By Kelly Monaghan, June 7, 2022
One name is inextricably linked to the musical “Chicago,” now approaching its fiftieth anniversary: Bob Fosse. But some fifty years before Fosse’s now-legendary musical debuted on Broadway, there was another name linked to another version of “Chicago” that opened on Broadway in 1926 — Maurine Dallas Watkins.
Watkins and her “blasphemous” play are pretty much forgotten today, but she is overdue for an Overlooked No More obit in the New York Times.
Watkins was born in Kentucky in 1896 and raised in Indiana, where she received a proper Christian upbringing. She excelled academically and graduated first in her class from Butler University in Indianapolis. She then headed to Boston and Radcliffe College, Harvard’s sister school, intent on studying the classics.
In 1919, fate intervened in the form of a playwriting workshop taught by Harvard’s legendary George Pierce Baker. Watkins was not a complete novice; at age 11 she had written a play, “Hearts of Gold,” which was performed to raise money for charity.
Baker encouraged his students to leave the ivory tower and gain real-life experience. Perhaps that’s why Watkins left Radcliffe for Chicago, where, in 1924, she found work in advertising before talking her way into a job as a cub reporter with the Chicago Tribune. In what would prove to be an extraordinary stroke of good luck, she was assigned to provide the “woman’s angle” on crime in the City of Big Shoulders.
She covered the trial of the notorious thrill killers Leopold and Loeb.
But it was a series of lurid murders committed by women and their subsequent trials that made her fortune. In the process, she captured cadences in the voices of these femmes fatales that would later make her dialogue so “snappy.”
In one article, she quoted Belva Gaertner on the subject of men and murder: “No woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren’t worth it, because there are always plenty more. Walter was just a kid—29 and I’m 38. Why should I have worried whether he loved me or whether he left me? Gin and guns—either one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don’t they?”
When the police discovered Gaertner in her apartment, blind, drunk and covered in blood, she claimed not to have any idea how the man had died.
Gaertner’s fame was eclipsed by Beulah Annan, the model for Roxie Hart, dubbed “the most beautiful woman ever to serve on Murderesses Row in the Cook County Jail.”
Annan had killed her lover during a tryst in her apartment while her hapless husband, an auto mechanic, was at work. It seems the louse had told her he was through with her, and she reacted like any self-respecting adulteress would — with bullets. She then played the popular song “Hula Lou” repeatedly for hours as she mulled her next moves.
These were stories made for the stage, and after a scant eight months at the Trib, Watkins returned east in 1924 to rejoin Baker, who was now in New Haven creating the Yale School of Drama. It didn’t take her long to produce the first draft of what became “Chicago.”
Baker was impressed — he gave her a grade of 98 — and showed the script to producer Sam Harris who took it on.
The play was an instant succès de scandale. When it opened at New Haven’s Shubert Theater during its pre-Broadway tryout, the New York Times reported that, after storming out at intermission, “Professor John Clark Archer of the Yale Divinity School had pronounced it ‘vile, immoral, blasphemous and a storm of nastiness.'” Archer tried to put the kibosh on the production before further damage could be done to Yale’s reputation.
In 1926, “Chicago” became the first play to come out of the Yale School of Drama to open on Broadway, where it was directed by George Abbott. It starred, as Roxie Hart, Francine Larrimore, Watkin’s first choice for the role and a cousin of Stella Adler who, coincidentally, would teach acting at Yale for a semester in 1966. The play ran for 172 performances, considered impressive at the time, and then toured the country for more than two years.
Sure there are hints of show biz in the original. At the play’s end, Roxie announces “I’m goin’ in vaudeville — I’m famous!” But it’s the Kardashian-like fame for being famous that’s the coin of Chicago’s tabloid realm, and Watkin’s murderesses are happy just to see their names plastered across the headlines.
The original play can seem a little dated in the reading, but its cynical take on what we now call the mainstream media still rings true and lines like “[T]he American public will fight to the death for your innocent unborn babe” could have been written yesterday. In the hands of the right director, it could still work. Is Marti Maraden available?
Although there is no evidence that Watkins ever crossed paths with Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, it’s hard not to see “Chicago” as the inspiration for their far more famous “The Front Page,” which arrived on Broadway two years later.
“Chicago” was quickly snapped up by Hollywood and, in 1927, Cecil B. DeMille produced a silent film version. As Catherine Sheehy, a professor of dramaturgy at Yale notes, “the verbal barbs were impossible in the silent medium and the satire was hammered into melodrama.”
Her best work from this period is “Libeled Lady,” starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy, in which duplicitous newspapermen attempt to blackmail the woman who has sued their paper for libel.
Her plays and films had made Maurine Watkins wealthy and her shrewd eye for good investments made her a multimillionaire. But the glamour of the silver screen seems to have paled on her and in 1941, after the death of her father, she moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where her mother lived, and embraced a life of obscurity and Christian philanthropy.
A few years later, another Hollywood reworking of “Chicago” nudged the storyline more firmly into the realm of show business. Ginger Rogers played a dancer who signs a false confession of murder to garner publicity for her career, secure in the knowledge that “dames don’t swing in Cook County.”
Years later, in the sixties, Bob Fosse’s then-wife Gwen Verdon read the original play and thought it would make a good basis for a musical. Fosse tried to get the rights, but Watkins refused. The website Chicagology attributes her refusal to remorse over the fact that her reporting had helped two guilty women escape justice. I like to think that, like Franz Leibkind in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” she was irked by the violence done to her material by a series of adapters. It wasn’t until her death that her executors agreed to sell the rights to Fosse.
The rest, as they say, is history, the history we know. But the prehistory, the history we didn’t know is every bit as fascinating.
Kelly Monaghan divides his time between Stratford and the Connecticut shore. He chronicles his love affair with Canadian theatre at OntarioStage.com
Marianne Mather and Kori Rumore, from the Chicago Tribune and authors of the book “He Had It Coming: Four Murderous Women and the Reporter who Immortalized Their Stories” are at the Stratford Festival Meighen Forum on Saturday, August 6th.