BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Von Drehle, author of "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America" -- March 25, 1911?
DAVID VON DREHLE, AUTHOR, "TRIANGLE: THE FIRE THAT CHANGED AMERICA": Yes, sir.
LAMB: Go right to the fire. When that box was pulled at 4:45, what happened?
VON DREHLE: The fire actually started at about 4:40. The Triangle Waist Company was the largest blouse-making factory in New York City at the time, making what were called shirtwaists or women's blouses on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a -- what was then a high-rise building in New York.
Down on the 8th floor was where they cut the pattern pieces for the garments. And when they were done cutting them, they would sweep the remnants off the tables into big boxes under the tables. And somehow, probably, a cigarette butt or something went into one of those boxes full of cotton scraps and tissue paper, and it went up like a bomb.
The 8th floor, which had about 200 people on it, mostly young women, was safely evacuated, but just barely. The last people off the 8th floor were running through flames. The 10th floor was the executive suite, the offices for the owners and the salesmen, also the packing and shipping operation. They escaped up to the roof. It was the people on the 9th floor, which was the main sewing plant, that had difficulty getting out.
They got the word very late that there was a fire in the building. It was 4:45, right at closing time, when they discovered there was a fire, basically by seeing the flames outside the windows coming up from the floor below. There were about 250 workers, again mostly young immigrant women, mostly Italians and Eastern European Jews. And they didn't know what to do.
Some of them ran to the fire escape, a rickety fire escape in the rear air shaft behind the building. It quickly became overloaded and collapsed. Some of them went to the stairwell on the northeast corner of the factory and got some of them down before the flames blocked that route. Some of them knew enough to go up to the roof and barely escaped before that route was sealed off by the flames in the air shaft.
There was one other door, Brian, at the southwest corner of the factory, clear across the room, two elevators and a door to the stairwell. That door was kept locked at closing time because the factory owners didn't want the workers stealing garments, and so they made all of them leave through one door, where they had a night watchman search their purses. They locked that other door.
The elevators on that corner kept running -- amazing courage on the part of the elevator operators, going up again and again until, finally, they couldn't go any more. And they saved, I'm sure, over 100 lives through their courage. But in the end, the elevators couldn't run any more. The exits were sealed off, either locked or in flames. And the last 146 people on the 9th floor either jumped from the windows to their deaths or died in the flames.
LAMB: Again, the location, in New York City?
VON DREHLE: It's right off Washington Square, if you know that neighborhood of New York. It's now -- the building is still there. It was a fireproof building of concrete and steel. Just the contents, unfortunately, were flammable. It's now laboratories for New York University. The biology and chemistry labs are in there. It's half a block east of Washington Square.
It was a beautiful early spring afternoon, Saturday afternoon, and so thousands of people were walking the streets, were out in Washington Square, which is the sort of most useful, loveliest park area in that part of the city. And so all these people were able to run to the fire and stand there in horror as this unfolded before their eyes.
In a way, it was, for that generation of New York, something like the experience of September 11, 2001, was for our generation because never before had there been so many people standing, watching helplessly as people died in a fire above the street.
LAMB: One little note. You say Frances Perkins, who went on to be secretary of labor...
VON DREHLE: Right.
LAMB: ... first woman, under FDR, was 30 years old...
VON DREHLE: Right.
LAMB: ... and was there on Washington Square that day?
VON DREHLE: Yes. She was -- she lived on Waverly Place, not far from the factory, and was going to have tea at a friend's house on the north side of Washington Square. And they heard the fire alarms going off, the fire wagons and bells ringing. They had whistles then on fire trucks. And so they ran with the rest of the crowd over to see what was happening. And she stood there and saw 55 people leap to their deaths.
LAMB: A hundred and forty-six died?
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: Was this fire only on floor 8, 9 and 10?
VON DREHLE: Yes, it didn't burn down at all.
LAMB: And you say that the firemen in those days could only go to what floor?
VON DREHLE: The tallest ladder in New York went up to the top of the 6th floor, and so one of the heart-breaking scenes of this fire is the workers trapped in the windows, the 9th-floor windows of what was called the Ash Building, watching as they unrolled -- they hand-cranked the ladder up, and it came up and up and up, closer and closer to them, but then stopped two floors below.
LAMB: One of your footnotes, and actually, the firs footnote in the book, it says, "The echoes of the Triangle fire and World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 1901, were unmistakable, as scores of victims threw themselves from skyscraper windows while thousands of witnesses watched in horror." Had anything like this happened before in New York City? And had anything like this happened up to September 11, 2001, after it?
VON DREHLE: The closest thing that had happened before in New York was a terrible steamship fire on the East River, the General Slocum, in 1904, which -- in which over 1,000 died, most of them by drowning. And all that happened in view of people on the East River piers. But nothing comparable between 1911 and 2001.
LAMB: Now, you list all the people that died.
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: The first thing that I noticed when I went down the list was 16 years old, 21, 20, 31, 19, 17, 17, 17, 17.
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: How old were most of them? Was there an average age?
VON DREHLE: Around 19, 19 or 20. Some of the ages are not precisely known, so we're roughly calculating. Two 14-year-old girls died in the fire, Kate Leone and Sarah Maltese.
One of the things that makes this story so compelling, or did for me, was the chance to learn what the immigrant experience was like for these young women. There are stories are of amazing courage, and the stories of the women who died in this fire were the piece of the tale that had been most completely lost.
The newspapers in those days were very competitive on the daily breaking news, but they didn't go very deeply into the lives of the people who died, and so virtually nothing has been known about them. And I spent a lot of effort to try to bring at least a couple of them back to life and to rediscover for the first time and get a complete list of everyone known to have died in the fire.
And what you find is that you have young women, in many cases traveling to the United States by themselves to earn money to send it back to their families in Russia and in Italy, alone in the city, working six days a week, back-breaking labor, keeping nothing for themselves, sending it all home. The courage -- when I compare, in my own experience, what was I doing when I was 16 years old or 18 years old, and compare it to these young women, who had gone through all that, only to die needlessly in this fire.
LAMB: How did you personally get onto this story?
VON DREHLE: Interestingly, I lived in New York for a couple of years as a reporter, and my apartment was a block from the building of the Triangle fire, and I used to walk by there and look up at the windows and sort of wonder what went on in there, what exactly was that story.
LAMB: How did you know there even was a story?
VON DREHLE: There's a -- one of the first stories I covered in New York was a fire in the Bronx, an arson fire, in which 87 people had died. And by coincidence, it was on March 25, 1990. And that day, the old hands in New York said, you know, this is the anniversary of the Triangle fire. This was the first time -- I come from Denver, Colorado. Everyone who grows up in New York knows the name, at least, of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. I'd never heard of it before. And that planted it. And then I found myself walking down the street and saw a historical marker on the building, and that was the beginning of what turned into this book, enough wondering about what happened finally turned into a book.
LAMB: What surprised you as you, you know, began your research? And where did you find the most important documents?
VON DREHLE: What surprised me was how little of the primary material about this fire had been preserved. You go back to the newspapers and the rhetoric of the day and you see people saying, We will never forget this day -- it was a searing event for New York City and the consciousness of the city -- and people promising never to forget the story of the Triangle fire. But when I got to doing the research, I found document after document -- the coroner's investigation, the fire marshal's investigation -- had been lost. And to my amazement, even the transcript of the trial -- there was a manslaughter trial of the two owners -- the transcript of the trial had been lost for 35 years.
I looked and looked and looked and finally found that -- through a number of coincidences, that the defense attorney for the owners, who was in his day the most famous lawyer in New York, probably the most famous in America -- Johnnie Cochran or somebody -- had, when he died, left his own personal copies of his greatest cases to the New York County Lawyers Association, which was a small bar association downtown in New York. And so I called them and asked them if they had this record, and their immediate answer was no.
And thankfully, the librarian kept looking, and they found down in their basement, in a corner of the basement, these old records of Max Steuer, including two volumes of the three-volume transcript. And so that was the breakthrough. A number of nuances, particularly, about this story came through in that transcript, which hadn't been seen by anyone in -- probably in 40 years.
LAMB: And you've got the Web site in the book -- it's a very long Web site -- where people can actually go read the transcript?
VON DREHLE: They can -- they -- it will be on reserve at Cornell University.
LAMB: So you can't see it on the Web?
VON DREHLE: Not yet, but we hope to get that.
LAMB: You are a reporter for "The Washington Post." How long have you been there, and what's your beat right now?
VON DREHLE: I've been at "The Post" for 12 years, and I now cover mostly national politics. I've covered some presidential elections. I do a little bit of everything for them, whatever they need done.
LAMB: What's the origin of the name Von Drehle?
VON DREHLE: It's a German name. Our family has been here for so long, 160 years, I guess, that our immigrant story is completely lost to us. So experiencing the immigrant experience and getting to know how people came here, why, was a wonderful part of reporting this book.
LAMB: Again, this is March 25, 1911. And you alluded to these two people right here. What are their names? One on the left.
VON DREHLE: Max Blank (ph) is the big burly guy with the overcoat over his arm, and Isaac Harris (ph), his partner. They were the owners of the Triangle Waist Company, the shirtwaist kings, as they were known. They were not related themselves, but they were married to two cousins. And they, like the workers, many of the workers at the factory, were themselves Russian Jewish immigrants. They had come over in the early 1890s, 10 or 15 years before the people who died, and so they were that much farther up the road of advancement into American society. Very successful businessmen, but they started out with nothing and ultimately were ruined by the fire.
LAMB: In 1911, what was New York City like? Who were the principal leaders in the country at the time?
VON DREHLE: The president was William Howard Taft. And the -- he was shadowed in his every move by Theodore Roosevelt, who still was a huge figure on the stage, and of course, decided to run against his old friend, Taft, the following year, in 1912. New York City was run at that time by Tammany Hall, the famous, infamous, notorious Democratic Party machine, which was led by a fascinating character named Charles F. Murphy, "silent Charlie Murphy," who never spoke but ran the city from a dining ram at Delmonico's restaurant, all his spies reporting in on what was going on and his orders going back out about how they were to conduct the business of the city.
LAMB: And down -- it struck me because -- is it -- Dominco's...
VON DREHLE: Delmonico's.
LAMB: Yes. It's right where our studio is now in New York.
VON DREHLE: Oh, is that right? Yes.
LAMB: At 45th and 5th. Is there anything there now? Is there a restaurant there now?
VON DREHLE: No, I don't think so. Delmonico's moved about six or eight times. As the rich people of New York moved uptown, you could see the new Delmonico's. But from the mid-19th century up until the 1930s, it was the restaurant in America, the most famous place -- one of the most famous restaurants in the world. And Charlie Murphy -- it's a measure of his prominence in New York City, his importance in New York -- he had a private dining room on the 2nd floor, the Scarlet Room, that was decorated to his tastes, with a huge mahogany table with tiger paws carved for legs because the mascot of Tammany Hall was the Tammany Tiger. And so Delmonico's was basically his hangout.
LAMB: You talk in the book about the name Tammany, where it came from.
VON DREHLE: Right.
LAMB: Where -- what's the origin?
VON DREHLE: The Delaware Indian tribe had a chief named Tamiment. And the -- Tammany was originally established by Aaron Burr and some colleagues, Democrats in New York who were worried about the royalist tendencies of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. And they wanted to preserve democracy in America. And why exactly they associated Tamiment with that is not entirely clear, but they did. And they modeled their club on the Indian tribe. The leader was called the Grand Sachem (ph). The district leaders are were all the Sachems of Tammany Hall, and the members of Tammany were called the Tammany Braves, and they would parade around town with war paint on. And that's where it came from.
LAMB: You -- first of all, what is a shirtwaist?
VON DREHLE: A shirtwaist is a woman's blouse, basically. At that time, though, it was the fashion sensation of modern time. The nearest parallel I can draw to how important the shirtwaist and skirt set was for women around the turn of the century and the first decade of this century is what, you know, blue jeans have become. It's a fashion trend that just didn't go out of fashion. It was from 1890 to World War I. And it symbolized women's freedom, women's liberation.
This was the time of the suffrage movement. Women were going to work in record numbers. They were coming off the farms and into the cities. And this outfit was -- you have to remember what women were wearing before this. They were wearing hoops and bustles and severe girdles, and they were -- as if they were imprisoned in their clothes. And all of a sudden, here was this fashion of loose, comfortable skirts, high enough off the ground to walk in comfortably, and these light cotton blouses called shirtwaists.
And the most famous artist of the day was Charles Dana Gibson. He created the Gibson Girl. Anybody -- if you saw one, you'd recognize her instantly. He was hugely influential, and he loved the shirtwaist. He drew so many of his Gibson Girls in shirtwaists, and once he did that, everybody had to look like that.
LAMB: What were some of the myths that grew up from the fire? I mean, I know a couple of your footnotes talk about people who died at their sewing machine, and their skeletons were left.
VON DREHLE: Right.
LAMB: Did you find that?
VON DREHLE: No. There are several prevailing myths. One is that the Triangle was a sweatshop. This is true in modern-day terminology. It's certainly what we now would think of as a sweatshop. It was a crowded factory full of long rows of sewing machines, with women and some men bent over their sewing machines, working long hours for low pay. But to them -- they would not have thought of the Triangle Waist Company as a sweatshop at all. To them, a sweatshop was a tiny, crowded tenement factory with a few people, usually working pedal-powered sewing machines, hunched over, pedaling all day to sew.
And the Triangle was the epitome of the modern, up-to-date factory, where all the sewing machines were powered by electricity. And there was light. There was air. And so this idea that the Triangle was the most notorious sweatshop in New York at its time -- that is not quite right.
LAMB: You say there were 278 sewing machines on the 9th floor.
VON DREHLE: Right. In a space of about 9,000 square feet. So it was very crowded.
LAMB: Again, 8th, 9th and 10th floors.
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: How many people got out? A hundred and forty-six died.
VON DREHLE: About...
LAMB: Fifty-five, you say, of those jumped to their death.
VON DREHLE: Right. We don't know exactly how many people went to work there that day, but it was about 500. So about 350 people got out, 60 or more off of the 9th floor, a couple hundred -- or off the 10th floor, a couple of hundred off the 8th floor and probably about 100 of the 250 people, roughly, on the 9th floor.
LAMB: In the end, who was charged? What were they charged with. And what was the issue?
VON DREHLE: Blank and Harris were indicted on one count of manslaughter. And this -- the one count was because the penalty for one count of manslaughter and 146 counts of manslaughter at that time would have been the same. And so the prosecutor, a politically ambitious guy named Charles S. Whitman, who later became governor of New York, decided to press the case that Blank and Harris knew that the door on the 10th floor was locked, it was illegal to have a locked door during working hours, and that that locked door caused the death of one of the workers, named Margaret Schwartz (ph), who did die in the flames right next to that exit. If they, by knowingly breaking the misdemeanor of locking the door, had caused her death, they would have been guilty of manslaughter.
LAMB: The young lady with the full-page picture -- is it Lemlich (ph)?
VON DREHLE: Lemlich. Clara...
LAMB: Clara Lemlich.
VON DREHLE: Clara Lemlich.
LAMB: What role did she play in this story?
VON DREHLE: Clara Lemlich is was one of the great female labor organizer, labor agitators in American history. And she was a young Russian immigrant shirtwaist worker at this time. She didn't work for the Triangle factory, she worked for a big factory owned by Louis Leiserson. But in 1909, it was a season of wildcat strikes in the garment district, and Clara Lemlich took her factory out on strike and then led the movement across New York to call a general strike in the shirtwaist industry.
Now, you have to understand that even though there were 40,000 shirtwaist workers, roughly, in New York at this time, only about 100 them belonged to the union when Clara Lemlich got the idea that she should call a general strike. It was an incredibly audacious, bold stroke. The men who ran the American labor movement didn't support the idea. They didn't want much to do with it. But she was supported by a group called the Women's Trade Union League, which was mostly wealthy, well-to-do progressive women who thought that women workers should be unionized.
Clara Lemlich in late November of 1909 stood up at a rally of shirtwaist workers and called for a general strike, and the movement was carried by acclamation. And the next day, to the astonishment of New York, 15,000 or 20,000 shirtwaist workers went out on strike. And by the end of the week, it was 35,000 or 40,000 workers. The shirtwaist industry was shut down.
This strike was the first great galvanizing moment for urban labor, the garment industry, for women workers in the garment industry. It was the making, in a sense, of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. And it all started, really, in a way, with her.
LAMB: What were woman in those days at age 17, 18 working in the shirtwaist factory getting per hour?
VON DREHLE: Per hour?
LAMB: Or per year.
VON DREHLE: It would start at a training wage of around $3 to $4 a week, which is equivalent to about maybe $100 a week today.
LAMB: How many hours would they work a week?
VON DREHLE: They worked an unlimited number of hours, basically. It was a tough business to work in because when the season was on, you could work from dawn to nightfall, seven days a week. And then just as quickly, the season would end, and you'd have no work and no pay at all. There was no overtime, so during the season it wasn't like you were making twice as much money.
LAMB: No air-conditioning in the summer?
VON DREHLE: No.
LAMB: Any heat in the winter?
VON DREHLE: Usually, the buildings were heated. These big factories were. The tenement buildings were not necessarily, the sweatshop -- the old-fashioned-style sweatshop that I described. But these new buildings were heated and they were pretty well lit. Those were two of the big complaints about the sweatshops, that you couldn't see, you would ruin your eyes in them.
LAMB: For a moment, down in the Lower East Side of New York, I happened to have gotten to see the Tenement Museum...
VON DREHLE: Yes. I went there, as well.
LAMB: Yes. And it -- explain what a tenement was like. I mean, there were no lights inside these things...
VON DREHLE: That's exactly right.
LAMB: ... where people were stuffed in these rooms where they lived.
VON DREHLE: Right. Typical tenement in New York City at the time would be five or six stories, which would be 20 to 24 apartments. Each of the apartments would be three rooms in size -- a sitting room, a kitchen and a bedroom. And the total square feet of the three rooms was usually about 400 square feet. At this time, they weren't all wired for electricity. So at night, they would be as dark as a coal mine.
LAMB: How many people stuffed in those apartments?
VON DREHLE: There were -- in some cases, you would find 10 and more people living in a single 400-square-foot apartment. Around the turn of the century, the Lower East Side of New York was the most densely populated place on the planet, moreso than Bombay or London, the slums of London, 1,000 people an acre packed into these apartments.
LAMB: How many of them would have been born somewhere else other than the United States?
VON DREHLE: Almost everybody.
LAMB: And most of them came from where?
VON DREHLE: At that time, the time of the book, the great immigrations were from southern Italy, where an environmental disaster was under way, and from eastern Europe, the Russian -- decaying, collapsing Russian empire, where countries that now are Hungary, Austria, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, but then were all parts of what was called the "pale of settlement," which was the section of the Russian empire where Jews were allowed to live.
LAMB: What language would they speak either in the tenements or in the workplace?
VON DREHLE: Italian and Yiddish were the two big ones. At the Triangle factory, signs for the workers' attention would be printed in three languages -- English, Italian and Yiddish -- and they'd be read not in that order.
LAMB: What's the difference between the environment that was created back then and, say, the environment now in southern California or in California, where they have the bilingual signs and the Mexicans living often in same kind of arrangements, where they have 8, 10 people in a room?
VON DREHLE: Not much different. There's similar ambition. If there's a difference in the emigrations of that time and of today, it would be the portability of people, how easy is it to go back to the place of origin. But for the Italian immigrants in New York at that time, there was a lot of back and forth. People would come over here, make some money, go back home, buy some land. Men would leave their families, come work for a few years building a railroad or skyscrapers or digging subway tunnels, all the heavy labor that was significantly done by Italians, and then they'd go home with a grub stake.
For the eastern European Jews, it was a one-way trip. They were leaving desperate oppression and -- political oppression, poverty, violence, anti-Jewish violence, pogroms, hundreds and thousands of people being murdered in anti-Jewish riots year after year. And when they came here, there was no going back.
LAMB: You have some other famous names in here. Here's a picture of a woman named Ann Morgan (ph).
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: What role did she play? And who is she?
VON DREHLE: Ann Morgan was the daughter of the richest man in America, J.P. Morgan. It's impossible for us to understand now the power that her father had at the turn of the century in America. Before there was a Federal Reserve Bank, J.P. Morgan was the Federal Reserve Bank. He was able personally to prevent a stock market collapse in 1907 simply by telling other rich men in New York that they were all going to put up a certain number of millions of dollars to buy stock and keep the market from collapsing.
He was - he merged the steel industries in America. He merged the banking industries, the railroad industries. And he was her father.
Anne Morgan, when this general strike happened, decided that she was on the side of the strikers and began to raise money for them, to organize events for them, to recruit rich, prominent women to go down and walk on the picket lines with them so that the police would be afraid to arrest strikers. They wouldn't know when they were going to get a rich one and wind up on the front page of the paper.
Never in the history of New York - probably not in the history of the United States - had wealthy people come in on the side of the strikers before. And that made the Shirtwaist Uprising a historic event for feminism, as well as for labor, and for Progressive politics in the United States.
BRIAN LAMB, HOST, "BOOKNOTES": Who was Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont?
VON DREHLE: She's one of my favorite characters in this book. She came from Georgia - a plantation in Georgia - moved to New York, married a Vanderbilt - William K. Vanderbilt - and instantly became one of the most prominent women in New York.
She married her daughter off to the Duke of Marlborough, which set off a fashion craze among rich people in America to get royal titles for their families by marrying their eligible daughters off to British royalty in need of money.
She then divorced Vanderbilt, which was scandalous at the time, and married a Belmont, which is another one of the most prominent names in New York. And after her Belmont husband died, she became the driving force for women's suffrage in America.
And she, too, took on the strikers' cause and organized huge rallies for them at Carnegie Hall. She sat through night court one night so that she could bail out some arrested strikers by putting up the deed to her Madison Avenue mansion - a great character.
LAMB: Who is Joseph Zito?
VON DREHLE: Giuseppe - Joseph Zito - he was one of those two incredibly brave elevator operators on the Washington Place side of the building. He and his colleague, Gasper Mortiallo, made three or four runs through the flames to save over 100 workers.
LAMB: There's some place in your book where you say, the box was pulled for the alarm at 4:45 ...
VON DREHLE: Right.
LAMB: ... on March the 25th, 1911. But there's - I can't remember exactly - something had happened at 4:42. What was that point? Who ...
VON DREHLE: The fire unfortunately burned for about five minutes before an alarm was sounded. This is one of the great tragedies of the event, because I think it's possible that everyone could have been saved, if only the alarm had been put out immediately - not by the firemen so much as by evacuation.
But the manager of the factory, a man named Samuel Bernstein, was on the eighth floor when the fire broke out. And there had been previous fires in the Triangle factory, and they had always been extinguished by hand. Bernstein had put some out. Isaac Harris, the owner of the factory, had put some out.
There were pails full of water around the factory, and they would grab a pail of water and dump it on the fire and everything would be fine.
That was Bernstein's impulse when he saw this fire on the eighth floor. He tried to put it out, first with fire pails, then by getting the hose - the fire hose from the stairwell. For some reason - not entirely clear why - the water wouldn't come on from the interior fire hose.
And he fought the fire for three or four, maybe five minutes, before he gave up. And by then, the eighth floor was beyond hope and there was really nothing to be done.
If, instead of trying to put out the fire, he had tried to alert the people on the ninth floor, I think people could have been saved.
It's hard to second-guess him, because his personal courage in the fire was enormous. He saved many, many scores of people through his efforts. But he made a disastrous wrong judgment at the beginning.
LAMB: There's a lot, you say in the book, that happened as a result of this fire. What are some of the things that changed in labor?
VON DREHLE: Well, it was along with the cloakmakers' strike of 1910. These were the two biggest organizing events for the garment workers in America. It made their union, which even today, as unite - they've merged with the textile workers - remains one of the most important unions in America.
And this is where they come from, from that strike I've talked about and then the fire. But it changed the Democratic Party of New York, as well.
Silent Charlie Murphy that I was talking about, when he came into power at the turn of the century, Tammany Hall was essentially a conservative organization.
LAMB: Democratic Party ...
VON DREHLE: The Democratic Party of New York. They were conservatives. They were pro-business.
Their function in New York City was to keep the immigrants just happy enough that they didn't cause any trouble, but then, to allow business to do what it wanted. And that way, Tammany could remain in power on the votes of the immigrants, but collect the graft that was possible through all their rich friends.
That was changing because the nature of the immigrants in New York was changing. They were no longer compliant.
Particularly the Eastern Europeans were coming over with great political ambitions. They had the experience of not just poverty, but political oppression in Russia. And they wanted to make a better society for themselves.
They organized politically. They were politically radical and they were fueling the rapid growth of the Socialist Party in New York.
And this was creating pressure on the left - the political left - for the first time in New York history, really. The pressure had always been from the Republicans. And now they had the pressure from the Socialists.
And each year, with each passing election, this became more and more obviously a problem for Tammany and for Charlie Murphy. This fire came along and Murphy saw the chance to get on the right side of those immigrant Jewish garment workers, who were filling up the Lower East Side.
He seized the opportunity to pursue reform for the first time in the history of the Democratic Party. And he put the reform reins in the hands of two young men - one Alfred E. Smith, the other, Robert F. Wagner.
LAMB: Let me just stop.
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: I remember you say Robert Wagner at this time was 33 and Al Smith was 38.
VON DREHLE: Thirty-eight, yes.
LAMB: What were they both doing at that time?
VON DREHLE: Tammany had just taken control of the state legislature. And Wagner - to everyone's surprise - the assumption was that Tammany had the state legislation, so Murphy would put a couple of old hacks in charge.
But to everyone's surprise, he put in Wagner, 33, Smith, 38 - both extremely loyal Tammany men - what we would call today "machine hacks," really. But he recognized promise in these young men.
Everyone derided him. They said he'd put the Tammany twins in charge. The kindergarten class had been promoted, was what one of the newspapers said.
LAMB: Which Wagner, by the way, went on to be mayor of New York?
VON DREHLE: The son of ...
LAMB: The one that we're talking about.
VON DREHLE: Yes. This is the father of the later Mayor Wagner.
LAMB: And Al Smith went on to ...
VON DREHLE: Be governor - arguably the most popular governor in the history of New York and the first Tammany man to run for president of the United States.
Wagner and Smith set up a thing called the factory investigating commission, a commission of the legislature that they appointed and that they ran. It had powers unprecedented before and after in the history of New York.
And they passed the most progressive set of labor and workplace safety laws in American history up to that time. They did it very quickly, in three or four legislatures. And it launched Smith's career. It launched Wagner into the United States Senate. And their program became the program that Franklin Roosevelt took nationwide, known as the New Deal.
So, Frances Perkins, whom you mentioned earlier, who was a part of all of this, at the end of her life was able to say, the beginning of the New Deal was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
LAMB: Two publications - or at least three publications you seem to quote a lot - one's "The Forward," one's "The Call," and the other, the "New York Times."
What are - what's "The Forward"? And has it changed its stripe since the - political stripe - since those years?
VON DREHLE: It certainly has. "The Forward" was the Jewish daily "Forwarder" - "Forverts" - my Yiddish is not good. But it was the Yiddish language - most prominent Yiddish language newspaper in New York from about 1890 to the 1950s, but at this point in time was at its heyday.
And it was the voice of the Lower East Side. It was socialist. It was in Yiddish, and it was the paper for - basically for bringing the Jewish East European immigrants into American society.
It had advice columns. It had political columns. All those socialist rallies on the Lower East Side were held outside the "Forward" building. Karl Marx's portrait was carved into the front of the building.
Now, it's a much smaller paper. It's in English, and it's pretty right-wing.
LAMB: Where did you find the archives for it?
VON DREHLE: YIVO - the Yiddish library in New York.
LAMB: And what about "The Call"?
VON DREHLE: "The Call" is a long-forgotten paper, but at that time was the Socialist Party newspaper. And I went to that publication to try to get a more first-hand version of the garment workers' strike, the shirtwaist workers' strike of 1909-1910, which has been told mostly second- and third-hand through historians. And I wanted to be able to tell it more as it looked to the people who were living through it.
LAMB: Before we go on with this book, you dedicate the book to Karen.
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: Who is she?
VON DREHLE: That's my wife, Karen Ball, and the mother of our four kids and my best editor.
LAMB: Where did you meet her?
VON DREHLE: We met as political reporters covering the 1992 presidential campaign on a bus in Florida covering Bill Clinton.
LAMB: Well, who was she writing for?
VON DREHLE: The Associated Press.
LAMB: And you?
VON DREHLE: The "Washington Post." I had just gotten to the "Post."
LAMB: And you've since had four kids.
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: How old are they?
VON DREHLE: It's hard to believe. Five, three, two and four months.
LAMB: And you still work for the "Washington Post."
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: What does she do?
VON DREHLE: She chases kids. She's a kid wrangler.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier that you were from Denver.
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: Were you born in Denver?
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: And what was life like out there? What did your parents do?
VON DREHLE: My father ran a warehouse, a metals warehouse. My mother was a homemaker and mother of six kids. Life was - Denver was a little, out-of-the-way cow town in those days. And we've seen it grow up. It's unrecognizable today.
LAMB: When did you get interested in journalism?
VON DREHLE: Really, in high school, I began to realize it was going to be my future - the high school newspaper that starts so many of us off.
LAMB: And where did you go to college?
VON DREHLE: The University of Denver.
LAMB: And a degree in what?
VON DREHLE: English. For a little while - English and philosophy, a double major - for a little while I thought I was going to be an English professor, till I realized you need a very long attention span to be a - become a college professor. And mine is pretty short, so journalism turned out to be perfect.
LAMB: And where did you work before the "Washington Post"?
VON DREHLE: I worked at the "Miami Herald," and before that as a sports writer at the "Denver Post."
LAMB: And this book for you is what number?
VON DREHLE: Three.
LAMB: What were the first two?
VON DREHLE: My first book was called, "Among the Lowest of the Dead." And it was a history of the death penalty - the modern penalty in Florida as a sort of portrait of how the death penalty system works nationwide - or fails to work.
Basically trying to answer as a journalist, not as a philosopher, the question of why, when so many people support the death penalty in America, does it take so long and seem to produce so many unpredictable results.
The second book was about the 2000 election - "Deadlock" - which I wrote with the staff of the "Washington Post."
LAMB: Back to this book we're talking about right now. What happened to the two men who own the Asch Building? Do they own the Asch Building? Or they just ...
VON DREHLE: No, just the factory.
LAMB: They own the Triangle factory. In the end, there was a trial. What happened in the trial?
VON DREHLE: They were acquitted after a three-week trial, 155 witnesses.
The judge in the trial, a Tammany Hall operative named Charles - or Thomas - Crain, gave a very sort of unexpected jury instruction. He told the jurors that it wasn't enough to find that that door was locked. They had to find that Blanck and Harris knew that it was locked at that particular moment when the fire broke out.
And these jurors didn't feel that they could crawl inside the heads of the two men to decide beyond a shadow of a doubt - or a reasonable doubt - that they knew, as a matter of fact, that that door was locked on that day at that time. The prosecution had simply shown that it was normally kept locked.
What I rediscovered that's been forgotten - it wasn't even remembered at the time - that six years before this fire, Thomas Crain had been the tenement house commissioner of New York City, and a terrible tenement fire had happened on Allen Street.
Twenty-five people were killed. Most of them died behind a locked skylight. The fire escapes failed. It was immigrants. People had jumped from windows.
The parallels were amazing. And Crain was blamed for that fire. He was hounded out of office as tenement house commissioner. At the time he thought his career was over. The editorials in the newspapers were mocking and scornful.
And so, I find it hard to believe that in his heart of hearts Crain didn't have some sympathy, some fellow feeling for Blanck and Harris, and that that might explain why he gave such a favorable jury instruction.
But the jurors got back in the room and they couldn't reach the decision, and they acquitted Harris and Blanck.
LAMB: You said the jurors' first vote didn't ...
VON DREHLE: No. I think as many as five of the 12 initially supported a guilty verdict. But they argued and negotiated and took, I think, ultimately three votes, and the last one was for acquittal.
LAMB: What happened to Blanck and Harris for the rest of their lives?
VON DREHLE: I lost track of them in the early 1920s. It was one of my real disappointments of the book, was that I couldn't figure out ultimately what became of them.
They soldiered on in the shirtwaist business in New York City for all through World War I. The blouse business got weaker. To my surprise, they tried to keep the Triangle name going for six years after this fire, even with all the infamy attached to it.
Then Blanck organized a number of other shirtwaist companies - Normandy Shirtwaist, Trouville Shirtwaist - all these French sounding companies. But ultimately they left New York City around 1920.
LAMB: What was that story of the limousine, Blanck and the limousine?
VON DREHLE: I love this story. It's one of the last appearances that they make in the New York City newspapers. Blanck had lived - had moved out to Brooklyn near Prospect Park. And he went everywhere in his limousine.
And one day, the police came knocking at their door in Prospect Park and said, we've come to see you about the boy you hit in your limousine and just because Blanck had been out driving and they had clipped a pedestrian. Wasn't injured.
But at just that moment, Blanck's wife came bursting from the kitchen in tears saying, I did it, I did it. And only then did they discover that when she had been out the same day, that the car had hit a pedestrian then, too. So, Blanck and his wife both mowed down pedestrians on the same day in their big limousine.
LAMB: Explain the discussion about how these two gentlemen had had previous fires, and their relationship to insurance.
VON DREHLE: Yes. There's no evidence, Brian, that the fire I write about was an arson fire. It happened when everybody was at work, including Blanck and Harris. They were there, had to escape to the roof.
LAMB: At 4:45 in the afternoon.
VON DREHLE: Right.
LAMB: March 25, 1911.
VON DREHLE: Yes. And Blanck's two - two of Blanck's daughters were there. He had had them come - he was going to take them shopping. And so they were terrified and had to run past flames to get out. So, it doesn't make any sense that this was deliberately set.
But there had been three or four other fires at Triangle and at another shirtwaist factory that they owned, which look extremely suspicious. They all happened in the very early morning hours when nobody was in the factory. They all destroyed the contents of the factory and they were all reimbursed by insurance. Nobody was hurt.
And they all came, interestingly, right at the end of the season, which, if you've made too many shirtwaists and you're not going to ship them, it would be real nice to get an insurance check for those, rather than having to simply write them off as unsold inventory.
So, I do believe that Harris and Blanck had torched their premises before. And they might even have been planning to set a fire at the end of this season, because there was a tremendous amount of stock in the factory that day. That's part of the reason that it burned so quickly and disastrously.
Unfortunately, in New York City at that time, the method of insuring companies was extremely corrupt. It was run by the insurance brokers. And the more insurance they could sell - the brokers - the more commissions they got.
So there was no incentive in New York City in that time to take any precautions to prevent fires, only to make sure that you had enough insurance.
So, Blanck and Harris, who by any measure should not even have been able to buy insurance, because of all the previous fires, were not only insured, but over-insured. They made a profit on this fire.
LAMB: You say that Tammany Hall faded after 1943. And you talk a little bit about Fiorello LaGuardia, ...
VON DREHLE: Yes.
LAMB: ... who started out as what? Was he a socialist? Or ...
VON DREHLE: Yes. He started as a socialist organizer of the garment workers.
LAMB: Half Jewish, half ...
VON DREHLE: Half Italian.
LAMB: ... Italian.
VON DREHLE: He was the perfect - what I talk about in the book is this - I keep coming back to this political dilemma that faced Charlie Murphy as he ran Tammany Hall, which was that the city was not, as it was in his boyhood, German and Irish anymore. It was now dominated by Italians and Jews.
And he came up, in other words, in a world that was no longer running, you know, in power in the city. And he had to get over into this new world and bring Tammany along with it. That was his political change.
And in a way, this is a book, while it's a tremendous tragedy, it's also a story about how politics can work if people organize and vote and keep at it. They can make political institutions change.
LaGuardia came along a little bit after this time. He was a young man when this happened. And he - it was no riddle for him to solve this issue, because he was the new New York living, breathing, walking, talking.
He would start his political speeches in English and shift into Yiddish and finish them in Italian without missing a beat. He had been an organizer in the garment workers' union. He had been a Socialist before becoming a Republican.
And so, when he was elected mayor, he didn't need Tammany Hall. He was the man. And then he became, of course, by many people's lights, the greatest mayor in New York history. And he became bigger than Tammany, and there was really no need for the Hall.
LAMB: Did you start working on this book before or after September 11, 2001?
VON DREHLE: Before. And ...
LAMB: Had you read all the newspaper accounts ...
VON DREHLE: Most of them.
LAMB: ... by that time? And what was your reaction, then, when this happened on September 11?
VON DREHLE: I didn't immediately think of my book, but I quickly did.
This Asch Building, 10 stories high, that was - it wasn't by any measure the tallest building in New York. There were 50-story buildings by then. But it was a tall building. People thought of that as a skyscraper.
The parallels were enormous. I had a long patch when I couldn't write. And I wasn't sure what the relevance of this, in a way, this project would be.
Would people want to read again about a fire in a 10-story building that killed 146 people when there had been this tragedy in a 100-story building that killed thousands of people?
I wondered if - and it really shut me down. I was blocked for what was a long period for me - six weeks - before I decided that, yes, this was - continued to be a valid story.
It says that New York got through that one and would get through this one. It said that political systems can respond. And it says that something good can come out of even a tragedy.
LAMB: Our guest has been David Von Drehle, a "Washington Post" reporter. And the book - coverless like this - "Triangle: The Fire ..." - I actually can't read it - "The Fire That Changed America."
Thank you very much for joining us.
VON DREHLE: Thank you, Brian.
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