A Burning Shame: David von Drehle’s Triangle

Triangle:  The Fire that Changed America

David von Drehle

Grove Press.  2004.  352 pgs.  I read a Kindle version of Triangle and was missing pages of photographs.  I’m now considering purchasing a hard copy version due to the book’s excellence but having the photos will also be a plus.

ALA Notable Book for Adults, 2004.

New York City Book Award, Book of the Year, 2003.

Other books by David von Drehle:  Among the Lowest of the Dead and Deadlock:  the Inside Story of America’s Closest Election.  Von Drehle was a reporter with the Washington  Post when he wrote Triangle; he is currently an editor at large for Time Magazine.  The C-Span Book Notes website (unfortunately no longer being kept up) has a wonderful interview with him about Triangle:  http://www.booknotes.org/Watch/177888-1/David+Von+Drehle.aspx.  It’s an hour long but well worth it if you are interested in the story.

Von Drehle’s balances in-depth journalistic research with fluid prose that both captured my attention and left me wanting to know even more about the political and social history of early 20th century New York City.  The book is much more than the history of a workplace tragedy (the worst in New York City until Sept. 11, 2001) — it also depicts a time and place so vividly that I felt as though I was walking the streets of Greenwich Village and the Lower East side.

Von Drehle starts with the story of the Garment Workers’ strike of 1909 in order to explain the conditions the employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist faced.  Along the way, the stories of the workers themselves and the great waves of immigration from Eastern Europe and Italy are effectively described.  Von Drehle completes the picture by explaining the forces and figures behind Tammany Hall, New York’s powerful political machine.

The horror of the fire itself:  the locked door which killed many (locked at closing time to prevent theft of materials), the rickety collapsing fire escape and the individual stories of tragedy and courage are handled with empathy and journalistic clarity.  The manslaughter trial that followed (it was illegal at the time to lock your workers in) revealed more interesting data about the company’s two owners, the lives of the workers, the details of the fire and police department inner workings of 1911.

What really fascinated me was the story of the workplace safety reforms enacted in the years following Triangle.  The lives and careers of Al Smith, the future candidate for President, and Frances Perkins (FDR’s Secretary of Labor and first woman cabinet secretary) converge in an effort to ensure workers’ safety.  What was even more interesting was the political subtext:  Tammany Hall knew they needed a new political model to stay relevant.  They could no longer survive with simple graft and corruption:  they needed the huge block of votes that the immigrants represented.  Allowing the workplace reforms to pass ensured that vote.  Ultimately, this reform became the Progressive Movement that had its fulfillment in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

I loved how von Drehle balanced big picture themes with the little details that capture your heart and imagination.  For example, Frances Perkins was having lunch with a friend a block away from the Triangle Factory on the morning of the fire.  She literally ran to the scene as people jumped to their deaths to escape the flames.  Another chilling detail — the owners of the factory had had similar fires before — all when the factory was unoccupied — and garnered hefty insurance payments.  The judge in the subsequent manslaughter trail had been New York City’s building inspector when a horrible tenement fire claimed the lives of children trapped behind locked doors.  His career had been ruined by allegations about his neglect for proper inspections.  Could he have felt a secret sympathy with the Triangle owners?  These are just a few of the kind of details von Drehle weaves into Triangle.  This was a great book that is going to have me looking for even more reads:  biographies of Al Smith and Frances Perkins to start!  But first…..back to the Guardian list.