Wednesday, September 01, 2010
The Girls of Murder City (Book Review)
After author Douglas Perry saw Chicago: The Musical, he wanted to read a book about the real women on whom playwright Maurine Watkins had based her original play, also called Chicago. To his surprise, such a book did not exist, so he wrote one. The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago is not a great book, but it does effectively introduce the real-life versions of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly. Roxie is based on the beautiful Beulah Annan, who defended herself for shooting her lover by saying that "they both reached for the gun" and who feigned pregnancy to gain the sympathy of the public and the jury. Velma is less exactly based on the upper class Belva Gaertner, who was too drunk to remember if she shot her lover but thought it was unlikely, because, "I don't see how I could. I thought so much of him." The main source of enjoyment reading the book is seeing how much of the musical is based on actual events: for example, there was indeed a number of female murderers in the Cook County jail at the same time as Beulah and Belva, being pretty and well-dressed was a more valuable defense than being innocent, and there were indeed credulous sob sisters writing for many newspapers. (Watkins herself, however, was not a sob sister and did all she could to get Beulah and Belva found guilty. ) Perhaps the most fascinating realization is that Bob Fosse's version of Chicago is no more cynical than Maurine Watkins's or the reality of 1920's Chicago. Unfortunately, the book's structure is confusing, and Perry's writing ranges from pedestrian to purple. The frequency with which he claims to know what people were thinking 75 years ago suggests one of two conclusions: (1) he was too willing to accept as true the hyperdramatic newspaper reports of the time, or (2) he has too much faith in his ability to read dead people's minds.