Film investigates family connection to Wisconsin gangstersFilmmaker Genevieve Davis researched her paternal grandmother, an unwed mother during the 1920s who settled in Northeastern Wisconsin. The result — “Secret Life, Secret Death” — a docudrama that tells the story of a good girl who fell into a life among criminals.
By: Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune
Genevieve Davis’s father didn’t reveal a ton of information about his upbringing, but one thing the filmmaker knew was enough to pique her curiosity:
Why would her father, as a 5-year-old, attend the funeral of big-time Chicago gangster Big Jim Colosimo?
This sparked research into her paternal grandmother, an unwed mother cast off by her family who made her way in Chicago during the 1920s and later settled in Northeastern Wisconsin. The result — “Secret Life, Secret Death” — is Davis’ feature-length docudrama that tells the story of a good girl who fell into a life among criminals. It gets a screening at 7 p.m. Thursday at Zinema 2, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker.
“My parents didn’t really talk about her,” Davis said of her grandmother, whom she refers to only as “Minnie” in the film. “It’s not an expose about my grandmother’s family. It’s an expose about the kind of crime that went on during the Roaring ’20s and ’30s, and what happened to the women in those movies. You never get to see their story or what price they paid or their children paid.”
The film, which runs just more than 80 minutes, includes historic images, newspaper clippings, correspondences, re-enactments featuring period clothing and cars and a jazz-centric soundtrack. Part of it plays on the silent films of the era. Davis uses green screens and vintage photographs to place her characters in specific places.
Davis found that her grandmother had been in a pinch. Her family and friends severed ties when Minnie got pregnant by a man who broke their engagement. She was in a vulnerable position, the kind that attracted a minor Mafioso who is given the pseudonym “Tony Coglioni” in the film.
Davis knew that Minnie lived with Coglioni and that as a young boy, her father was often left at home alone at night.
There were also ties to the Hollywood Hotel, a spot in Northeastern Wisconsin close to the Michigan border. Early in the film, Davis drives to the small town and asks about the former building. Its infamous background (Davis’s mother called it “a kind of trysting place”) — is confirmed by a man who knew of the spot growing up.
“A whorehouse,” the man says. “(That’s) just what it was.”
From there, Davis traveled to Chicago to chase the story of her grandmother, but struggled to find details and redirected her efforts to Coglioni. She found the son of a reported grocer who lived in an area referred to as Satan’s Mile — Chicago’s red light district.
In 1925, Davis’ father was sent away to live with relatives. Minnie ended up in Northeastern Wisconsin and fell into a rough crowd that included a Greek Mafioso she married, called “Johnny” in the film.
Davis learned a lot about the mysterious life and death of her grandmother, a woman her mother referred to as “a drunk with a cold personality.”
“She was a defiant girl,” Davis said. “You can see that from her pictures. That characteristic stood her well through that period as an outcast.
“She was also a very strong person. According to her sister, she was a very sweet and loving person. By the time my mom knew her, she was shut down from alcoholism.”
Davis isn’t sure she still knows the whole story — including how her grandmother died.
“I don’t need to know everything,” Davis said. “Knowing what I do know is pretty horrific. It’s just a real tragedy.”
Davis is an artist who lives in Milwaukee. This is her first feature-length film, though she has two more in the works, including a thriller and a romantic comedy.