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Woman power - part one: the femme fatales of “Chicago”

Chicago, the 2002 movie-musical
Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

It’s national Women’s History Month. Why do we need a national women’s month and why isn’t there a national men’s month? Because men still rule the world – the fellas have the bulk of money and power — and in this day and age when we are supposed to get equal pay for equal work, women still don’t get their due. When will women be taken seriously and no longer have to fight for equal rights and respect!

But though women are regarded as “the weaker sex,” there is such a thing as “Woman Power.” Chicago has an impressively long list of women who through the ages have proved powerful enough to have made history, one way or another.

A dip into Wikepedia’s list of famous Chicagoans is woefully lacking famous females. In the category of crime, for instance, no females are listed. Sure there are plenty of male gangsters who are household names, but female criminals are rarely heard of, even though they too lived fascinating lives.

If not for one female journalist in the 1920’s, Maurine Watkins, two of these would have been forgotten: Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Both were accused of murder and both managed to save themselves from execution, largely because they wielded their beauty and charm (a potent form of power) on all-male panels of jurors.

Maurine Watkins publicized their cases and eventually wrote a play glamorizing them, “Chicago,” which debuted theatrically in 1926, went through several incarnations, and eventually became the hit 2002 movie starring Reneé Zelleweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Thus the story of three powerful Chicago women.

MAURINE DALLAS WATKINS
Although she was born in Kentucky and later passed away in Florida, for most of her life, she thrived in the city of Chicago.

Only 15, she composed her first play, and later that year, started her high school’s first newspaper. She went on to write award-winning short stories and became a high school teacher. But her career truly blossomed when she moved to Chicago, became a journalist for the Chicago Tribune and wrote the play “Chicago.”

After the stock market crashed and her career started to wane, she moved to Hollywood where things really picked up for her again. Many of her short stories were used as the basis for movies and she also did screenwriting for almost every major movie company. Her most famous movie was “Libeled Lady” with an all-star cast: Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, William Powell and Spencer Tracy.

She eventually left this world, a multi-millionaire, leaving money to several of her favorite charities.

BEULAH MAY ANNAN (“the prettiest woman on Murderess Row”)
Beulah was a married woman who was seeing another man, Harry Kalstedt. One day, after they’d been drinking, she shot and killed him in her home. She confessed to shooting him in the back after they’d had an argument as he was leaving after which she apparently sat there continuing to drink and replaying the song “Hula Lou” over and over for a period of four hours.

She changed her story of how it happened so many times; it’s uncertain to this day what really happened. One of her accounts was that she had shot him out of self-defense, claiming he had tried to rape her. So her husband, Perry Stephens, withdrew all his money from the bank to pay for her defense. Even so, the day after she was acquitted, she announced she was leaving her husband claiming “He is too slow.” She subsequently divorced him and claimed desertion.

She married a boxer next, but then found out he was already married. Then she drifted from relationship to relationship and eventually spent time in a mental institution. Just four years after her acquittal, she died young, not quite 30, of TB. But her life was not a flop: aside from “Chicago,” the movie, “Roxie Hart,” starring Ginger Rogers was based on her life, rendering her immortal.

BELVA GAERTNER (“the most stylish woman on Murderess Row”)
Belva loved gin — but it got her into a heap of trouble. Shortly after the cabaret singer was arrested and accused of shooting her lover, she was quoted as saying “Gin and guns — either one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess.” She shot him in a car and left him there along with the gun and a bottle of gin.

She was suspected of killing Walter Law, who was married and had a child, Sources say she was fed up with him because he’d promised to make her a star but didn’t deliver.

Later, the 38-year old beauty claimed she had been drinking and had no recollection of what had happened. She is reported as having said, "Why it's silly to say I murdered Walter. I liked him and he loved me — but no woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren't worth it, because there are always plenty more." Though she was found in blood-stained clothes with his blood, it was proposed to the court that he had killed himself.

After her acquittal, she remarried William Gaertner, though it was a stormy marriage. She claimed he was an abusive alcoholic. Yet when he caught her with another man, it was she who threatened to kill him.

He was wealthy, and they traveled Europe then eventually moved back to the Chicago suburb Wilmette. After he died, she moved to California where she lived till the ripe old age of 80.

*****

Maybe these were cold-hearted killers or maybe they were victims of awful men, could no longer take their abuse and snapped. We may never know. But what we do know is that they were women of power in the annals of history.

AUTHOR NOTES:
Obviously, killing another human being is wrong -- dead wrong!

If you care to do further reading, aside from the hyperlinks, much of the research for this article was gleaned from this source.