Maurine Dallas Watkins
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Early life and career
She was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and attended Crawfordsville High School, followed by five colleges (including Hamilton College (Kentucky), Transylvania University, Butler College (Indianapolis, IN), 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 to Radcliffe in Massachusetts to pursue graduate studies in Greek. 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. Watkins moved to Chicago and in early 1924 landed a job as a reporter with the Chicago Tribune.
For the Tribune, where she remained for seven months, Watkins covered the murders and the subsequent trials of Belva Gaertner, a twice-divorced cabaret singer, and Beulah Sheriff Annan. Watkins often acerbically amusing reportage, focused on the farcical, cynical, and sensational aspects of the two cases, the press and public interest, and the legal proceedings—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, although Watkins was convinced they were.
Watkins also briefly reported on the famous Leopold and Loeb case, which quickly overshadowed the coverage of the Belva Gaertner verdict. Soon after, she returned to school to study again under Baker, who by then had moved to Yale University. As a class assignment in his famous 47 Workshop course, she wrote a thinly fictionalized account of the two murders, calling it first 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 in a composite character, "Billy Flynn" (O'Brien seems to have been the closest direct match).
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 2 years (with a then-unknown Clark Gable appearing in a Los Angeles production as Amos Hart). A 1927 silent film version produced and supervised by Cecil B. DeMille and starring former Mack Sennett bathing beauty Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart, was remade 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, while the stage and screen musical version eliminated Jake, Babe, and several others.
Watkins wrote about twenty plays, but Chicago was her most successful. She journeyed to Hollywood to write screenplays, including the 1936 comedy Libeled Lady with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, and Spencer Tracy.
Watkins left Hollywood in the 1940s and moved to Florida, close to her elderly parents. 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, her estate sold him the rights, leading to the 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.
- Chicago (1927) (play)
- Up the River (1930)
- Doctors' Wives (1931)
- Play-Girl (1932)
- The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932) (play Tinsel Girl)
- No Man of Her Own (1932)
- Child of Manhattan (1933)
- Hello, Sister! (1933) (uncredited)
- The Story of Temple Drake (1933) (uncredited)
- Professional Sweetheart (1933)
- Search for Beauty (1934)
- Strictly Dynamite (1934) (story)
- A Wicked Woman (1934) (dialogue)
- Libeled Lady (1936)
- Up the River (1938) (story)
- I Love You Again (1940) (story)
- Roxie Hart (1942)
- Easy to Wed (1946)
- Chicago (2002) (play)
- Thomas H. Pauly (Ed.): Chicago: With the Chicago Tribune Articles that Inspired It. Southern Illinois University 1997. ISBN 0-8093-2129-7, ISBN 978-0-8093-2129-2
- Judith Ann Schiff, "How Yale begat Chicago," Yale Alumni Magazine, May/June 2012.'