'Secret Life, Secret Death'

Portrait of Genevieve Davis (left), director/producer of "Secret Life, Secret Death," alongside actors Brian Miracle and Kjersti Beth, at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune / August 3, 2012)

11:06 a.m. CDT, August 3, 2012

It is an arduous task to make a movie how many of you are tired of waiting for "The Devil in the White City" to hit the big screen almost 10 years after the book's publication? so it is not hard to understand why it took Wisconsin-based visual artist Genevieve Davis eight years to get "Secret Life, Secret Death" to the screen.

What is hard to imagine is the psychological toll it might have taken on Davis.

"Yes, it was very depressing at times," she says. "But I just put my nose to the grindstone."

Davis is the producer and director, editor and writer, designer and everything else, of what she calls a "docudrama mystery" that focuses on her paternal grandmother, Minnie, who had a colorful, turbulent, mobster-crossed and altogether extraordinary life.

Engaged in Philadelphia, she was abandoned by her husband-to-be when she became pregnant, was thrown out of her home by her irate father, had the baby and in 1915 hooked up with a minor Chicago mobster named Tony Coglioni.

They wound up in an area of the city then known as the Levee, a Near South Side gathering of brothels, gambling parlors, opium dens, cheap saloons, rotgut whiskey, thieves, murderers and degenerates of every stripe and bad habit.

Davis puts it bluntly: "The Levee was a cesspool of misery."

That is where her father, Francis, was raised, and where he attended, as a 6-year-old, the 1920 funeral of mob boss Jim Colosimo, who Coglioni worked for.

"The funeral was something my dad always talked about and I really never knew if it was true. And he never talked much about his mother," says Davis, who was raised in the Milwaukee area. "After he died, I went to the library and started exploring."

And exploring, and exploring. Over years she gathered the pieces of her grandmother's past that form the solid foundation of "Secret Life, Secret Death."

The research is solid and the re-creations dramatic. She was aided in her efforts by a great number of people who devoted their time, their money and their various talents. Among them was Tim Samuelson, this city's estimable cultural historian, who helped her unearth some hard truths and who supplied some stunning photos of old Chicago.

The movie had its local premiere July 20 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

"It was an eerie pleasure to screen the movie in the city where my dad and grandmother had lived," Davis says. "The audience all stayed for a conversation after the film. Some even thanked me for making the movie. They had a kind of knowing look in their eyes that let me know they had family secrets too."

For all of the appeal of the Chicago-based portions of the film, equally interesting is Minnie's time in Wisconsin. Having sent her son Francis back to live with her family in Philadelphia when he was 11, she hooked up with another loser named Johnny Vill, and together they operated a brothel called the Hollywood Hotel in a dot-on-the-map called Spread Eagle. About 300 miles north of Chicago, this place was then a haven for vacationing hoodlums, including such big shots as John Dillinger and George "Baby Face" Nelson.

"It is now five bars and restaurants on the curve of a road," says Davis, who filmed in the area and interviewed one of the old-timers who knew of its wilder days. "In my grandmother's time, it was five brothels."

Minnie died there in 1948 under mysterious circumstances.

The film (available at secretlifesecretdeath.com) is full of vintage costumes and vehicles, and filled with actors re-creating scenes and events. Real people tell stories, including Davis' mother, who shares some chilling memories of Minnie. There's a lot of music, and much in the way of artful and arty technique. The film is punctuated by death, prostitution, suicide, bootlegging and adultery, and is ever shadowed by alcoholism. It is a haunting story. But surprisingly not a sad one.

Davis, who is now trying to put her materials into book form and hopes to have that project completed by the end of the year, says, "I don't look at my grandmother as a flawed person. She was tough as she needed to be. I knew that her story was interesting to me. It was my family. But now I realize that this is a story that deeply moves people because every family has its secrets."