The Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 was always a source of morbid fascination for me when I was a child growing up in New York City. My father’s mother had worked at the Triangle Waist Company in 1909, finishing buttonholes, and while she had left the sweatshop more than a year before the notorious fire that claimed some 150 lives (to marry and give birth to my father in the back of a grocery store in Brooklyn), that fire felt like an event in my family history. She could have died in the fire. The workers who did die that Saturday afternoon when flames ravaged the top three floors of the Asch Building, a block east of Washington Square Park, where some 500 Triangle workers were nearing the end of their work day, were women just like her, fresh off the boat, Ellis Island hopefuls making their way. The girls who worked there, the girls who died there, many of them teenagers, the rest of them not much older than that, worked long hard days, six or seven days of the week, for the pennies they received for each piece of work finished.
The day of the fire, the young women on the ninth floor were bent over those sewing machines, nimble fingers flying, living the American dream, working as fast as they could to finish a few more pieces before their workday ended. When the fire that started on the floor below them trapped them so quickly behind locked doors or doors that were as good as locked, within fifteen minutes some sixty workers made the choice to jump to their deaths rather than burn alive or choke to death in the acrid smoke. It was the worst workplace fire that New York City would see for ninety years, until September 11th, 2001, when some 200 office workers in the towers followed that same instantaneous impulse to jump instead of burn. There wasn’t really a huge difference between the ninth floor in 1911 and the 99th floor in 2001. Help was not on the way, and death was imminent.
I had already begun to makes notes for my novel, Triangle, before those echoes of the Triangle fire occurred on September 11th. I had been inspired in February of 2001, when Rose Freedman died at the age of 107, the last living survivor of the Triangle fire. Reading her obituaries and listening to the various interviews recorded over the years, I was struck, as a novelist, by the question of her relationship to her story, which had tiny inconsistencies from one telling to the next. What would it be like to be famous all your life, to be famous for ninety years for not having died on March 25th, 1911, in the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire? What would it be like to tell your story and tell your story for ninety years?
And then the novelist in me took the story over, seeing the possibilities in the story once you leave the late, admirable Rose Freedman behind, while appropriating her situation. What would it be like to be famous all your life for not having died in the Triangle fire? What would it be like to tell your story over and over, again and again, for ninety years, if your story was a lie?
And if your story was a lie, what would the lie be? What would compel you to tell a false story and stick to it for ninety years? I made notes. I was in the middle of writing my third novel, The Little Women [link to Backstory here?], but I knew that Triangle would come next.
Then came September 11th. For a while, it stopped me in my tracks. It seemed impossible to write about New York City in the present moment, the time frame for the novel I envisioned. Was the present moment before, during, or after September 11th? It was as if the events of that day eradicated “the present” as we think of it in novels. I didn’t want to write a September 11th novel, but I couldn’t avoid September 11th, especially not if I was writing about such a parallel event in New York City history. I began to understand that the best way to write about September 11th was to write around it, and to write about the events of 1911 with the emotional context of our present day story as it was still unfolding, without forcing the contrast. It would just be there. And then, soon enough, sooner than we imagined possible, “the present” returned for all of us.
“This is what happened,” are the first words of Triangle. Esther Gottesfeld, the last living survivor of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, begins her recollection of March 25th, 1911, with those words each time she tells her story. “This is what happened,” she insists, and then once more she tells her story, telling all that is true and all that is not true, the story she has told for ninety years, the story of the day she didn’t die.
Please visit Katharine Weber's website to learn more about her. Author photo is by Marion Ettlinger.