Shirtwaist Fire Revisited


Nobody shops for shirtwaists anymore. Even those who favor women’s tailored blouses are unlikely to know their traditional name. The word shirtwaist still recalls the worst factory fire in the history of New York City, on March 11, 1911, at the Triangle Waist Factory, also known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That day, at least 146 workers died, most of them immigrant Jewish women, many jumping through the blazing windows to their deaths. The building, at the corner of Washington and Greene Streets in Greenwich Village, still stands.

“Triangle” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), Katharine Weber’s new novel, is tied to the tragedy and subsequent events, set at the border of history and memory. She has crafted a remarkable novel of ideas about the search for and invention of truth; it is also a novel about storytelling and perception. Some readers will want to retrace their path through the book as soon as they finish, to reconsider hints about an ending that may yield surprises.

“I wanted to honor the actual experiences and events even as I was appropriating them for my fiction. I had never before written anything even remotely like a historical novel, not that this is a historical novel, and the issues of telling the story accurately without letting the research freight the story too heavily was a constant one from first page to last,” Weber tells The Jewish Week, in an email interview from a California retreat center, where she was spending the week teaching writing.

Weber, the author of three previous literary novels, was inspired to take on this subject after reading an obituary of Rose Freedman, the last survivor of the fire who died at age 107 in early 2001. She listened to recordings of Freeman’s voice, retelling her account of the tragedy. The author also has a family connection: Her own paternal grandmother, Pauline Gottesfeld Kaufman, worked at the Triangle Waist Company during 1909. Her job was finishing buttonholes. She left when she was pregnant with her son, the author’s father.

When the novel opens, the main character Esther Gottesfeld has been telling her story of the fire for 90 years. The only survivor still alive, she is 106, “famous for most of her life because she hadn’t died on a certain day when she was 16 years old.” Esther’s younger sister Pauline – the two were often thought to be twins, a pair of Jewish Gibson Girls – died in the fire, as did Esther’s fiance Sam. Esther, who escaped by following one of the supervisors out of a door he unlocked and then onto the roof and then, with the help of firemen, onto an adjacent roof and down the steps, watched from the street as Pauline and Sam jumped, together. Esther was then three months pregnant.

Incorporated into the narrative is the (fictional) testimony Esther gave for a commemorative booklet prepared by the ILGWU, court testimony at the 1911 trial, and transcripts of interviews with Ruth Zion, a feminist historian who is relentless in her questioning. That each telling is slightly different might suggest how memory evolves, and how Esther may have added her own layer of truth.

Throughout her life, Esther would have her eyes examined and get new glasses when needed, but she would then begin wearing her last prescription. She would say that “it was so she could see the world a little blurry on purpose, that a lot of people go through their lives without being able to see clearly, and who did she think she was to see everything perfectly?”

Esther’s granddaughter Rebecca, a geneticist, and her partner George, a genius of a musician who creates compositions out of the patterns of nature, try to piece together the facts of Esther’s story. George says of a writer who respected the privacy of the fire’s victims and left out certain details, “Maybe he cared more about humanity than posterity.” For Zion, such omissions are akin to censorship, not the place of the “true historian.” At the novel’s conclusion, George’s inventive “Triangle Oratorio,” based on the patterns of Esther’s story, opens at Carnegie Hall, searing the audience with its truths – and clarifying certain details for the reader.

About all of her novels – “Triangle,” along with “The Little Women,” “The Music Lesson” and “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear” – Weber says they share “persistent issues of the past being present. There are themes of rescuing, and of the ongoing question of the limits of perception. How do we know, and how do we know that we know it? How well do we ever really know another person?”

While Weber, 50, has published four distinguished novels and has taught writing in many venues including Yale University, she has neither a high school nor college diploma. She grew up in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens, and left Forest Hills High School after 11th grade to attend the New School, in the inaugural year of their freshman program. Before graduating, she left New York in 1976 when she married her husband, Michael Fox Weber, and they moved to Connecticut. They now have two daughters in their twenties.

Weber, who includes Edith Wharton, Vladimir Nabokov, Muriel Spark and Philip Roth among her literary mentors, says that she doesn’t believe in “the old chestnut ‘Write what you know,’ but I do take my friend Elizabeth McCracken’s good advice that one should ‘know what you write.’”

While many writers might say that they draw on their memories, Weber explains that she indeed has a very good memory but feels “that it would be more accurate to say I draw on my mind than on my memory, that I make connections between things in what I hope are new ways.”

While growing up, Weber frequently heard about the Triangle fire from her father. Her grandmother Pauline died when Weber was 12 and her antiquated sewing machine sat unused in the author’s home. While Weber doesn’t remember her grandmother talking about the fire, she does recall that she’d sew buttons on and fix clothing with great skill and speed.

The book is dedicated to both of Weber’s grandmothers, Pauline Gottesfeld Kaufman and Kay Swift, her maternal grandmother, a composer who was the first woman to write the score to a hit Broadway musical. Swift is known for “Fine and Dandy” (1920) as well as for her longtime romance with George Gershwin, which resulted in the breakup of her marriage to Jewish banker James Paul “Jimmy” Warburg, Weber’s grandfather. The author is named after Swift, whose birth name was Katharine — Gershwin gave her the nickname Kay. Weber now administers the Kay Swift Memorial Trust, dedicated to preserving and promoting her music.

Weber honors both buttonhole finishing and musical composition in this novel. The novelist, who has contributed an essay to the new anthology “Half-Life: Jew-ish Tale from Interfaith Homes,” is outspoken about her own truths. She tells The Jewish Week, “I am partly Jewish, and I do feel that is an important part of my heritage, but it is confounding to be rejected as a Jew by those who would tell me there is no such thing as a half Jew or a three- quarter Jew, by those who would tell me I am not a Jew at all because my mother’s mother was Episcopalian, though her father was James P. Warburg and my father’s parents were Yiddish-speaking refugees from Polish Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“Surely the Third Reich changed the rules about who is a Jew,” she continues. “I would have qualified for extermination, as would both my seven-eighths Jewish daughters who are told by certain rabbis that they are not Jews either, because of my Episcopal grandmother. Is there another religion that denies identity to its own people in this way? I speak deliberately of identity and heritage, not about belief.”