Category Archives: Books

“It was raining bodies.”

I read to escape.

My job brings me no small level of worry and stress some days, and if I couldn’t turn to some healthy method of decompression come bedtime, I’d sleep even less than I do now. So I look forward to my routine announcement to the Thriller: Night, hun. I’m going up to read.

Occasionally, I step off my predominantly fiction-oriented path to take in a biography or historical account. For the last several weeks, I’ve spent 20 minutes a night with David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Undoubtedly, some New York observers of the horrific events of September 11, 2001, when victims with no other option leapt out of windows to their deaths, couldn’t help but be reminded of the worst workplace disaster in American history (prior to 9/11).

Typical day at the Triangle

Typical day at the Triangle

Eyewitness accounts of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire feature a wide range of images, emblazoned in the memory banks of those who were unfortunate enough to have watched the tragedy unfold in an ill-conceived, overcrowded, poorly ventilated, stifling 8th-floor-and-above women’s blouse factory death trap, staffed mostly by immigrant girls who worked 52-hour weeks. Once the lit cigarette was accidentally thrown into an under-table fabric bin, fates were sealed. Twenty-five minutes later, the factory lay in ruins, and 142 people were either dead or would die later in Manhattan hospitals. The ways in which many of the workers perished does not make for drowsy nighttime reading.

One witness said, “It was raining bodies.”

Girls by the dozens fell — or were dropped by male workers, who then followed them — onto the pavement, from eight and nine floors up. One observer remarked that it was an eerily quiet scene, disrupted only by the sirens and occasional shouts of Don’t jump! from those looking up in horror from the street. Systematically and silently they fell, choosing instant death over the agonizing torture of slowly asphyxiating on the smoke, or worse, being burned alive. Others saw police and firemen having to stop to remove corpses from the sidewalks so rescuers could get to the building.

It was a perfect storm of disasters:

  • Several doors were locked by bosses, in an effort to make sure everyone left at the right time and from a monitored exit. When the fire broke out and spread instantly, hundreds of people encountered locked door after locked door. As they wasted precious seconds trying to find another way out, the smoke and flames grew exponentially.
  • The New York City Fire Department’s water hoses lacked sufficient pressure to reach the ninth floor, and their ladders did not stretch far enough. Workers died within plain view of rescuers who simply couldn’t reach them.
  • Even though another deadly factory fire in New Jersey just four months earlier claimed 25 lives, and public outcry put great pressure on factory owners to improve workplace safety, not a single fire drill or posted route of egress was implemented at Triangle. Once the flames began, no one knew what to do or where to go. These wasted seconds of confusion cost many their lives.
  • The building’s only fire escape was poorly built, and the result of utterly baffling design:  the rickety ladder ended in a 20-foot fall into a skylight.

Nothing left

The aftermath included no shortage of demands that workplace safety be a city priority, and that labor unions be given the respect they deserved. (The organized labor aspect of this tragedy is another post altogether.) Indeed, the Triangle fire not only influenced large-scale changes in building codes and union law, but also played a part in the changing face of American politics, from the corruption of Tammany Hall to the inception of FDR’s New Deal.

What struck me most about the book, however, is how horribly these immigrant workers were treated. The great bulk of New York’s clothing industry was kept afloat on the backs of underpaid, overworked young people from Russia and Italy, who barely scraped enough wages together to pay for a bed in a filthy tenement house where there were four and five people per room. Many scrimped and went without so they could send money back home to their families. I can’t imagine the joyless life they led, while their immediate superiors dined out every night and were driven about in limousines.

It’s a good read, though, in that I have learned much about the history of labor relations in the US, and for this teacher union president, the information was timely and appreciated. However, for nighttime relaxation reading? I think I’ll go back to Stephen King. ;-)

Fink, back to the couch with the DayQuil and electric blanket

Here’s your round tuit

Grandma Johnson had one of these on her refrigerator in magnet form, and as a young kid, I remember figuring it out by reading it aloud. I thought it was clever, and it reminded me of the dozens upon dozens of times I’d heard my parents or grandparents utter its associated phrase: I’ll do it when I get around to it. Well, here’s your “round tuit.” Silly grownups. ;-)

Several books are on my “round tuit” list, and last night I took the first one off the pile. I must say I never realized how much we women owe to Nellie Bly.

Born Elizabeth Cochran in 1864, she lived a decent early childhood until her father passed away, leaving no will for his many children, and therefore rendering the family unable to lay claim to his estate. She tried odd jobs and school to try to help her mother provide for the kids, and they all ended up in Pittsburgh, where they ran a boarding house.

It was there that Nellie read an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Dispatch by columnist (and typical 19th-century chauvinist pig) Erasmus Wilson, who wondered why women were trying to get into the work force and establish careers, when clearly, a woman’s place was cleaning, cooking, reproducing, and generally not worrying themselves with cogent thought. What were they on about anyway? All they were doing was cluttering up the workforce and making things difficult for men.

Eighteen-year-old Nellie was having none of it, and wrote an articulate and compendious rebuttal, which, while written respectfully and without snipery, drove the point right between the old geezer’s beady eyes. (You can read portions of it here, about halfway down the page.) As a result, the paper’s editor went searching for her and hired her on the spot to write for him. It was on.

So, to get around to my round tuit: I finally got around to starting Ten Days in a Mad-House, the first-person account of Nellie’s groundbreaking undercover stint in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, posing as a nutter in order to write about conditions there. (You can read it for free here — fist pull for classics in the public domain.) I’m halfway through the short book, but already horrified at what was allowed to happen to not only the poor, unfortunate souls who needed psychological help, but also to perfectly sane women who were simply down on their luck, sick, or alone and unable to make ends meet.

Sidebar: I have a recurring nightmare (not often, but more than once), in which I am being dragged away to the nuthouse, and though I know I’m completely sane, every argument I try to pose to my captors falls on deaf ears. The more I insist I am normal, the more they smile benignly, nod their heads, and continue to drag me to the padded room. It’s terrifying. Am I mental? Yikes…

Investigative journalism got a tremendous shot in the arm after this book went to print. Nellie was not only a pioneer in that field, but she went on to enjoy an adventurous career in travel, making the round trip from Hoboken in 72 days, thus breaking the record set by the fictitious Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in 80 Days. 

She married old (but well) and died young, doing what she loved: writing. While short, it was a life satisfyingly lived, and I aspire to do the same. Don’t we all?

And with that, work begins. Much to do in preparation for Monday. But first — the rest of the week is the Js, the A’s, and the Thriller. Score one for my last weekend of freedom.

Happy day to you, fiends, and whatever you’ve got to do, get a round tuit.

(PS — I know we still have a problem with the bizarre extra column throwing comments up from a previous post. Some file or code is corrupt somewhere. Sunny and I are on the case.)

The comedy is over.

The Wizard of Oz was a shyster behind a curtain. There was no one by the name of Jack Dawson on the Titanic. Milli Vanilli were complete fakes. And post-1968, the Beatles were not friends. Indeed, Yoko Ono’s presence may have exacerbated the situation, but resentment, disappointment, retaliation and betrayal — mostly in the name of money — were what really slammed down the lid on the most game-changing act in popular music history.

Reading You Never Give Me Your Money was work. Sometimes, books are like that. I didn’t enjoy a single page, but I can tell you that the scales have fallen off (as they eventually must, when dealing with humans with big expectations, egos and fortunes), and if the depressing Let it Be documentary didn’t clue people in about what was really happening, they weren’t really willing to see the truth.

wasn’t willing to see the truth. But there it is, in Peter Doggett’s painstakingly researched account of the ultimate demise of the Fabs. While some of it was rehash for me, there were some interesting revelations:

  • I had no idea how many times the Beatles almost got back together to record after 1970. Three? Four? I can’t recall now. But it very nearly happened, on several occasions. However, all attempts were thwarted by seemingly silly reasons: John didn’t feel up to traveling, Paul was spooked by unresolved legal battles between the four of them, George just plain didn’t show up. It was always their fault, as opposed to conflicts with the legal machine or performance schedules.
  • While I knew he was a shrewd businessman with heavy-duty connections, McCartney — ever immortalized as the cutest, most carefree moptop of the bunch — was darkly, irreversibly and treacherously selfish and calculating. Less surprising was the observation that he could never quite measure up to John’s expectations or win his love and approval, which translated into an open wound after Lennon’s death that could never be healed.
  • I was unaware of the longstanding lawsuit Apple Records filed against Apple Computers, in which they forced the fledgling tech company to promise it would never enter into the field of digital music. Yeah…
  • Wings (Paul’s post-Beatles band) was a disaster, with firings and walkouts and big-name stars calling McCartney a ruthless tyrant.

It’s no secret that the Beatles feuded with one another after their breakup. But this book reveals, in heartbreaking detail, the cracks in the individual armor of the Beatles as individual parts, which makes the demise of the whole much easier to understand, if not much more tragic.

Doggett is hardest on McCartney, although he pulls no punches on any of the four. Paul’s need for absolute control, John’s cruelty and neglectfulness, George’s infuriating, snobby stubbornness and Ringo’s descent into heroin and alcohol oblivion are spared no scrutiny. How they all made individual albums during this time is beyond me, although I can’t say that I’ve ever been truly impressed with any of their solo work. Would you put Band on the Run or Walls and Bridges on the same plane as Rubber Soul or Revolver? Hardly. That none of them produced nearly as compelling work individually as they did as a group is neither news nor debatable, in my mind.

When I started this book last month, I knew there’d be no fairy tale ending. After finishing, I think it’s a book I need to recover from; to process. There’s no shortage of sadness. To quote a favorite line from Immortal Beloved: “It is the sharpest blades that are most easily blunted, bent or broken.” Without making an inappropriate comparison with the great Beethoven, I think it can be said that these four fragile people were among the sharpest cultural blades of their time, and defined a new era in popular music. It’s especially tragic that they were eventually consumed by greed and corporate intrigue — the very things that appalled them most as they fought in the early days to establish their place in music history.

Lorne Michaels agrees with me.

Lorne Michaels

Or, he did. Well actually…I didn’t know he agreed with me, as he agreed with me when I was 14 years old. But he agreed, and for the same reasons. In fact, he stole my opinion. OK, we share it.

Is this not making any sense? Right. Let me start over.

I have a confession. I hereby admit to all and sundry that I have never found Carol Burnett funny. Ever. Like, not once. Tim Conway, maybe, on occasion. But I quietly sneered and rolled my eyes at most of the comedy on Burnett’s show. Sue me. Lord knows millions of other people loved the stuff, but it just never “did it” for me. Her googly-eyed, mawkish cheesing at the camera, and especially Harvey Korman’s infuriating breaking of character to fall down laughing at how gol-dern funny they all were just grated on me. Stoney and I always tell our student actors: “You’re funny onstage until you start cracking up onstage at how funny you are. Then you’re not funny anymore.” I stand by it.

Burnett as “Eunice”

Anyhow, I’ve always felt like the Lone Ranger on that score. Almost everyone I knew was all HahahHAHAHAHAAA!!! about Carol Burnett, but I kept quiet vigil during her shows, and while the studio audience died laughing, I mostly sat with this look on my face.

So, my point (and I do have one) is that last night, I bought a book called Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. Very impressive. About 65 pages in, I came across this paragraph:

[SNL creator] Lorne [Michaels] made it clear that [Carol] Burnett’s style encompassed everything “Saturday Night” should avoid. It lacked subtlety and nuance; it was…too smug, especially when the performers broke out laughing in mid-sketch, doubling over at the hilarity of themselves. From then on, many an idea would be derisively dismissed on the 17th floor with the words, “That’s Carol Burnett.”

Finally, a kindred spirit.

Now, wait. I know that Carol Burnett is a television icon; someone who, like Lucille Ball, played first string in what was always a boys’ game. She did her own thing on her own show, calling all the shots and doing things her way, which I think is fantastic. She paved the way for lots of other strong women in show business. I just don’t think she’s funny. Does that make me a bad person? Un-Amurrican?

I think Lorne would forgive me.