It’s been almost six months since He Had It Coming hit the shelves, and we’re celebrating with a 20% discount on copies this week! He Had It Coming offers an intimate look into the lives of the real women who inspired the characters of the hit musical Chicago, as told through archival photos, original reporting, and new analysis from the Chicago Tribune.
Read on for an excerpt of the foreword by Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens, and claim your discounted copy here.
By Heidi Stevens
The story behind the story that eventually became the movie “Chicago” could, itself, be a movie.
The inquisitive photo editor, staked out in the Chicago Tribune’s bone-chilling basement (affectionately known as “the morgue”), combing through the news-paper’s prodigious archives, stumbling suddenly and fortuitously upon a box labeled, in pencil . . .
Zoom in for close-up:
Marianne Mather is the inquisitive photo editor, and Katherine “Kitty Malm” Baluk was one of the four women whose real-life murder trials inspired Maurine Watkins, a one-time Chicago Tribune reporter, to pen the play “Chicago,” which would, in turn, become the musical “Chicago” and the movie “Chicago.”
Kitty Malm was Go-To-Hell Kitty in “Chicago.”
“Packed a gat where most girls harbor their love letters,” the Tribune wrote about her on October 16, 1927. “A life-timer at Joliet.”
The box—two boxes, it turned out—marked “Kitty Malm” were filled with photo negatives made of glass and stored in sleeves. The sleeves contained very little information—no dates, no context. Mather took the boxes back to the newsroom, digitized the images and started researching Kitty’s story.
She quickly discovered Kitty’s connections to Chicago—both the city and the musical. This led her to search for—and find—the other three women whose stories would, eventually, become “Chicago.” They were Beulah Annan, who inspired the character Roxie Hart; Belva Gaertner, who inspired the character Velma Kelly; and Sabella Nitti, who inspired the character Hunyak.
The Tribune had glass-plate negatives of all of them.
Mather teamed up with Tribune graphic artist Kori Rumore to research the women’s stories as well as the story of Maurine Watkins, the writer who brought them—or some approximation of them—to the stage and screen.
“It seems possible Beulah and Belva committed the crimes they were accused of,” Mather said. “It’s not obvious for the other two.”
Their research spanned four years and uncovered layers that never made it into the film and theatrical versions of “Chicago.”
“When I tell people I found these photos of the real women that the ‘Chicago’ women are based on, they say, ‘Oh, those were real women?’ ” Mather said.
“All of these women came to Chicago from someplace else, and they all ended up going somewhere after here,” Rumore said. “They all have back stories.”
“I guess I want people to know their real stories,” Mather said. “And when I go through their stories, I feel like this could still happen today.”
Perhaps we—we, the culture; we, the media—would parse our words more carefully today when speaking of four women, each arrested and accused of shooting a man to death.
“Belva Gaertner, another of those women who messed things up by adding a gun to her fondness for gin and men, was acquitted last night at 12:10 o’clock of the murder of Walter Law,” Maurine Watkins wrote on June 6, 1924. “So drunk she didn’t remember whether she shot the man found dead in her sedan.”
Perhaps we wouldn’t.
Swirling in the background as Mather and Rumore conducted their yearslong research were the rumblings and reverberations of the #MeToo movement, a presidential candidate bragging on tape about grabbing women by their genitals, that same presidential candidate leading his supporters in chants of “Lock her up!” against his opponent, a country bitterly divided over a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual assault and the eventual swearing-in of that nominee.
“So much of what we’ve been finding feels like it hasn’t changed,” Rumore said.
The accused women being described first and foremost by their appearance. The accused women with a pleasing appearance having a far easier time winning over the public and their juries. The accused women struggling to make their authentic voices heard above the din of a media-driven narrative.
I asked Mather and Rumore if the women stayed with them—whether and when they found their thoughts turning to Belva and Beulah, Kitty and Sabella, Maurine Watkins.
“I think about Maurine a lot,” Rumore said. “There’s so much about her we don’t know. She never married. She never had kids. She never followed the traditional path. She had an advanced education, and it seemed like, at first, with the success of ‘Chicago,’ she had every resource at her disposal to do further work of that same caliber. But it just didn’t happen. I think about what happens when the first thing you write is the most successful thing you’ll ever write in your lifetime. Where do you go from there?”
“I carry these women around with me on a daily basis,” Mather said. “Whenever I see an immigration rally, I think about Sabella and the Sabellas of today and how they’re maybe not being heard or not being understood.”
Sabella was born and raised in Bari, Italy. She was compared to a farm animal in news coverage. At the time of her trial, she spoke and read almost no English. When she was convicted, she didn’t understand the words spelling out her fate.
“I think about how we get the Sabellas into boardrooms and meeting rooms to make sure these types of things don’t happen again,” Mather said. “I think about that a lot. I also think about the Beulahs and the Belvas of the world. Whenever I see a famous woman on screen, I think about the way people shape and use their image.”
In the media, Rumore said, but also on Instagram. On Facebook and Twitter.
“Can you imagine if Belva and Beulah had Instagram?” Mather said. “So many selfies in those jail cells!
“It all feels relevant today,” Mather added.
Relevant and revealing. I think you’ll agree.