Part of Chicago froze in the 1930s. I’ve been thinking of my old home city of Chicago a lot lately, and of my new home in Berlin. The thread that ties them together seems to be that they’re both stuck in time. In the same time. They have one foot in this chaotic contemporary period, but the other is still in the 1920s and early ’30s, each summed up as a Bob Fosse experience (Chicago and Cabaret).
- The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry. 320 pages. Viking Adult. $25.95.
And why not? It was a glamorous age for both. Berlin had its cabarets, Otto Dix, sex, and liquor. Chicago had its speakeasies, gangsters, and gunner girls. With what followed — rubble for one, crime and poverty for the other — it was easier on everyone if hindsight became fuzzier rather than clearer. So take the Untouchables gangster tour of Chicago, go to a burlesque show in Berlin. With the sequins and eyeliner and booze and skin, sexiness trumps sanity any time.
But adjust your glasses and you’ll see what propelled the madcap energy of Weimar Berlin and Jazz Age Chicago. The decadence of the Weimar era was born out of total financial devastation. With out-of-control inflation, any money you had one day would be worth 10 percent as much the next. Families saw lifetime savings unable to buy a newspaper. So why not go all out, throw yourself into abandon?
Chicago had a capital problem. The oligarchs and the gangsters ruled their territories, and the worker, the archetypal Common Man, had no safe haven. With soul-destroying labor, horrid living quarters, and unsafe working conditions, it’s no wonder the unrest occasionally manifested in bomb-throwing and hedonism. Prohibition may have outlawed booze for the good of the common man, but that just added to its allure. Soon men and women were fraternizing in public places, hemlines rose higher and higher, and the underground ran deeper and deeper. Grab a cocktail and a man, honey, we all might be dead tomorrow.
The sexual dynamic of Chicago changed swiftly and dramatically n the early decades of the 20th century, according to Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago. Single girls from the country were living all alone in the big city for the first time. The shops, the offices, the factories all needed women to smile pretty, to take dictation, and sew. The cabarets and speakeasies needed them to bring in men. Flash a little leg in a song and dance act and you can go from penniless and scared to big time actress. Or, if luck had it, you could even become Mrs. So-and-So Industrialist, your every need met. Just like headliner Mrs. Belva Gaertner.
Belva first made the newspapers because of her musical talent — she later left the stage when millionaire William Gaertner saw her act and fell in love. But Belva returned to the headlines when the two divorced: Each hired so many private detectives to spy on the other that they were both often confused about which detective was working for whom. She was back in print again when she shot her much younger lover. Or maybe she didn’t, it was so hard to tell. Belva was so drunk she couldn’t quite remember what happened.
There was also the younger, more beautiful Beulah Annan, who also drunkenly shot her lover and played jazz records while he slowly died on her floor. Then there was the even younger, even more beautiful Wanda Stopa, who was determined to murder her married lover and his wife, but her plans went awry and she killed herself instead. Or Katharine Malm, in jail at the same time as Belva and Beulah for a murder in connection with a robbery. Or Sabella Nitti, who had the misfortune to be neither rich nor attractive, and therefore was one of the very few convicted.
Almost all of them were acquitted. Chicago’s sexual dynamics changed so fast that all-male juries couldn’t adjust. None of them wanted to believe these charming young ladies meant any harm. The feminine ideal remained a role one could play — that of the susceptible, vulnerable, helpless little waifs so easily led astray in the big, bad city. The press ate it up and turned the killers into stars. Except for one journalist, a Miss Maurine Watkins. Watkins was a foil to the women’s madness. She came from similarly humble beginnings — rural background, moved to the city to make a name for herself, lacked familial assets — but she stayed straight and saw through the act immediately. Her articles for The Chicago Tribune are hilarious in their sharp-tongued sarcasm, their fanged admonishments of a gullible male press corps.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because Watkins wrote the stage play Chicago, which Bob Fosse turned into a musical after her death. From real life to the stage, the details barely change: there is the sad-sack husband who devotedly sticks by her side through the trial, only to be left as soon as the not guilty verdict comes in. The fake pregnancy. The competition between the jailed women. Even the constant repetition of “They both reached for the gun,” which inspired one of the musical’s major songs, came direct from an attorney’s mouth. This, however, is what makes The Girls of Murder City ultimately such a disappointing read. The musical and the movie already tell the story. It’s a great one, to be sure. But Perry is much less interested in what drove so many women to murder, other than a few jokey asides that, knowing men, they probably had it coming. And he doesn’t seem to understand Chicago or the era very well. His depiction is about as hollow as a contemporary take on a Weimar Berlin cabaret: all of the darkness, the pressure, the oh-so-close relationship to death, the chthonic rite aspect of it all stripped away. It becomes a city and time of good music and pretty costumes.
There is a photo of Belva in The Girls of Murder City, just arrested and parted from her cosmetics and wardrobe. Dark circles under her eyes, blotchy sin, and a puffy face are all plainly visible; she looks small and scared. A photo taken later at her court date shows her in full disguise, looking 10 years younger, under a hat like an icon’s aura, layered in fur and silk and pancake makeup. One of Otto Dix’s great talents behind his portraits of Berlin women and men was the ability to simultaneously show us both the ugliness beneath and the glamour and beauty layered on top. Without a similar kind of skill, without the willingness to go after both versions, an author should probably find other cities to portray.
• 19 August 2010