Chicago: The True Murders That Inspired the Movie

Nancy Gupton
for National Geographic News
Updated March 24, 2003
"Gin and guns—either 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 movies—and 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 women—Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan—accused 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 Gaertner—the model for Zeta-Jones's Velma Kelly—was 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 Annan—the inspiration for Zellweger's Roxie Hart—was 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?

Selective Amnesia?

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 Gaertner—dubbed the "most stylish" woman on Murderess Row by reporter Watkins—was 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?

Chicago's Roxie Hart, a married wanna-be cabaret star, shoots her paramour, Fred, because he can't further her singing career, as he promised. She says he was a burglar, but a neighbor rats her out.

In reality, twentysomething, married laundry worker Annan—the "prettiest woman" on Murderess Row—was accused of shooting her lover, co-worker Harry Kelstedt. She first said Harry had broken into her home. Later she admitted they were lovers and said she shot him after he told her he was through with her. Her story changed further over time.

Baby Bluff?

In the movie, after a new arrival to Murderess Row (played by Lucy Liu) steals media attention from Hart, she lies and says she's pregnant to draw it back.

In real life Annan announced she was pregnant the day after learning a fellow Murderess Row inhabitant received the death sentence for murdering her lover. She never gave birth.

No Hollywood Ending

After their trials Hart and Kelly go on to share a stage, bringing the house down.

In reality Annan had no such happy ending. After the trial she divorced her long-suffering husband, then wed another man, only to find that he was already married. A breakdown led her to a mental hospital, where she died in 1928 of causes not generally known.

Gaertner may have fared better. After her acquittal she said she planned on remarrying husband number two and traveling to Europe. What became of her is unknown.

"Pursuit of Wine, Men, and Jazz"

Watkins, a young reporter, hit the jackpot with the Gaertner and Annan cases. Her winking style helped land her articles on the front page of the Tribune.

"In the 1920s people began treating crime with a sense of humor in metropolitan cities," says English professor Thomas Pauly, whose book Chicago collects Watkins's play as well as several of her original Tribune articles. "They were trying to laugh at crime, to show a sense of sophistication."

Watkins's articles are full of subtle jabs and strong color.

She quoted Belva Gaertner as saying: "Why it's silly to say I murdered Walter. I liked him and he loved me—but no woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren't worth it, because there are always plenty more."

A month after Gaertner's arrest, Beulah Annan was jailed and Watkins gave her case the same treatment.

Readers ate the stories up. "Her stories made Beulah and Belva celebrities—and helped get them acquitted" by showing them in a sympathetic light, Pauly says. Both women were pronounced not guilty by all-male juries apparently sensitive to their charms.

"So Beulah Annan, whose pursuit of wine, men, and jazz music was interrupted by her glibness with the trigger finger, was given freedom by her beauty-proof jury," Watkins quipped.

Chicago in the Twenties

Chicago accurately captures the feel of the city at the time, historians say.

"Movies always exaggerate, of course, but Chicago in the 1920s was a really vibrant, bustling city," says Russell Lewis, Andrew D. Mellon Director for Collections and Research at the Chicago Historical Society.

In 1924 Prohibition had been in effect for five years. Now that alcohol was illegal, it was more popular than ever. Gangsters were getting rich off bootlegged liquor, and speakeasies were popping up all over town.

"You had the introduction of jazz to the broader audience. You had Al Capone and other gangsters," Lewis says. "But Chicago was then, as it is now, a place of hardworking people.

"In the twenties there was also an explosion of mass culture," Lewis says. "It was the heyday of movies, advertising was coming into its own, radio was coming along—all these were avenues for mass communication, and people were hungry for this.

"In a lot of these avenues there was a tendency to sensationalize, especially in the newspapers," Lewis says.

From Reporter to Playwright

Soon after the Annan and Gaertner trials, Maurine Watkins left journalism and went to the Yale School of Drama. She wrote a play, Chicago, which satirized the trials and the media's role in them.

The play was turned into the movie Roxie Hart in 1942 and then into a Broadway musical by director Bob Fosse in 1975.

"Even from the time the play came out, Watkins tried to hide the fact that she had covered the crimes," Thomas Pauly says. Through his research he came to believe that Watkins later became a born-again Christian and may have been ashamed of her apparent involvement in the women's acquittals.

As to the popularity of Watkins's stories, Pauly says: "Crime as entertainment has been around since the Bible. Maurine Watkins made fun of the whole business. She delighted in the carnival that she herself created."

As Queen Latifah's Mama Morton character says in the movie, "In this town, murder is a form of entertainment."

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