'Girls Of Murder City': The True Cast Of 'Chicago' Chicago was inspired by the trials and acquittals of two real-life ladies, and Douglas Perry tells their stories in delicious, devilish detail. Critic Glenn Altschuler calls The Girls of Murder City entertaining and informative -- this summer's "not guilty" pleasure.
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'Girls Of Murder City': The True Cast Of 'Chicago'

The Girls Of Murder City
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago
By Douglas Perry
Hardcover, 320 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

Chicago, theater critic Rupert Hughes wrote in 1926, was a work of genius. Written by crime reporter Maurine Watkins, the play sought to "put an end to the ghastly business of railroading pretty women safely through murder trials by making fools of the solemn jurymen."

Chicago has been a staple of American popular culture ever since. In 1927, Cecil B. DeMille produced a silent-movie version of the play. Fifteen years later, Twentieth Century Fox remade Chicago as a talkie. In 1975, a musical adaptation by director and choreographer Bob Fosse took Broadway by storm, went on tour and reappeared 20 years later to become the longest-running revival on the Great White Way. In 2002, Chicago returned to Hollywood -- and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

These days, almost no one knows that Chicago was inspired by the trials and acquittals of Belva Gaertner, a former cabaret dancer who left the stage to marry one of America's leading manufacturers of scientific instruments; and Beulah Annan, a beauty whose favorite record was "Hula Lou," the tale of a "gal who never could be true."

In The Girls of Murder City, Douglas Perry, the online features editor of The Oregonian, tells their stories in delicious and devilish detail. Although the number of killings by women in Chicago was increasing exponentially, Perry points out, jury members -- all of whom were male during the Roaring '20s -- remained favorably disposed toward "demure ladies with pretty figures and good pedigrees." Even when there was overwhelming evidence against them. Jurors let two blondes off scot free, he reveals, only to sentence to death Sabella Nitti, a "dirty, repulsive" woman and an immigrant to boot. "Nice face -- swell clothes -- shoot man -- go home," Sabella told her fellow inmates. "Me do nothing -- me choke."

Douglas Perry's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Chicago Tribune and The New Orleans Times-Picayune. He is co-author of The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame. Deborah King hide caption

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Deborah King

Douglas Perry's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Chicago Tribune and The New Orleans Times-Picayune. He is co-author of The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame.

Deborah King

With the help of a fashion expert, Perry writes, Beulah's lawyers made her appear "sweetly childlike and at the same time delectably ripe." When she announced that she was pregnant, male reporters leaped to her defense. They described her as if she were a work of art, with hair that was not simply red but "Titian," a helpless fluttering "butterfly on a wheel."

In much the same way, Perry adds, Belva evaded the prosecution's attempts to find a "hat-proof, sex proof" jury. Decked out in a dress that "clung in soft folds to her body," her sultry eyes and sensuous lips trumped the confession she made at the scene of the crime.

As entertaining as Chicago (on stage or screen), and far more informative, The Girls of Murder City recaptures a moment in which the Victorian feminine ideal was (and wasn't) giving way to the "churning change" of the flapper lifestyle -- and ebulliently elucidates the emergence of the criminal as celebrity. It's this summer's "not guilty" pleasure.

Excerpt: 'The Girls Of Murder City'

The Girls Of Murder City
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago
By Douglas Perry
Hardcover, 320 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $25.95

Prologue

Thursday, April 24, 1924

The most beautiful women in the city were murderers.

The radio said so. The newspapers, when they arrived, would surely say worse. Beulah Annan peered through the bars of cell 657 in the women's quarters of the Cook County Jail. She liked being called beautiful for the entire city to hear. She'd greedily consumed every word said and written about her, cut out and saved the best pictures. She took pride in the coverage.

But that was when she was the undisputed "prettiest murderess" in all of Cook County. Now everything had changed. She knew that today, for almost the first time since her arrest almost three weeks ago, there wouldn't be a picture of her in any of the newspapers. There was a new girl gunner on the scene, a gorgeous Polish girl named Wanda Stopa.

Depressed, Beulah chanced getting undressed. It was the middle of the day, but the stiff prison uniform made her skin itch, and the reporters weren't going to come for interviews now. They were all out chasing the new girl. Beulah sat on her bunk and listened. The cellblock was quiet, stagnant. On a normal day, the rest of the inmates would have gone to the recreation room after lunch to sing hymns. Beulah never joined them; she preferred to retreat to a solitary spot with the jail radio, which she'd claimed as her own. She listened to fox-trots. She liked to do as she pleased.

It was Belva Gaertner, "the most stylish" woman on the block, who had begun the daily hymn-singing ritual. That was back in March, the day after she staggered into jail, dead-eyed and elephant-tongued, too drunk -- or so she claimed -- to remember shooting her boyfriend in the head. None of the girls could fathom that stumblebum Belva now. On the bloody night of her arrival, it had taken the society divorcée only a few hours of sleep to regain her composure. The next day, she sat sidesaddle against the cell wall, one leg slung imperiously over the other, heavy-lidded eyes offering a strange, exuberant glint. Reporters crowded in on her, eager to hear what she had to say. This was the woman who, at her divorce trial four years before, had publicly admitted to using a horsewhip on her wealthy elderly husband during lovemaking. Had she hoped to make herself a widow before he could divorce her? Now you had to wonder.

"I'm feeling very well," Belva told the reporters. "Naturally I should prefer to receive you all in my own apartment; jails are such horrid places. But" -- she looked around and emitted a small laugh -- "one must make the best of such things."

And so one did. Belva's rehabilitation began right there, and it continued unabated to this day. Faith would see her through this ordeal, she told any reporter who passed by her cell. This terrible, unfortunate experience made her appreciate all the more the life she once had with her wonderful ex-husband -- solid, reliable William Gaertner, the millionaire scientist and businessman who had provided her with lawyers and was determined to marry her again, despite her newly proven skill with a revolver. He believed Belva had changed.

Excerpted from The Girls Of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Press. Copyright 2010 by Douglas Press. Excerpted by permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA).

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