The Women Who Inspired “CHICAGO”

The musical “CHICAGO” is based on a play of the same name by reporter and playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins, who was assigned to cover the 1924 trials of accused murderers Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner for the Chicago Tribune.

Image from Chicagology

In the early 1920s, Chicago’s press and public became riveted by the subject of homicides committed by women. Several high-profile cases arose, which generally involved women killing their lovers or husbands. These cases were tried against a backdrop of changing views of women in the jazz age, and a long string of acquittals by Cook County juries of female murderers (juries at the time were all male, and convicted murderers generally faced death by hanging).

A lore arose that, in Chicago, feminine or attractive women could not be convicted. The Chicago Tribune generally favored the prosecution’s case, while still presenting the details of these women’s lives. Its rivals at the Hearst papers were more pro-defendant, and employed what were derisively called “sob-sisters” – women reporters who focused on the plight, attractiveness, redemption, or grace of the female defendants. Regardless of stance, the press covered several of these women as celebrities.

Annan, the model for the character of Roxie Hart, was 23 when she was accused of the April 3, 1924, murder of Harry Kalstedt, who served as the basis for the Fred Casely character. The Tribune reported that Annan played the foxtrot record Hula Lou over and over for two hours before calling her husband to say she killed a man who “tried to make love to her”.

Her husband Albert Annan inspired the character, Amos Hart. Albert was an auto mechanic who bankrupted himself to defend his wife, only for her to publicly dump him the day after she was acquitted. 

Velma Kelly is based on Gaertner, who was a cabaret singer, and society divorcée. The body of Walter Law was discovered slumped over the steering wheel of Gaertner’s abandoned car on March 12, 1924. Two police officers testified that they had seen a woman getting into the car and shortly thereafter heard gunshots. A bottle of gin and an automatic pistol were found on the floor of the car.

Beulah Annan with lawyer William Scott Stewart (left), her husband, Al (right) and two unidentified men. 4 April 1924
Image from Chicagology

Lawyers William Scott Stewart and W. W. O’Brien were models for a composite character in Chicago, Billy Flynn. Just days apart, separate juries acquitted both women.

Watkins’ sensational columns documenting these trials proved so popular that she wrote a play based on them. The show received both good box-office sales and newspaper notices and was mounted on Broadway in 1926, running 172 performances. 

In the 1960s, Gwen Verdon read the play and asked her husband, Bob Fosse, about the possibility of creating a musical adaptation. Fosse (himself a native of Chicago) approached playwright Watkins numerous times to buy the rights, but she repeatedly declined; by this point she may have regretted that Annan and Gaertner had been allowed to walk free, and that her treatment of them should not be glamorized.

Nonetheless, upon her death in 1969, Watkins’ estate sold the rights to producer Richard Fryer, Verdon, and Fosse. John Kander and Fred Ebb began work on the musical score, modeling each number on a traditional vaudeville number or a vaudeville performer. This format made explicit the show’s comparison between “justice”, “show-business”, and contemporary society.

“CHICAGO” plays at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope, February 21 – March 1.

This article uses content from the Wikipedia article “Chicago (Musical)” which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.