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Maurine Dallas Watkins (July 27, 1896? – August 10, 1969) was an American playwright and screenwriter. For a brief time she worked as a journalist covering the courthouse beat for the Chicago Tribune. This experience gave her the material for her most famous piece of work, which was eventually adapted into the Broadway musical Chicago.

Maurine Dallas Watkins
Born(1896-07-27)July 27, 1896 (remaining records agree on the date but not the precise year)
DiedAugust 10, 1969(1969-08-10) (aged 73)
EducationButler College
Radcliffe College
Yale Drama School
Occupationscreenwriter, playwright, journalist

In the 1920s she wrote the stage play Chicago (1926), about women accused of murder, the press, celebrity criminals, and the corruption of justice. Her play had a successful run on Broadway and international tour, during the roaring twenties — the play was then adapted in the 1920s and 1940s for film. After Watkins death in 1969, Chicago was adapted in 1977 as a successful Broadway stage musical, which developed into an award-winning 2002 film version.

Watkins was born in Kentucky and grew up in Indiana. She graduated with honors from Butler University and headed to Radcliffe, where she received training as a dramatist. She left Radcliffe and was in advertising in Chicago in the early 1920s. She then landed a job as a reporter before returning to university at what became Yale Drama School and play-writing success. Watkins went on to write screenplays in Hollywood, eventually retiring to Florida.

Early life and careerEdit

Watkins was born in Louisville, Kentucky, or possibly Lexington, Kentucky. She was born on July 27 but her birth certificate does not survive in Kentucky state records and several different years have been suggested. Watkins father was a minister and she an only child. Her family moved to Crawfordsville, Indiana and at age 11 she received local notice for putting on a play she wrote, "Hearts of Gold", which made $45.00 for charity. At Crawfordsville High School she started a newspaper and was active in clubs.[1] She attended a total of five colleges (including Hamilton College (Kentucky), Transylvania University, Butler College (Indianapolis), and Radcliffe College). While at Butler, Watkins joined the Gamma chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta Women's Fraternity and was initiated in 1919.

That year she graduated first in her class from Butler, and moved on to Radcliffe in Massachusetts to pursue graduate studies in Greek.[2] Her plans changed after she applied and was accepted into English Professor George Pierce Baker's playwriting workshop at Harvard University. Baker encouraged writing students to seek experience in the larger world and may have recommended newspaper reporting.[2] While it is unclear why she left Radcliffe before finishing a degree, Watkins moved to Chicago and first worked in advertising for Standard Oil. While working for Standard Oil, she entertained ideas of working as a playwright. In early 1924, she instead landed a job as a reporter with the Chicago Tribune.[1]

For the Tribune, where Watkins worked for eight months, she covered the murders and the subsequent trials of Belva Gaertner, a twice-divorced cabaret singer, and Beulah Sheriff Annan. Watkins often used acerbically amusing reportage, and focused on the farcical, cynical, and sensational aspects of the two cases, the press and public interest, and the legal proceedings. She highlighted two attractive "jazz babies" claiming to be corrupted by men and liquor. She characterized Beulah as "beauty of the cell block" and Belva as "most stylish of Murderess Row." Both women, after months of press coverage in Chicago's seven daily papers, were found not guilty at trial. Watkins believed they were guilty.

Watkins published about 50 stories during her time at the paper, in addition to crime and courts, she was sent to cover funerals, wrote on women's style, and she profiled leaders of the women's pacifist movement.[1] Watkins also briefly reported on the noted Leopold and Loeb kidnapping and murder case, which sensational qualities quickly overshadowed the coverage of the Belva Gaertner verdict. Soon after, she returned to school to study again under Baker, who had moved to Yale University, to help start the Yale School of Drama. As a class assignment in his famous 47 Workshop course, she wrote a thinly fictionalized account of the two murders. She first called it The Brave Little Woman, then Chicago, or Play Ball (first copyrighted version: pre-production manuscript), and finally Chicago (second copyrighted version: post-production script). Beulah Annan became "Roxie Hart"; Belva Gaertner, "Velma Kelly"; Albert Annan, "Amos Hart"; and the two lawyers, William Scott Stewart and W.W. O'Brien, were combined into the composite character "Billy Flynn" (O'Brien seems to have been the closest direct match). Watkins's rival reporters, who were far more sympathetic to the women's causes, were parodied as "Mary Sunshine," the easily manipulated press reporter who later turns into Velma and Roxie's vaudeville manager.

Director Sam Forrest was replaced by George Abbott at the request of Jeanne Eagels (Roxie Hart); but Eagels quit the show within a few days, and Francine Larrimore replaced Eagels. Chicago opened on Broadway on 30 December 1926 (though the run is listed as 1927). The play ran for a respectable 172 performances, then toured for two years (with a then-unknown Clark Gable appearing as Amos Hart in a Los Angeles production ). A silent film version in 1927 was produced and supervised by Cecil B. DeMille and starred former Mack Sennett bathing beauty Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart. It was adapted as Roxie Hart in 1942 with Ginger Rogers in the title role. This 1942 film version eliminated all the murderesses except the unnamed Velma Kelly, and the stage and screen musical versions eliminated Jake, Babe, and several other characters.

Watkins wrote about 20 plays, but Chicago was her most successful. She moved to Hollywood to write screenplays, including the 1936 comedy Libeled Lady. The film featured William Powell, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, and Spencer Tracy. Watkins was described as rather "old-fashioned" someone who did not fit the stereotypes of the day for a single, working woman but she decided to live life her way. Her play and screenwriting, and shrewd investments made her a millionaire and she traveled the world.[1]

Later lifeEdit

Her public career ended around the time her father died in 1941. Watkins left Hollywood and moved to Florida, close to her elderly mother.[1] She was a lifelong Christian and spent much of her fortune of over $2,300,000 founding contests and chairs in Greek and Bible studies at some 20 universities, including Princeton.

In the 1960s, Watkins was approached by Bob Fosse, who sought the rights to Chicago for a musical adaptation, but she resisted his offers. Following her death from lung cancer in 1969, C. R. Leonard, a trust officer at the Florida National Bank in Jacksonville, handled Watkins' estate and negotiated sale of rights to her play. He later stated that at the time a major heir from the playwright's family informed him that Maurine believed that her newspaper articles had "gained sympathy" for Beulah Annan and that "over the years [she] became disturbed that she had assisted in getting an acquittal for a murderer."[3]

The much delayed sale of these rights enabled Fosse to move ahead with development of Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb. It was first produced in 1975, revived in 1997, and filmed in 2002. By the time of the 50th anniversary of Watkins death, Chicago had become a $2 billion franchise.[1]

FilmographyEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ a b c d e f Rumore, Kori (August 8, 2019). "A Tribune reporter wrote the hit play 'Chicago' after covering Cook County murder trials. Decades later, we owe her an obituary". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2019-08-12.
  2. ^ a b Perry, Douglas (2010). The Girls of Murder City: fame, lust, and the beautiful killers that inspired Chicago. New York: Penguin Group /Viking Press. pp. 16–21. ISBN 978-0-670-02197-0.
  3. ^ Florida Times-Union, May 17, 2018. Also Perry, 489-90 and Mordden, Ethan (2018). All That Jazz: The Life and Times of the Musical Chicago. New York: Oxford University Press. p.145 ISBN 970190651800.

Further readingEdit

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