Remembering a Personal and Political Tragedy

Editor's Notebook

By Jane Eisner

Published February 23, 2011, issue of March 04, 2011.
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For a list of events commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, click here.

A century later, how do we remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire? Should the story be told largely through the heartbreaking testimony of descendants of the many victims, 146 in all, who burned or jumped to their deaths to escape a senseless inferno on the streets of Lower Manhattan?

Or should the story be contextualized more firmly in history, to demonstrate the shocking working conditions for immigrants in newly industrialized America and the lasting impact of their collective action, in life and in death?

Two new documentaries timed to commemorate this sad centennial illustrate both techniques of memorializing. One will elicit tears. The other will take you deep inside the historical struggle for workers’ rights in the early 20th century.

Both are necessary for a true understanding of the consequences of the fire that consumed the Triangle Waist Company in just 30 minutes on a spring Saturday 100 years ago, giving March 25, 1911, the distinction of marking the worst workplace disaster in New York City until September 11, 2001.

Just as we remember the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — which bear an eerie resemblance to scenes from Triangle’s horror — as both a geopolitical turning point and a story of nearly 3,000 individual tragedies, so, too, can the Triangle narrative be both political and personal.

The impulse to tell “a historic story that is still relevant today,” as the press materials state, propels the more emotional documentary “Triangle: Remembering the Fire,” which debuts March 21 on HBO. The tone is set from the opening moments, when sepia-shaded portraits of the fire’s victims roll onto the screen and we quickly learn of some of their stories, through a dramatic voice-over by actress Tovah Feldshuh.

By contrast, the Public Broadcasting Service’s “Triangle Fire,” debuting on February 28 as part of the “American Experience” history series, begins with the image of a horse-drawn hearse pulled along the stone-paved streets April 5, 1911, on its way to a cemetery in Brooklyn, where the six bodies that, until just recently, remained unidentified were buried. Simultaneously, 100,000 people marched to protest the abysmal working conditions in tenements and garment factories, and the willful disregard by city officials all too eager to favor the growing business class at the expense of poor laborers.

The difference between these two approaches is telling. In a media culture that personalizes everything, HBO’s immediate introduction to the victims and their families resonates easily, searing their stories into our memories. But without the more detailed historical discussion provided by PBS, we run the risk of turning the Triangle fire into another set of personal tragedies, and not the commentary on the outrageousness of capitalism-run-amok that it truly represents.

Another noticeable difference is in the way the history is presented. On HBO, we are introduced to several compelling descendants of Triangle victims, for whom the personal clearly is the political. Suzanne Pred Bass says of her great-aunt Rosie Weiner, who died in the fire, that there was “a sweetness about her,” poignantly emphasizing the youth of so many of the victims, many of whom were teenagers.

There were heroes that fateful day, and we are introduced to them, too. Through her grandniece, Erica Lansner, we learn about Fannie Lansner, who was credited with saving numerous lives in her role as forelady of the factory floor, when she ushered many of her co-workers onto the narrow steps and the tiny elevator without availing herself of the only forms of rescue. She was 21 years old when she died.

We learn of Andrew Ott, one of the first firefighters to respond that day, as his company was thrown into the terrorizing situation of having ladders that reached only to the sixth floor of the burning building — when bodies were inflamed two and three floors above. His grandson, Ray Ott, a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11, says that the sight of burning bodies leaping from the building “must have been similar to what my grandfather saw that day.”

And there’s nothing like listening to Susan Harris, granddaughter of Triangle co-owner Max Blanck, after we are told that he and his partner, Isaac Harris, were acquitted of manslaughter in a trial that can be described only as a miscarriage of justice. “From a personal point of view, I’m happy my grandfather didn’t have to go to jail,” she says. “From the victims’ and families’ point of view, if my daughter had died in the fire and he hadn’t been my grandfather, I probably would have shot him.”

These are the stories that haunt you long after the closing credits have rolled. By contrast, all the on-air interviews in the PBS documentary are with historians and writers who relate to the Triangle fire as chroniclers with a certain distance and analytical bent, with their minds but not with their blood.

And yet, through the skillful use of dramatization, PBS does bring viewers onto the factory floor before that fateful day, to understand why Triangle was under such competitive pressure to produce ever more shirtwaists, why its owners brutally resisted prior strikes and attempts at unionization, and why they refused to take simple steps to make their relatively new factory safe. There were no labor laws regulating who could work and for how long, and no fire safety rules to insist on functioning sprinklers, unlocked exit doors and fire escapes that aren’t so shoddily constructed that they crumble at first use.

In other words, government did nothing to force unscrupulous owners to prevent the preventable.

The subsequent outcry led to a cascade of legislation and regulation, first in New York state and then nationwide. “Women had to burn first in order for this to happen,” labor leader Samuel Gompers is quoted as saying in the PBS film.

Half a century later, in “Harvest of Shame,” one of the greatest documentaries of early television, Edward R. Murrow interviews Labor Secretary James P. Mitchell about the plight of migrant workers who toiled in unbearable conditions for little money and with virtually no legal protection.

The subject of unionization comes up, and Mitchell recounts the Triangle fire as if it happened the previous year, using it as an example of the way governmental reform resulted from a devastating circumstance. Fifty years after the fire happened, Triangle was still in the nation’s lexicon — not just as a series of sad individual tales, but also as a force for social good. That’s how it needs to be remembered today.

Contact Jane Eisner at eisner@forward.com


For a list of events commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, click here.


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