From the Publisher
has written what is sure to become the definitive account of the fire." -The New York Times Book Review
"Triangle carries the reader deep into a portrait of early 20th Century New York
when colorful machine politicians battled socialists, suffragists and upright progressive reformers for the soul of an increasingly immigrant city. Von Drehle paints the young Jewish and Italian immigrants who labored at Triangle
he is clearly captivated by their spirit."- The Chicago Tribune
“A strong piece of writing whose edge seems to have been supplied by a haunting sense of Sept. 11, 2001. . . . The heart of Von Drehle’s book is its detailed, nuanced, mesmerizing description of the fire. It’s movement is tracked relentlessly and repeatedly, moment by moment, in context after context, as it sweeps the factory, out of control in a matter of seconds.” Vivian Gornick, The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Von Drehle paints a vivid portrait of early-20th-century Gotham, full of corrupt Tammany Hall bigwigs, passionate labor reformers, and factory owners whose callous disregard for safety by illegally blocking exists caused the fatalities. . . . Most indelible are the stories of the young victims whose lives were extinguished in just minutes. A-” Bob Cannon, Entertainment Weekly
“An enthralling chronicle . . . which left its own profound mark on the city and taught lessons that we are badly in need of remembering. . . . Von Drehle’s spellbinding and detailed reconstruction of the disaster is complemented by an equally gripping account of the factory owners’ subsequent manslaughter trial.” Mike Wallace, The New York Times
“A superb social history. Von Drehle transforms solid research into graphic detail and gives immediacy to the distant events. Chapters on the fire are so spellbinding that readers will need air at the end. . . . Triangle is a thorough and satisfying read.” Lyn Milner, USA Today
“Von Drehle has provided a gripping account of the tragedy. . . . In addition to the particulars of the Triangle strike, fire and subsequent trial, Von Drehle also deftly sketches the national context of these events.” Liza Featherstone, Newsday
“A fine new account . . . Von Drehle ably describes the growth of the garment industry, the lives of its immigrant work force, the politics of early 20th century New York, and the 1909 strike. But he truly excels in telling the harrowing story of the fire itself. Two gripping chapters put the reader inside the Triangle factory. . . Von Drehle's reconstruction of the fire is reminiscent of Norman McClean's Young Men and Fire.” Joshua B. Freeman, The Washington Post Book World
“A vivid portrait of the Dickensian lives of garment workers in the early [1900s]. . . . Von Drehle draws an unforgettable picture of the era that shaped a new course in politics and labor relations.” Lynn Coulter, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Von Drehle transforms the vision of the American melting pot into a seething forge of warring politics, money, and ethnicity, tempering the country on its rise, through the advent of mass production, to the twentieth century. . . . Triangle is an enjoyable and compelling exploration of an influential tragedy, which was the death knell for one era even as it was the herald of another.” David Carpman, Yale Review of Books
“Remarkable. . . . Von Drehle recreates this period with complete mastery. . . . Besides bringing many of these characters to life, Von Drehle shows how pivotal the fire proved to be in the history of labor unions and in the rise of urban liberalism.”John C. Ensslin, The Rocky Mountain News
“Terrific. . . .Von Drehle demonstrates convincingly how the Triangle case produced major pieces of workplace safety legislation and how progressive politicians . . . skillfully used the tragedy to draw into the Democratic Party large numbers of voters who wished to see significant reforms in the American workplace. . . . Von Drehle’s meticulous research furnishes Triangle with the necessary historical authority.” Daniel Dyer, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Von Drehle’s minute-by-minute account of all this is vivid, dramatic, and . . . never sensationalistic. . . . It chronicles the disaster’s buildup and fallout, its social fuel and political ash. . . . Von Drehle has reconstructed with unprecedented care one of the formative events of 20th century America. He has managed to convert dry research into human drama by making us see how much burned in those flames.” Samuel Kauffman Anderson, The Christian Science Monitor
“It is a powerful and cautionary tale, grippingly toldpopular history at its most compelling.” Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun
The Washington Post
Von Drehle ably describes the growth of the garment industry, the lives of its immigrant work force, the politics of early 20th-century New York, and the 1909 strike. But he truly excels in telling the harrowing story of the fire itself. Two gripping chapters put the reader inside the Triangle factory, as the fire spreads with awesome speed from the pile of garment scraps where it began, taking all its victims within just a half-hour. Von Drehle shows how clear thinking, decisive action, physical strength and luck saved many, including the owners, while others were doomed by paralyzing terror, trying to save colleagues, a locked exit door, the poorly constructed fire escape that collapsed during the inferno, or sheer chance. Von Drehle's reconstruction of the fire is reminiscent of Norman McClean's Young Men and Fire, the classic account of what it is like to face a raging fire, and the split-second events that separate life from death.
Joshua B. Freeman
The New York Times
For a historian of New York, the dreadful sight of trapped World Trade Center workers leaping to their deaths on Sept. 11 summoned up the horrible image of trapped seamstresses, hair and clothing ablaze, plunging from the Triangle shirtwaist factory on March 25, 1911. David Von Drehle was at work on Triangle: The Fire That Changed America when the attack came, and for a time its appalling parallels stopped him cold. We can be thankful that he carried on, because he has given us an enthralling chronicle of that distant and very different disaster, which left its own profound mark on the city and taught lessons that we are badly in need of remembering. Mike Wallace
NY Times Sunday Book Review
As David Von Drehle makes clear in his outstanding history, Triangle, the overwhelmingly young, female victims of the fire -- at least 123 were women, and of these at least 64 were teenagers -- were betrayed by the greed of their employers, by the indifference of the city's political bosses, by an entire matrix of civic neglect and corruption. … Von Drehle, a reporter at The Washington Post, has written what is sure to become the definitive account of the fire.
It was a profitable business in a modern fireproof building heralded as a model of efficiency. Yet the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City became the deadliest workplace in American history when fire broke out on the premises on March 25, 1911. Within about 15 minutes the blaze killed 146 workers-most of them immigrant Jewish and Italian women in their teens and early 20s. Though most workers on the eighth and 10th floors escaped, those on the ninth floor were trapped behind a locked exit door. As the inferno spread, the trapped workers either burned to death inside the building or jumped to their deaths on the sidewalk below. Journalist Von Drehle (Lowest of the Dead: Inside Death Row and Deadlock: The Inside Story of America's Closest Election) recounts the disaster-the worst in New York City until September 11, 2001-in passionate detail. He explains the sociopolitical context in which the fire occurred and the subsequent successful push for industry reforms, but is at his best in his moment-by-moment account of the fire. He describes heaps of bodies on the sidewalk, rows of coffins at the makeshift morgue where relatives identified charred bodies by jewelry or other items, and the scandalous manslaughter trial at which the Triangle owners were acquitted of all charges stemming from the deaths. Von Drehle's engrossing account, which emphasizes the humanity of the victims and the theme of social justice, brings one of the pivotal and most shocking episodes of American labor history to life. Photos not seen by PW. Agent: Esther Newberg. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
To quote from the review of the audiobook in KLIATT, May 2004: The legendary fire that killed 146 in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York, March 25, 1911, "grew geometrically in the space of a few seconds." The factory was packed with tables that limited workers' movement and with waste receptacles that contained flammables ripe for the match head or cigarette stub. Its narrow staircases ended in locked doors, and the fire department's ladders were not long enough to reach the windows against which the screaming women crowded. The flames were brought under control within half an hour, but the fire's effects have reverberated through American development. In an impressive piece of research and writing, Von Drehle opens up the story, illuminating the legal, political and cultural setting in which the fire occurred. Tammany Hall ruled New York for the sake of the wealthy, ships daily brought hundreds of immigrants escaping Europe's pogroms and poverty, and factory-made clothing was replacing traditional homemade. He details the fire's setting, the persons involved at all levels, the trial that exonerated the owners, Max Blank and Isaac Harris, and the profound attitude change that put the government into social programs. A cultural history masterpiece. KLIATT Codes: SA*Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Grove Press, 340p. illus. notes. bibliog. index., Ages 15 to adult.
The tragic conflagration at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in March 1911 resulted in the deaths of 123 women (most of them young immigrants), caused widespread public outrage, and set in motion a wave of reform. Drehle's vivid retelling of this horrifying event begins with the strike that immediately preceded it and then examines the terrible fire, the unsuccessful prosecution of the factory owners, and the fight to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Drehle, a reporter for the Washington Post and author of such investigative books as Lowest of the Dead: Inside Death Row, utilizes the vast amount of documentation surrounding the tragedy and some newly discovered court transcripts to re-create the fire and its legislative aftermath, plus immigrant life and labor conditions at the time. The story of this disaster can never be told too often and has rarely been told this well. Recommended for academic and public libraries of all sizes, even those who already own Leon Stein's classic The Triangle Fire. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Von Drehle has embedded the intense, moving tale of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in a fascinating, meticulously documented account of a crucial period in U.S. history. In addition to using an impressive list of secondary sources, the author has drawn heavily on newspaper articles, author Leon Stine's interviews with survivors, and trial transcripts. In a short prologue, he provides a poignant account of stunned, grieving relatives trying to identify burned bodies. To show why the tragedy occurred, he then goes back two years to the beginning of the 1909 general strike. The stifling, dingy tenements and the horrific conditions of the factories where immigrant workers toiled for 84-hour workweeks are described in evocative detail. Stories of the hardships they left behind in Italy and Eastern Europe contribute to the portraits of the victims and villains. Readers unfamiliar with Tammany Hall, the Progressive movement, or the rise of trade unions benefit from clear, concise background information. The account of the fire, the investigation, and the trial are both heartbreaking and enraging. The courtroom drama of defense attorney Max Steuer brazenly defending the factory owners overshadows any modern comparison. After concluding with the announcement of the trial verdict, the author provides an epilogue covering the final years of the key figures. An appendix gives the first complete list of victims. Eight black-and-white photos are included.-Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
A vivid recounting of the 1911 blaze that until the World Trade Center attack was the worst workplace disaster in New York history. On March 25 of that year, a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Company in Greenwich Village. In a half-hour, 146 people were killed, 123 of them women. Washington Post journalist Drehle (Among the Lowest of the Dead, 1995) fleshes out the social and political background to the conditions that made the tragedy inevitable. Abysmal pay and harassment for petty work violations had prompted a massive waist-workers' strike in New York the year before. Nor was the fire unusual or unforeseen; one historian estimated that at the time, a hundred accidents occurred in American workplaces each day. The largest blouse-making operation in New York, the Triangle sweatshop employed 500 or more workers, mostly Jewish and Italian, who toiled on the upper floors just beyond the reach of fire department ladders. The victims' doom was sealed when a rickety fire escape collapsed, and they couldn't open a door kept locked because the owners feared employee theft. Though the owners were acquitted of manslaughter charges, the outrage that swept the city led to changes in laws concerning workplace safety and the rights of labor. Reaction to the Triangle disaster also foreshadowed a national political realignment as urban Democrats became the shock troops of FDR's coalition. Drehle enhances his narrative with colorful portraits of principal players, including flamboyant defense attorney Max Steuer; Charles Whitman, the politically ambitious district attorney of New York; Tammany Hall boss Charles Murphy; and his Albany lieutenants Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, who staved offsocialist insurgency by passing 25 workplace safety bills in 1912. More remarkably, the author manages to piece together from news accounts and a long-lost trial transcript the lives and aspirations of the accident's victims. Compelling, in-depth look at a tragedy that deserves to be better remembered. (8-page b&w insert, not seen) Agent: Esther Newberg/ICM
Read an Excerpt
Triangle The Fire that Changed America
By David Von Drehle
Atlantic Monthly Press Copyright © 2003 David Von Drehle All right reserved. ISBN: 0-87113-874-3
Chapter One Spirit of the Age
Burglary was the usual occupation of Lawrence Ferrone, also known as Charles Rose. He had twice done time for that offense in New York state prisons. But Charley Rose was not a finicky man. He worked where there was money to be made. On September 10, 1909, a Friday evening, Rose was employed on a mission that would make many men squeamish. He had been hired to beat up a young woman. Her offense: leading a strike at a blouse-making factory off Fifth Avenue, just north of Washington Square in Manhattan.
He spotted his mark as she left the picket line. Clara Lemlich was small, no more than five feet tall, but solidly built. She looked like a teenager, with her soft round face and blazing eyes, but in fact Lemlich was in her early twenties. She had curly hair that she wore pulled tight in the back and sharply parted on the right, in the rather masculine style that was popular among the fiery women and girls of the socialist movement. Some of Clara's comrades-Pauline Newman and Fania Cohn, for example, tireless labor organizers in the blouse and the underwear factories, respectively-wore their hair trimmed so short and plain that they could almost pass for yeshiva boys. These young women often wore neckties with theirwhite blouses, as if to underline the fact that they were operating in a man's world. Men had the vote; men owned the shops and hired the sometimes leering, pinching foremen; men ran the unions and the political parties. At night school, in the English classes designed for immigrants like Clara Lemlich, male students learned to translate such sentences as "I read the book," while female students translated, "I wash the dishes." Clara and her sisters wanted to change that. They wanted to change almost everything.
Lemlich was headed downtown, toward the crowded, teeming immigrant precincts of the Lower East Side, but it is not likely that she was headed home. Her destination was probably the union hall, or a Marxist theory class, or the library. She was a model of a new sort of woman, hungry for opportunity and education and even equality; willing to fight the battles and pay the price to achieve it. As Charley Rose fell into step behind her-this small young woman hurrying along, dressed in masculine style after a day on a picket line-the strong arm perhaps rationalized that her radical behavior, her attempts to bend the existing shape and order of the world, her unwillingness to do what had always been done, was precisely the reason why she should be beaten.
Lemlich worked as a draper at Louis Leiserson's waist factory-women's blouses were known as "shirtwaists" in those days, or simply as "waists." Draping was a highly skilled job, almost like sculpting. Clara could translate the ideas of a blouse designer into actual garments by cutting and molding pieces on a tailor's dummy. In a sense, her work and her activism were the same: both involved taking ideas and making them tangible. And the work paid well, by factory standards, but pay alone did not satisfy Clara. She found the routine humiliations of factory life almost unbearable. Workers in the waist factories, she once said, were trailed to the bathroom and hustled back to work; they were constantly shortchanged on their pay and mocked when they complained; the owners shaved minutes off each end of the lunch hour and even "fixed" the time clocks to stretch the workday. "The hissing of the machines, the yelling of the foreman, made life unbearable," Lemlich later recalled. And at the end of each day, the factory workers had to line up at a single unlocked exit to be "searched like thieves," just to prevent pilferage of a blouse or a bit of lace.
With a handful of other young women, Clara Lemlich joined the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) in 1906. She and some of her fellow workers formed Local 25 to serve the mostly female waist makers and dressmakers; by the end of that year, they had signed up thirty-five or forty members-roughly one in a thousand eligible workers. And yet this small start represented a brazen stride by women into union business. The men who ran the ILGWU, which was young and struggling itself, composed mainly of male cloak makers, did little to support Local 25. Most men saw women as unreliable soldiers in the labor movement, willing to work for lower wages and destined to leave the shops as soon as they found husbands. Some men even "viewed women as competitors, and often plotted to drive them from the industry," according to historian Carolyn Daniel McCreesh. This left the women of Local 25 to make their own way, with encouragement from a group of well-to-do activists called the Women's Trade Union League.
The Leiserson's strike was Lemlich's third in as many years. Using her gifts with a needle as an entrée, Lemlich "zigzagg[ed] between small shops, stirring up trouble," as biographer Annelise Orleck put it. She was "an organizer and an agitator, first, last and always." In 1907, Lemlich led a ten-week wildcat strike at Weisen & Goldstein's waist shop, protesting the company's relentless insistence on ever-faster production. She led a walkout at the Gotham waist factory in 1908, complaining that the owners were firing better-paid men and replacing them with lower-paid women. The Louis Leiserson shop was next. Did Leiserson know what he was getting when the little draper presented herself at his factory and asked, in Yiddish, for a job? Leiserson was widely known around lower Manhattan as a socialist himself, so perhaps he was complacent about agitators. More likely, he had no idea what was in store when he hired Clara Lemlich, beyond the appealing talents of a first-rate seamstress. The waist industry was booming in New York: there were more than five hundred blouse factories in the city, employing upward of forty thousand workers. It was all but impossible to keep track of one waist maker in the tidal wave of new immigrants washing into the shops.
A socialist daily newspaper, the New York Call, was a mouthpiece for the garment workers and their fledgling unions. According to the Call, late in the summer of 1909 Louis Leiserson, self-styled friend of the workers, reneged on a promise to hire only union members at his modern factory on West Seventeenth Street. Like many garment makers, Leiserson shared the Eastern European roots of much of his workforce and, like them, he started out as an overworked, underpaid greenhorn fresh off the boat. But apparently he had concluded that his promise was too expensive to keep. Leiserson secretly opened a second shop staffed with nonunion workers, and when the unionists at the first shop-mostly men-found out about this, they called a clandestine strike meeting. Clara Lemlich attended, and demanded the floor. A men's-only strike was doomed to fail, she insisted. A walkout must include the female workers. "Ah-then I had fire in my mouth!" Lemlich remembered years later. She moved people by sheer passion. "What did I know about trade unionism? Audacity-that was all I had. Audacity!"
She was born with it, in 1886 (some accounts say 1888), in the Ukrainian trading town of Gorodok. Clara's father was a deeply religious man, one of about three thousand Jews in the town of ten thousand. He spent long days in prayer and studying the Torah, reading and pondering and disputing the mysteries of sacred scripture. He expected his sons to do the same with their lives. It was the job of his wife and daughters to do the worldly work that made such devotion possible. Clara's mother ran a tiny grocery store, and Clara and her sisters were expected to help.
A memoirist once described life in a similar Russian shtetl. It "was in essence a small Jewish universe, revolving around the Jewish calendar," he wrote, a place where a wedding celebration might go on for a week and where the Sabbath was inviolate. Twice a week, however, Clara went with her mother to the yarid, or marketplace, and there her life intersected, at least briefly, with the Russian Orthodox Christians who alone were allowed to own and farm the land.
Lemlich's childhood corresponded with a period of enormous upheaval for Eastern European Jews, a time, as Gerald Sorin has written, "of great turmoil, but, also, [of] effervescence." The traditions of shtetl life eroded under a wave of youthful radicalism, which erupted in response to the traumatic decline of the Russian monarchy. It was a very hard time for Russian Jews, a time of forced poverty and violent oppression, but it was also an environment where a girl could assert herself. Clara Lemlich was not content simply to work while her brothers studied and prayed. She hungered for an education. Realizing that she would have to pay for it herself, Lemlich learned to sew buttonholes and to write letters for illiterate neighbors whose children had immigrated to America. With the money she earned, she bought novels by Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gorky, among others. But Clara's father hated Russians and their anti-Semitic czars so deeply that he forbade the Russian language in his home. One day, he discovered a few of the girl's books hidden under a pan in the kitchen, and he flung them into the fire.
Clara secretly bought more books.
In 1903, Lemlich and her family joined the flood of roughly two million Eastern European Jewish immigrants that entered the United States between 1881 and the end of World War I. This was one of the largest, and most influential, migrations in history-roughly a third of the Jewish population in the East left their homes for a new life, and most of them found it in America. What was distinctive about the emigration was that an entire culture pulled up stakes and moved. It was not just the poor, or the young and footloose, or the politically vanquished that left. Faced with ever more crushing oppression and escalating anti-Jewish violence, the professional classes, stripped of their positions, had reason to leave. So did parents eager to save their sons from mandatory service in the czar's army; so did the idealists frustrated by backsliding conditions, as did the luftmenschen, the unskilled poor who had no clear way of supporting themselves in a harsh land. Although most of the arrivals in America were met by severe poverty, they kept coming. If their numbers were averaged, they arrived at the rate of almost two hundred per day, every day, for thirty years. They made a life and built a world with their own newspapers, theaters, restaurants-and radical politics.
* * *
She would not be able to run very fast in her long skirt, and was no match for a gangster. But to be on the safe side Charley Rose had recruited some help. William Lustig fell in alongside the burglar as they started down the street after Clara Lemlich. Lustig was best known as a prizefighter in the bare-knuckle bouts held in Bowery back rooms. Several other men tagged along, lesser figures from the New York underworld. In their derby hats and dark suits, they moved quickly along the sidewalk, past horse-drawn trucks creaking down the crowded avenue. With each step they narrowed the distance.
The policemen patrolling the picket line watched the gangsters set off, but did nothing to stop them. The cops weren't surprised to see notorious hoodlums moonlighting as strikebreakers. Busting up strikes was a lucrative sideline for downtown gangsters. So-called detective agencies were constantly looking for strikebreaking contracts from worried bosses in shops where there was unrest. One typical firm, the Greater New York Detective Agency, sent letters to the leading shirtwaist factory owners in the summer of 1909, promising to "furnish trained detectives to guard life and property, and, if necessary, furnish help of all kinds, both male and female, for all trades." In other words, this single company would-for a price-provide sewing machine operators and the brawny bodyguards needed to escort them into the factory. "Help of all kinds" might also describe the professional gangsters occasionally dispatched to beat some docility into strike leaders.
The gang's footfalls sounded quickly on the pavement behind Clara Lemlich. When she stopped and turned, she recognized the men instantly from the picket line. The beating was quick and savage. Lemlich was left bleeding on the sidewalk, gasping for breath, her ribs broken.
Charley Rose had done his job, and no doubt he collected his pay. But Lemlich returned to the strike a martyr and a catalyst. Within days after the beating, she could be found on street corners around the garment district, brandishing her bruises and stirring up her comrades. Everywhere she went, she preached strike, strike, strike-not just for Leiserson's but for the whole shirtwaist industry.
* * *
This violent convergence of the hired hoodlums and the indomitable Clara Lemlich was the clashing of the old against the new. From the summer of 1909 to the end of 1911, New York waist makers-young immigrants, mostly women-achieved something profound. They were a catalyst for the forces of change: the drive for women's rights (and other civil rights), the rise of unions, and the use of activist government to address social problems. One man who grew up on New York's Lower East Side in the 1880s remembered his mother's desperation the day his father died. There were no government programs to help her, no pension or Social Security. Yet she knew that if she couldn't support her children they would be taken away from her to be raised in an orphanage. So she went directly from the funeral to an umbrella factory to beg for a job. Eighteen thousand immigrants per month poured into New York City alone-and there were no public agencies to help them.
The young immigrants in the garment factories, alight with the spirit of progress, impatient with the weight of tradition, hungry for improvement in a new land and a new century, organized themselves to demand a more fair and humane society.
What begins with Clara Lemlich's beating leads to the ravenous flames inside the Triangle Waist Company, which trapped and killed some of the hardiest strikers from the uprising Lemlich worked to inspire. Together, the strikes and the fire helped to transform the political machinery of New York City-the most powerful machine in America, Tammany Hall.
Late summer in those days was almost unbearable for the poor in New York. "It sizzles in the neighborhood of Hester Street on a sultry day," a magazine writer summed up simply. Swampy and feverish, the heat soaked into the stone and iron of the city by day and leaked out again by night, so that it was never gone but was just ebbing and surging like a simmering tide.
Excerpted from Triangle by David Von Drehle
Copyright © 2003 by David Von Drehle
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.