The true story of the accused but acquitted Chicago beauties who inspired musical legends Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly
The Bob Fosse masterpiece we know and love today as Chicago the musical actually started with two real women and two real murdered men. In Chicago. In the Roaring 20s.
1924 to be exact.
In March of that year, Belva Gaertner, a comely cabaret singer, happened to leave a bottle of gin in her parked car. Unfortunately, she also left a dead man and a gun in the car as well. Accused of killing said man—a young car salesman named Walter Law—Belva found herself in the Cook County jail, the subject of newspaper headlines and journalists who voted her “most stylish” in the clink. Decked out in ravishing bell hats, furs and delicately form-fitting dresses, Gaertner endured her trial as one of the two most famous faces of Murderesses Row. (It was really called that.)
The other, 23-year-old Beulah Annan, found herself in Belva’s company on Murderesses Row in April. Called “the prettiest woman ever accused of murder in Chicago,” Annan, in a lapse in judgement, confessed to the murder of her manstress, Harry Kalstedt, later backtracking, stating she and Harry “both reached for the gun” during a quarrel. We bet you’ve figured out which character Beulah becomes in Chicago by now, but if you haven’t, Beulah also came with a faithful and extremely naïve husband who stood by her during the trial despite having found a dead man in his bedroom with his wife.
Naturally, there’s also a lot of booze in the backstories as well as another beautiful woman—innocent of any crime other than being a flagrantly biased journalist. This woman, Maurine Dallas Watkins, worked for the Chicago Tribune covering crime “from a woman’s perspective.” Watkins wrote very descriptive and judgy accounts of Belva and Beulah, then, when all was said and done, she took her ultra-popular crime articles to Yale University to finish studying playwrighting, which she’d abandoned for the Tribune gig. [It’s worth noting that Watkins started her studies at Radcliffe College and was in the same class as Eugene O’Neill.]
At Yale, Watkins turned the stories into a play.
You guessed it: Chicago, starring Velma Kelly—a comely cabaret singer—and Roxie Hart, the gamine beguiler with a dopey, impossibly faithful husband. The show landed a spot on Broadway, ran for 127 performances before closing, then years later fell into the hands of another comely cabaret singer. That woman, Gwen Verdon, happened to be married to Bob Fosse. “Bob,” we imagine her saying, “you gotta make this into a musical. It’s what I want … give in!” [Gwen played the devil Lola in Damn Yankees, so whatever she wants … you know the rest.]
When she died, though, her estate granted Fosse and Verdon the rights. Chicago the musical, starring Verdon and Chita Rivera as the most famous Merry Murderesses, was born. Belva and Beulah faded to the corners of Windy City history while Velma and Roxie hot honey ragged their way into musical history.
Catch Chicago when it razzle-dazzles The Straz next week.