Maurine Dallas Watkins Website
Her Life


Maurine Watkins was born 26 July 1896 in Louisville, Kentucky, at her grandmother's house on Merritt street. Her mother and father had met only a few blocks from there while he was preaching at the Preston Christian church. Her given name was Maurine Watkins; she gave herself her middle name of Dallas in deference to her faher's beloved place of birth, Dallas County, Missouri.

She grew up a precocious child, with boundless imagination and gall, and soon made her way with her first play, "The Heart of Gold," when she was fifteen. That same year, she co-founded The High School Billiken, Crawfordsville High School's first newspaper. While the paper was short-lived, it showed she had interest in the journalistic profession as well. Before high school was out, she had also begun penning short stories. Her first known extant story, "My Lady Will-o-the-Wisp," won second place in her senior year.

Her college years show her short story, journalism, and play writing talents blossoming. Between college and Chicago's success, she wrote some (not much, as far as the extant evidence goes, however), and taught high school in Indiana. She also attended Radcliffe and Professor George Pierce Baker's English and playwriting classes.


Maurine secured a job at the Chicago Tribune during 1924, and received her byline within three months of starting. Then, once she had acquired the experience she desired, she returned to Prof. Baker's class (1925-1926).

It was through Professor Baker, and because of the play she wrote in his 47 Workshop, that she secured her lasting success and fame. It was there that she wrote the first draft of Chicago (originally titled The Brave Little Woman. Professor Baker routinely sent the play receiving the highest grade in his class to producer Sam Harris in New York. Harris immediately picked up the rights and by September of 1926, the play was in rehearsals. It was renamed the more curt title of Chicago.

Subsequent Career

Following Chicago, while her career was at its height, she revived her journalism career briefly and her short story career was doing very well. But between 1928 and 1929, her playwrighting career was spiraling downward. She moved to Hollywood with the advent of the Stock Market crash in October 1929. There, her career shifted almost totally to screen writing; though she continued writing plays and short stories, these were mainly used as bases for films. She started with a contract with Fox but before her film career ended in the early 1940s she had written for almost all the major studios. Her masterpiece in film came with Libeled Lady (MGM, 1936, starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow).

Death & Legacy (Briefly)

Maurine ended her days focussing on how to best distribute her wealth after she was gone. She chose to bequeath the greatest bulk of her estate to the study of Classical and Biblical Greek. Universities such as Harvard and Princeton, and institutions such as The American School of Classical Studies at Athens (to name just a few), some of which are still benefitting from these bequests. Promising or accomplished students may receive monies from the awards she set up.

Sadly, and due in no small part to her own efforts to squelch any further productions of Chicago (beginning in the 1950s and continuing up to her death), Maurine is now remembered solely as the author of a single successful play, an eccentric who only went out with her face covered by a heavy veil.

The truth of the matter was that she was dying. She had been diagnosed with cancer, possibly as early as 1954. She had made her will in the mid-1950s and was spending her time travelling to arrange for her bequests. By the time that Sheldon Abend (the president of the American Play Company which represented Chicago) came into the picture (in his hopes to get Miss Watkins to agree to release the rights to Chicago so that Bob Fosse, et al, could make their musical version of the play), what he encountered was certainly eccentric—in appearance.

Maurine did indeed only go out of her apartment heavily covered with a veil over her face. She also would often leave home only if the weather were rainy or overcast. Abend says she was then relying on her horoscope and Variety magazine in making her refusals regarding Chicago. (Inventories detailing her estate after her death, though, do not bear out the horoscope statement, and if such were true it may have only been a ruse to make refusal easier: who would argue with a crazy woman?) Watkins claimed, Mr. Abend told me, that the time was not right for her play to be produced.

Perhaps Maurine did actually make that claim. Ironically, her feelings certainly did pan out, because Fosse's Chicago, a musical vaudeville did not become the hoped-for hit when it was first run. The musical was overshadowed—as was most every other play that year—by A Chorus Line. It wasn't until the 1996 revival of the musical (and its darker, less burlesqued and more satirical approach) that the time—and style—was finally right.

(Interestingly, it may be more the style in which the play was presented that caused it to be the hit it was. For, when Chicago first opened on Broadway at the end of 1926, it was burlesqued to the hilt—much to Maurine's chagrin. Yet after that opening night, the burlesque was taken out and the intended satirical approach put back. And the play became a tremendous hit. One might consider the same fate may have befallen Chicago, a musical vaudeville; it wasn't until the 1996 revival—which also took out the burlesque aspect and replaced it with satire and black comedy—that the musical took off.)

Grave Marker for Maurine Dallas WatkinsWhat the public did not know was that the reason for Maurine's veil was due to a facial cancer. By 1968, skin cancer had taken away her nose and one cheek. She died—of lung cancer—on 10 August 1969 in Jacksonville, Florida. But she died a rich woman with over $2,333,000.00 to distribute to her causes (that's over 13 million dollars today). Yet Abend and others have labeled her a failure.

I hope some day to fail just as Maurine did. I can only hope....

—John Elliott

External Links of Possible Interest

Transylvania University alumna bio for Maurine Dallas Watkins

Wikipedia entry for Maurine Dallas Watkins

Internet Movie Database entry for Maurine Watkins

Internet Broadway Datagase entry for Maurine Dallas Watkins

On the Subject of Chicago ... Locally on Mid Hudson Valley Theater Blog