for National Geographic News
"Gin and gunseither one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don't they."Accused murderer Belva Gaertner, 1924
Sizzle, sequins, sex, and murder. It sounds like the stuff of moviesand it is. But the Oscar-winning courtroom musical Chicago is based on true murder cases: a laundry worker and a cabaret singer both accused of killing their lovers in 1924.
The stage and screen versions of Chicago stem from one source. Former reporter Maurine Watkins based her 1926 play, Chicago, on her Chicago Tribune stories of two womenBelva Gaertner and Beulah Annanaccused of murdering under the influence of drink and jazz.
But were Gaertner and Annan anything like the characters played by Best Actress-nominated Rene Zellweger and Best Supporting Actress-nominated Catherine Zeta-Jones?
In 1924 Belva Gaertnerthe model for Zeta-Jones's Velma Kellywas a cabaret singer accused of shooting her lover in her car, then leaving his body there with a bottle of gin and a gun.
One month later Beulah Annanthe inspiration for Zellweger's Roxie Hartwas arrested for shooting and killing her lover in her house. There's no evidence the two ever met outside of jail.
In Chicago, the two women meet on Murderess Row and become rivals in and out of Cook County Jail.
So how do the real cases stack up against the Hollywood version?
In the movie, cabaret vamp Velma Kelly shoots her sister and husband after catching them together. Later she says, "I can't remember a thing."
In real life, twice-divorced cabaret singer Belva Gaertnerdubbed the "most stylish" woman on Murderess Row by reporter Watkinswas accused of shooting her lover in her car. Gaertner, 38, said she had been drinking and had no memory of what happened.
Intruder or Not?
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