What would it be like to be famous all your life — famous until you are 107! — for not having died on a certain day in 1911? When Rose Freedman, the oldest living survivor of the notorious Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, died in February of 2001, her obituaries fascinated me. She was the last survivor. I was working on my third novel, The Little Women, and I already knew by then that I wanted to write a novel about the Triangle fire next, but I didn't have a clear pathway.
The Triangle fire has always felt like part of my personal family history, because my paternal grandmother worked at the Triangle Waist Company for less than a year, finishing buttonholes. She left at the end of 1909 because she was pregnant with my father, and so she was safely out of harm's way more than a year before nearly 150 workers died in 15 minutes on March 25, 1911, when the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building, east of Washington Square, went up in flames. The fire, probably ignited by a cigarette butt, spread swiftly through the crowded sweatshop, accelerated by the machine oil-soaked floors and tables, fed by bundles of shirtwaists and scrap materials that littered the work areas.
The firemen's ladders reached only as high as the sixth floor. Some 60 workers, most of them young women, jumped to their deaths. Most of the nearly 600 workers on the premises that afternoon survived by fleeing down the stairs or crowding into the elevators which made a few trips before the smoke and heat rendered them inoperative.
How did Rose Freedman escape the fire? Instead of trying to go down from the ninth floor where she was working, she thought about the bosses who worked upstairs, and she followed the office staff up to the roof of the building. The owners, who had a call from the eighth floor where the fire broke out, had saved only themselves, with no thought about warning the workers beneath them on the ninth floor. Firemen helped her climb across to the roof of the adjacent building, and so Rose Freedman lived to tell her story.
She told her story countless times. What would that be like, telling your story again and again, for 90 years, the story of the day you didn't die? I listened to several interviews with her and read transcripts of other interviews over the years. The more I read about the fire, and the more eyewitness interviews I read or heard, the more discrepancies I began to note. Discrepancies are inevitable. Memory is faulty; memory changes over time, perceptions are affected by many things. This, for me, is where a novel begins to take form, out of situation. Who would be in that situation? What would he or she do, and why? What would be the consequence? Where would this go and what would happen next?
And so my original question, what would it be like, telling your story again and again, changed. Leaving Rose Freedman behind, my question became this: What would it be like to tell your story for 90 years, if your story wasn't quite true? If your story was a lie? What sort of lie might it be? Why would you keep the secret over the years? Would the truth eventually surface?
And so Triangle began to take shape. The main character, Esther Gottesfeld, dies in 2001 at the age of 106 as the novel begins, just days before the events of September 11th. Esther survives the same way Rose Freedman did, going up to the roof instead of trying to go down. But her sister and her fiance die in the fire.
Inspiration for those characters came to me from the Robert Pinsky poem Shirt, which I quote in its entirety as the epigraph for Triangle. Pinsky wrote about the unidentified man, described in numerous eyewitness accounts of the Triangle fire, a worker on the ninth floor, who helped several women up onto the windowsill so that they could jump, helping them, in Pinsky's words, As if he were helping them up to enter a streetcar, and not eternity. The third woman he assisted to her death put her arms around his neck and kissed him. He jumped too.
Who were they? Was the woman who kissed him his sweetheart, or did she simply have the impulse to experience kissing a man before she died? And so they joined my story and became central to the secrets and lies of Esther's 90 years of telling what happened. The truth of what actually happened to Esther the day the Triangle Waist Company went up in flames, hidden in plain sight on the first page of the novel, is not fully revealed until the last page.
Katharine Weber's fourth novel, Triangle, has just been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.