122. The Girls of Murder City (Douglas Perry)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011
I’ve never seen the film Chicago. There, I admit it. Don’t get me wrong, I love musicals but the thought of watching Renee Zellweger and her weird face prance around and … the horror … “sing” for two hours makes me want to hurl. So I surprised myself when I picked up a copy of The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry from the local library. Sure, it’s about true crime and set in the 1920s so I should enjoy it but the image of Ms. Z scrunching up her already scrunched up face threatened to keep me from opening the cover. However, I bit the bullet so to speak and began reading.

I loved it.

From the very beginning, Perry had me hooked on this true tale of “girl gunners” in prohibition-era Chicago and the media circus that surrounded them. Daily coverage of beautiful dames gracing the front pages of every newspaper in the windy city, racy headlines, jail cell interviews, and all the lurid details of their often sex and alcohol-fuelled crimes. 

We can all recall (or those in my age bracket anyways) the bizarro world that was the O.J. Simpson trial, the lurid fascination people had with the juicy details of Amy Fisher’s relationship with Joey Buttafuoco, or more recently the absolute horror show that was the Casey Anthony trial. Even those who claimed to be disgusted by the media coverage couldn’t help but be caught up in the whirlwind of coverage of these infamous trials. Life was very much the same in 1920s Chicago – people getting famous for all the wrong reasons.*  

While Perry introduces the reader to a number of the women involved in the more high profile cases including Sabelle Nitti, Kitty Malm and Wanda Stopa, he focuses mainly on “Stylish” Belva Gaertner and “Beautiful” Beulah Annan, married women who shot their lovers dead. Despite confessing to their crimes, and then repeatedly changing their stories, neither woman was worried. Chicago at that time had a history of setting beautiful women free.  All-male juries typically finding attractive women not guilty and convicting those who were less so or were foreigners or new immigrants who didn't "fit in".

While the title of Perry's book makes you think its all about the women behind bars, the story is also about Maurine Watkins.  She moved to Chicago to become a journalist with the hope that some "real life" experience covering the crime ridden streets would help her writing career.  The short time she spent reporting on Belva and Beulah certainly paid off - she would go on to write the play Chicago which became an instant success.  Most of us know it as a musical on both stage and screen but Watkins repeatedly refused to have it put to music during her lifetime.  It was only after she passed away that her family sold the rights and the rest is theatrical history.

The Girls of Murder City is exciting and fast paced.  While the coverage of the crimes at the time they occurred was overly sensational, Perry's presentation of the events are not.  It was well written and descriptive; I often felt as though I was reading a novel and had to keep reminding myself this was a work on NON-fiction:

The smoke pulsed like a bleeding sore. It oozed slowly over rooftops and dripped from trees, squeezing out the morning light and leaving only a suffocating gloom.

*Although O.J. Simpson was already famous for both his football and acting careers.


mister anchovy said...

This one sounds really interesting, although I confess if I stumbled upon it on a bookshelf, the title and Hollywood connection would likely scare me away.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I've never seen Chicago either, but then I hate musicals. So I'm not sure where this leaves me in regard to this book.

Karen said...

Barb, I think you might like this. Only the end of the book deals with the play itself and the last few pages deal with the musical. The rest of the book is fascinating!

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