The Stuff of Nightmares
Books, poems, songs recall Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
BY STEPHEN WOLF (assistance by LILY WOLF)
Great tragedy often inspires powerful art — and though having occurred 99 years ago this month, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire remains a powerful force in poems, books, memoirs, and even a rock song (“Trapped in a staircase; By the smell of her own burning hair” wrote Rasputina in the song “My Little Shirtwaist Fire”):
And the terrible flames of
All that remains of
My little shirtwaist fire
Until 9/11, nothing had touched New Yorkers as did those few horrible minutes at the Asch Building late that early spring afternoon in 1911. Even Yiddish theaters — usually uproariously slapstick or sweetly sentimental — dramatized the tragedy repeatedly throughout the Lower East Side.
Two renowned books provide historical perspectives: “The Triangle Fire” by Leon Stein (1962) is an intense, often gripping, and highly personal narrative. The last paragraphs unite three survivors fifty years later at the very spot and day and time of the fire (on Greene Street and Washington Place, at what is now called the Brown Building).
David Von Drehle’s “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” (2003) is a thorough, brilliant study that includes much on the labor strife and politics of the day. Von Drehle will read and discus this work at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on March 25th, the day the fire occurred.
What compels us to those horrid, stunning moments in New York City’s past draws young readers there too. “The Locket: Surviving the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire” by Suzanne Lieurance (2008) tells of Galena, a young Russian-Jewish immigrant. Mary Jane Auch’s novel “Ashes of Roses” (2002) follows the Nolan family already torn apart when half are not admitted on Ellis Island. The two older sisters, Maureen and Rose, remain in New York and find work in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Chris Hewelly’s poems “Fragments from the Fire” recently won the Whitman Poetry Prize.
In his “America: A History in Verse,” Edward Sanders wrote “no greater symbol of evil/ against workers/ had there ever been,” and Dana Burnet’s “Ballad of Dead Girls” composed soon after the fire is an angry poem directed at the factory owner “who did not weep” but “paid the System’s price, and lived/ To lock his doors again.”
John Sloan painted some of New York’s finest streetscapes as well as an etching of a burned, dead girl with Greed and Death standing over her. Despite a cold rain, the funeral procession up Fifth Avenue on April 5th had an enormous turnout: “The skies wept,” wrote “The New York World.” The procession pushed its wet, somber mourning past the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street. Its minister, Percy Stickney Grant, later wrote:
Flags do not fly, nor banners wave.
Leaders, officials, sashes, batons, placards,
None are here.
Only men and women…
in spite of the rain,
Rhythmic tread, the asphalt shining with wet….
One a madonna face — remote, hopeless, dazed —
Mary come back to see what her son’s death availed.
Along the procession, young sweatshop workers and their parents fear the same fate awaits them.
Greed, scowling, stood at the door,
Barring the way.
Flame pursued them, would round their knees,
Burned their hair and embraced them,
Leered as they shuddered and shrieked.
Blazing downward like falling stars….
Out of the smoke and the flame,
Downward dashed the girls through roofs of glass.
Mangled and dying they set fire to other shops.
Their death but multiplied death.
We now have the names of all 146 who died — their ages, even where they lived throughout Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side down to South Street. Two survived the terrible fall, but 62 died — “due to blunt impact” read reports — after jumping from the flames, though some (as Grant’s poem notes) leaped too late: “the Flame/ pursued them, /would round their knees,/ Burned their hair and embraced them.”
So many jumped that the firefighters struggled through the dead and falling. One firefighter on 9/11 was killed by someone who had leapt from the burning floors above and falling on him. When we envision the Triangle fire, it’s of the many dead young women on the sidewalk; but 30 men also died — one kissing his betrothed before they jumped from the window embraced.
In February 2001, the last survivor of the Triangle fire died in her home in Southern California. Her name was Rose Freedman; she was 107. Poet Robert Phillips also has a Rose — and she too lives in Southern California. His poem “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire” begins “I, Rose Rosenfeld, am one of the workers/ who survived.”
I left my big-button-attacher machine,
climbed the iron stairs to the tenth floor
where their offices were. From the landing window
I saw girls in shirtwaists flying by,
Catherine wheels projected like Zeppelins
out open windows, then plunging downward,
sighing skirts open parasols on fire.
What occurred in those 102 minutes at the World Trade Center on September 11th has a particular and terrible similarity to the fire nearly a century before. In Phillips’ poem, Rose recounts another epic tragedy of her time and an event that grips us to this day:
It was like the Titanic the very next year —
No one cared about the souls in steerage.
Those doors were locked, too, a sweatshop at sea.
They died due to ice, not fire. I live in
Southern California now. But I still see
skirts rippling like parachutes,
girls hit the cobblestones, smell smoke,
burnt flesh, girls cracking like cheap buttons,
disappearing like so many dropped stitches.
A million times we’ve all tried not imaging ourselves 85 floors above downtown — but parents with a daughter the age of so many then working in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory imagine something even worse than their own peril. More than one father that day threw himself and his furious grief over and over again into the police barricades holding him back.
Today, there’s a dim plague on the building. If we cross the street, then look up to the eighth and ninth floor windows, we’re startled seeing they look just like the pictures we’ve seen of them; the same arches, the same parapet where girls hung briefly by their fingertips
With little struggle, we can imagine this corner of New York City at 5 in the afternoon on March 25th, 1911. Perhaps we can imagine it so clearly because after 9/11 we can conjure visions of people jumping to escape death by fire whenever we look at any tall building.
Historians, novelists and poets will continue writing about us as victims of great tragedy; and they do so not to feed our fascination, but to deepen our empathy — for their work gives utterance to our fragile, enduring hearts.
Stephen Wolf is the editor of “I Speak of the City: Poems of New York” (Columbia University Press), the most extensive anthology ever assembled of New York poetry.
On April 1 at 6:30 p.m., Wolf hosts a free event at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. He’ll read poems from “I Speak” — as will poet Claudia Menza and actor Chris Hurt.
David Von Drehle — author of “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” (2003; Atlantic Monthly Press) — will speak at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (108 Orchard St., at Delancey) at 6:30 p.m. on March 25th. Admission is free. For information, call 212-982-8420.