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Myth-making: Chicago 1924 
20th-Apr-2006 10:58 am
writing: glass cat--sarah
I've been listening to the soundtrack for Chicago a lot recently.

Because it's how my brain works, I looked up the real-life trials the musical is based on, and I discovered something interesting. The trials of Beulah Annan (Roxie Hart) and Belva Gaertner (Velma Kelly) overlapped with the Leopold and Loeb case. A woman named Maurine Dallas Watkins did reporting for all three trials; she went on to write a play called Chicago (on which the musical is based). Belva Gaertner attended the premiere. It's Maurine Dallas Watkins who named the characters: Roxie, Velma, Amos Hart, Billy Flynn. It's Maurine Dallas Watkins who made the real-life story into a myth.

(With Annan and Gaertner, there were six women on Death Row--"the six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail," as the musical puts it--but Maurine Dallas Watkins wasn't interested in the other four. Two, Minnie Nichols and Rose Epps, were African-American, two, Sabella Nitti and Lela Foster, were middle-aged--neither beautiful (Beulah) or stylish (Belva); they'd boringly offed their husbands, instead of going after their adulterous lovers. They weren't grist for Watkins' particular mill.)

On the opposite side of the coin, consider Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Loeb and Leopold took a myth--the Nietzchean myth of the superman--and tried to turn it into real life. And they failed. Abysmally. The interesting thing about them is that they really were as smart as they thought they were--Leopold in particular was terrifyingly bright--but their "perfect crime" was a dog's breakfast from beginning to end. Beulah Annan, who was clearly about as bright as a bag of hammers, did a better job than they did. And although plenty of plays, novels, and movies have been made based on Leopold and Loeb, none of them has achieved the durability of Chicago. In the 1950s, Watkins was refusing to allow new performances of Chicago, but the myth of Roxie and Velma didn't die. It just waited. You must never run from anything immortal, the Unicorn tells Schmendrick. It attracts their attention.

Now, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner got left behind by the myth-making machine, but that's because Watkins' myth isn't really about them. That's the thing about myths. They aren't about real human beings. Which is also where Loeb, with Leopold tagging faithfully along behind, went off the rails. Myths and real life are codependent, but don't try to substitute one for the other.

Beulah Annan died of tuberculosis in 1928. Roxie Hart lives on.

March 11: Walter Law is shot and dies in Belva Gaertner's car. Gaertner, found in her apartment with blood-stained clothes, claims she can't remember what happened.

March 12: Belva Gaertner arrested for the murder of Walter Law.

"No woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren't worth it, because there are always plenty more."

April 3: Beulah Annan kills Harry Kalstedt

May 21: Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb kidnap and murder Bobby Franks.

May 22: Bobby Franks' body is found.

May 25: Beulah Annan acquitted.

May 26: Beulah Annan announces she is divorcing her husband: "I have left my husband. He is too slow."

June: Belva Gaertner acquitted.

August 22: Clarence Darrow defends Leopold and Loeb against the death sentence. They would each get life (for the murder) plus ninety-nine years (for the kidnapping).

1927: Maurine Dallas Watkins' play, Chicago, opens on Broadway. Belva Gaertner attends the premiere.
Cecil B. DeMille makes a silent film, Chicago.

1928: Beulah Annan dies of tuberculosis.

1929: Patrick Hamilton writes a play about the Leopold and Loeb case: Rope.

1936: Richard Loeb is killed in prison.

1947: Chicago made into a movie starring Ginger Rogers: Roxie Hart.

1948: Alfred Hitchcock makes a movie of Rope.

ca. 1950: Maurine Dallas Watkins is consistently refusing permission for new productions of Chicago.

1956: Meyer Levin writes a novel, Compulsion, based on the Leopold and Loeb case.

1958: Nathan Leopold is released on parole and moves to Puerto Rico.

1959: Compulsion is made into a movie.

1965: Belva Gaertner dies.

1969: Maurine Dallas Watkins dies.

1971: Nathan Leopold dies.

1975: Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville opens on Broadway.

1985: John Logan's play, Never the Sinners, and Stephen Dolginoff's musical, Thrill Me, based on Leopold and Loeb.

1992: Tom Kalin makes a movie, Swoon, based on the Leopold and Loeb case.

1997: Revival of Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville.

2002: Movie of Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville.
Barbet Schroeder's movie, Murder by Numbers, is loosely based on Leopold and Loeb.
20th-Apr-2006 07:14 pm (UTC)
I had forgotten that Chicago was based on real events. I just rewatched it the other night. I'm a sucker for old-fashioned musicals. ;)
21st-Apr-2006 05:44 pm (UTC)
I've always been fascinated by true life murder cases. So, I've read a great deal about Leopold and Loeb, and I've seen all of the films based on that case, too. I love Dean Stockwell's performance in Compulsion, btw.

On the other hand, I've only read a little about the real-life Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart. Of course, I've seen the musical Chicago both on stage and the movie. I'd never made the connection between the cases. Interesting stuff.

It makes me want to read up on Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner.
25th-Apr-2006 02:40 pm (UTC)
Since I read this the first time, I've tried to express the thoughts you prompted with this post. I haven't had much luck, though. Belva and Beulah were just living their lives, without thought of much else; Leopold and Loeb were trying, consciously, to live out the Idea of the Uebermensch; to be legendary figures. They're a detail in the history of criminal psychology; they were monsters, but sad, self-deluded, foolish monsters. Belva and Beulah are now part of the American mythos, and in Technicolor, too. Somehow they stick ever so much better.

Maybe it's because they weren't poseurs as well as murdered, while L&L were. Maybe it's because making your own myth doesn't really work all that well, especially once you're dead and the world is no longer distracted from analyzing your life by the perfume of your presence (see Hemingway and others). Achilles needs Homer as much as Homer needs Achilles. I could drivel on, but I get no closer to turning this into a firm custard rather than a panful of sloshing thoughts.
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