The late Maurine Dallas Watkins is known to millions for her play "Chicago," the basis for the Bob Fosse musical and the Oscar-winning film. She also wrote screenplays for more than a dozen movies, from the screwball comedy "Libeled Lady" to the prison satire "Up the River," the feature debut of Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart.
But Watkins, it turns out, also dabbled in fiction.
Watkins' "Bound," an obscure, decades-old story of betrayal and violence, will appear this week in the February-May issue of The Strand Magazine, a Birmingham, Mich.-based quarterly that has published long-lost fiction by Mark Twain, Graham Greene and others. The Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli said the story was offered to him by Watkins' literary estate.
"This certainly doesn't share much with the stories and screenplays she wrote which were filmed in the '30s, '40s and '50s," Gulli wrote in a recent email. "Many of those were standard dramas and comedies, this is very dark and when reading it you almost feel that she was experimenting and trying to see if this could be expanded to a novel or play."
Watkins, who died in 1969 at age 73, was a journalist in Chicago in the 1920s and "Chicago" was based on her coverage of a pair of murder trials. The play opened on Broadway in 1926 and was popular enough to be adapted into a silent film within a year. Meanwhile, she continued writing for the stage and screen, including the play "So Help Me God!" that had the bad luck to go into production just before the 1929 stock market crash, killing any chances for Broadway. She had success in Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s, with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Ginger Rogers among the stars she wrote for, but her career then faded and she was rarely seen in public over the last decade of her life.
"Bound" is apparently the only short story Watkins completed. It was found a few years ago after the estate's agent, Murray Weiss, asked surviving relatives (Watkins had no children) "to look in their attics and crawl spaces for any other works written by Maurine." Among the materials were "So Help Me God!" that was revived off-Broadway in 2009 and nominated for four Drama Desk Awards and "Bound," believed to have been written in the 1930s.
Watkins' story follows the written testimony of Ernie, a deaf farmhand who has witnessed adultery and murder among the owner, Miss Thyrza; the schoolteacher she marries, Jasper Thorly; and two fellow workers, Effie and Amos.
The title turns out to have multiple meanings: Ernie is an orphan "bound" to Miss Thyrza, who takes him in when he's 13. Miss Thyrza and Jasper are "bound" to each other by marriage, and Ernie eventually ties up a murder victim with cloth and rope. "You'll find her like that, bound and dead," he explains in his testimony.
"Bound" is written in a colloquial, wandering style as Ernie tells his hard luck story to a sheriff named Hedges. He digresses often, to Hedges' apparent impatience, whether remembering the biscuits he ate between meals or the Dickens novels given to him by Thorly.
"It's hard for you to understand what that meant to me, Mr. Hedges, for you believe the world is the way it seems here ... and are content," Ernie says. "But life isn't like this. There are places where it's bright and exciting, gay like a song, where people are noble and great and kind. Whatever comes to me, I'll be happier for knowing there are people like that, someplace, wherever it may be, though I'll never see them myself."