism. What was it like to be a reporter in Chicago at that time?
Considering that I’ve spent most of my adult life as a professional journalist, it pains me to say this: What your typical reporter does today is a sad, empty imitation of the work reporters did eighty years ago. There were half a dozen daily newspapers in 1920s Chicago, which guaranteed brutal competition. Reporters routinely impersonated police officers to get information. They broke into and ransacked the homes of murder victims in search of diaries and photographs. They fed competing papers elaborate false leads -- including hiring actors to give interviews to unsuspecting hacks.
Crime reporters at this time could walk freely through police stations and jails at all hours. They sat in on and participated in interrogations. They investigated crimes themselves, trying to stay a step ahead of homicide detectives. Reporters didn’t get information from spokesmen -- the police didn’t yet have a media-relations department.
Needless to say, this kind of work required a particular kind of person. Many editors believed that marriage and newspaper reporting couldn’t coexist. Some demoted or fired reporters for getting married. Pete Hamill, when he started his newspaper career in the early ’60s, got a good look at the last remnants of the old-school newspaper hack. “Reporters in those days,” he wrote, “were not as well educated as they are now. Some were degenerate gamblers. Some had left wives and children in distant towns, or told husbands they were going for a bottle of milk and ended up back on night rewrite on a different coast. Some of them were itinerant boomers who worked brilliantly for six months and then got drunk, threw a typewriter out a window, and moved on.”
Hamill wasn’t exaggerating.
How much did Maurine Watkins exaggerate when she fictionalized Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner for Chicago?
The play -- and the musical that followed years later -- is surprisingly accurate in the broad strokes. Sometimes in the details, too. The script’s description of Roxie Hart’s apartment and the murder that occurred there could have come directly out of the actual police report -- if the Chicago Police Department had a talented, wisecracking writer to work up its reports, that is. Similarly, the physical descriptions of Roxie (Beulah) and Velma Kelly (Belva) expertly capture the real women. W.W. O’Brien, one of Beulah’s attorneys, was every bit as flamboyant as the play’s Billy Flynn. He was a boozer, a ladies man, and the mob’s favorite fixer. In the courtroom, he reached heights worthy of Olivier. Maurine couldn’t make up someone better -- no writer could. Some of Billy Flynn’s best lines came directly from O’Brien’s mouth during the run-up to Beulah’s trial and the trial itself. O’Brien noticed. After taking in the play during its Chicago run, he called it “the finest piece of stage satire ever written by an American.”
Roxie and Velma are, of course, caricatures of the real women who inspired them. Maurine didn’t want to make the characters too human -- that might lead to theatergoers sympathizing with them.
Maurine Watkins reported on a series of murder cases for the Tribune. What was it like for a female police reporter in 1920s Chicago?
Few women covered crime at that time, and those who did almost exclusively covered crimes by women. Some newspapers, as well as the legendary City News Bureau, wouldn’t send women out on assignment after sundown.
“Girls reporters” faced constant sexual harassment -- in the newsroom, in police stations, at crime scenes. This was the cultural norm for professional women; to complain about it would have been like complaining about the sky being blue. (The sky, by the way, was never blue in Chicago, thanks to hundreds of factories running full-tilt without any environmental regulation. Chicagoans called the problem “the Smoke Horror.”) Even as late as the 1950s, Lois Wille, who would go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes, had this experience after being hired at the Chicago Daily News: “The first day I was on news I was sitting next to a big Irish cop reporter. He opened his desk drawer and bent over. I thought he was looking for something and the next thing I know I feel his hand rubbing my ankle.”
How did Maurine Watkins deal with that kind of thing?
For the most part, she didn’t. Maurine used the prevailing attitudes about women to her advantage. She was very beautiful, but more than that, she was a minister’s daughter from a small town. Her delicate features, painful shyness and small-town manners made her the embodiment of the feminine ideal. She stood out from the other women hacks, who tended to be rough-and-tumble girls from working-class backgrounds. The first time Maurine presented herself at the South Side police station that would be her home base, the precinct captain came out of his office to greet her. He personally gave her a tour of the station. This was not typical behavior for a police captain. Policemen often froze out the few female police reporters or even tried to bully them into abandoning the beat. But desk sergeants gave Maurine tips they wouldn’t even give to their male reporter pals.
How did she get to cover the Belva Gaertner murder story after being at the paper only a few weeks?
Like with most big breaks, she just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But then she stepped up and proved herself. Her editor tried to give the next-day story about Belva to a more experienced reporter, but Maurine wouldn’t let go of it. And her reports were so alive, so exciting and memorable, that she quickly became a star.
Keep in mind that, in the 1920s, reporters were entertainers. Like movie stars, they transformed themselves into bigger, brighter personalities than they actually were. Patricia Dougherty of the Evening American took the byline Princess Pat and became Chicago’s most popular “sob sister” -- the Lady Gaga of the city’s newspaper corps.
That Maurine Watkins willingly embraced this professional ethos is astonishing. As I mentioned, she was cripplingly shy. She had trouble looking a man in the eye. Being at crowded parties made her panic. Dorothy Parker had no use for her, even when Maurine was the biggest thing on Broadway.
Maurine grew up believing she would devote her life to serving the Lord. But something inside her yearned for more than what church or tiny Crawfordsville, Indiana, her hometown, had to offer. In Chicago, she became fascinated with gangsters. She even developed a crush on one. She said that the “nicest man I met during the time I was doing newspaper work was supposed to be the toughest gunman in Chicago’s West Side. He was like something you read about, such a charming, courteous man.” She liked the idea of this tough man, this killer, putting her up on a pedestal.
What surprised you during the research and writing of The Girls of Murder City?
That murderers could break my heart. Beulah and Belva are difficult to feel sympathy for -- they were cold-hearted femme fatales. But some of the women with them on “Murderess’ Row” really got to me. Kitty Malm and Sabella Nitti are good examples. They were real victims, but unlike Beulah and Belva, they couldn’t use beauty or sophistication to drum up support.
Then there’s Wanda Stopa. She was beautiful and brilliant -- the first female lawyer to work for the state’s attorney’s office in Chicago. But she fell for the wrong man, and when he rejected her, she came unhinged. Her story at the time was bigger than Beulah or Belva’s -- it was called the “Wanda Sensation.” It’s only through a quirk of history -- Maurine’s choice of literary subject matter, to be more precise -- that we’re familiar with the names Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner and not Wanda Stopa.
Another thing that surprised me during my research was how thoroughly Chicago's six daily newspapers covered these women. Every sigh and gesture in the book comes from a primary source. Cook County's murderesses were watched closely day in and day out. They were interviewed time and again, day after day, week after week. Every newspaper hoped to get that little something extra to make their murderess coverage stand out. And yet Maurine Watkins, who never trained as a reporter, usually ended up with the best material.
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired 'Chicago' is published by Viking (Penguin).
Read another Q&A with Doug. The Christian Science Monitor: Guns, gams and glamour in 1920s Chicago.