review was published for our September/October 2001 issue of the KotaPress
Poetry Journal prior to the September 11th events. I have decided to leave
this thru October as well as leave Ruth's poems in the Journal as planned.
The similarities of this NY disaster of 1911 and the disaster of September
11th are overwhelming, and it seems poignant and appropriate to me to
offer this as a source of perspective on grief and healing 100 years ago
and for today.
We are Behind The Scenes with Ruth Daigon author of the new book "Payday at the Triangle." In the interview below we have the great fortune to gain some insight into Ruth's process of writing this book and to hear about her personal reactions to the finished collection. Don't miss this collection!
Q. What made you want to write "Payday at the Triangle" and publish this book?
A. I saw an obituary in the N.Y. Times over 2 years ago of a woman named Bessie Cohen, 102, who was the second last survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Her picture was so appealing and the description of her life really impressed me. She was spunky, courageous, a true activist. Next to the photo of the older Bessie there was also a photo of the very young Bessie Gabrilowich (her original name) who was brought back to the scene of the fire the day after it happened, March 26, 1911, and she was literally falling off her feet in a dead faint. It was a very moving photo, and it caught and held my attention and made me very interested in that whole catastrophic event.
Q. What was the process by which you learned about the fire, the people, the consequences portrayed here?
A. It was a simple process. I went to the computer, typed in the word TRIANGLE and was brought instantly to the Kheel Institute's web page at Cornell University. There I discovered masses of material about the fire...newspaper articles.... interviews with survivors and observers..... graphic descriptions of the fire from the inside of the factory and from the watchers outside.... policemen....firemen..... family members....news accounts of the subsequent trial..... witnesses...even statements made by the owners, Blanck and Harris, who even though they were declared "Not Guilty" everyone hated them...and every shred of evidence about the fire which included books... poetry.....songs... . photographs and even recorded interviews. Kheel Instate has done a marvelous job of researching and recording everything remotely connected with the fire. I printed out almost all the evidence and my office was piled high with paper. I was drowning in it and at a loss to know where to begin. I had only intended to write one poem about Bessie Gabrilowich but the number of possibilities kept escalating.
Q. How did you find the newspaper clippings and photos shown in the book?
A. As I said, everything I needed to know was right there in my computer. I did send away for a few books to see how other writers perceived the tragedy. The photos were also there, the clippings as well, and the Kheel Instate generously allowed me use of all of these when I told them what my purpose was. They were most encouraging.
Q. Obviously, I'm struck by the overwhelming sense of loss in this story. I wonder if you feel that some kind of healing has taken place here by invoking the names and lives of the people we lost in this disaster?
A. At this point when I was researching this tragedy, learning in detail about all the horrors and the repercussions, the grief of an entire city, an entire nation as well., this was no healing process for me. This was an awakening, an awareness that was accompanied by much pain. It's impossible to describe my first response. I would have to leave the room, close down the computer and then come back later to continue immersing myself. Invoking the names of the dead was actually carried on by the witnesses, the friends and relatives. I was simply recording their words. Every voice, every speech, every lament is based on reality. Perhaps invoking the names of the dead respresented a healing process for them back there... but I was still raw from the experience. Hopefully, those who read the book will experience some catharsis after the initial horror.
Q. Prior to reading your book, I had some knowledge of this New York fire, but had always thought that it was only women who died. In your book you tell us of men and women alike who perished. Did you know that prior to writing this book? Were there other surprises for you in the researching process?
A. No I really did
not know much of anything about the Triangle Fire. I grew up in Canada,
and American history was something we knew very little about. Perhaps
my parents or older members of the family made mention of it. But it was
very vague. It was only when I started researching did I learn the details
.... the young immigrant girls involved...the lousy wages and working
conditions, and of course the fact that men worked there too. They were
cutters and pressers foremen and specialists in their trade. As a matter
of fact, at a party recently, I met a young woman who said "Oh the
Q. The descriptions are so vivid, the loss so real. This disaster is so violent, and then there are the passages about women putting their hats out on the ledges or tossing their gloves and purses down prior to jumping to their deaths. Do you think this comments on the state of "proper" women at the time? If so, how? If not, what does it say in your opinion?
A. Oh I don't know
about that. In a moment of hysteria, people do strange things. I don't
think the girls were being "proper". Perhaps they were getting
rid of any encumbrances. Perhaps their purses and gloves were precious
to them and they put them in a "safe" place before they jumped.
Maybe it was just habit. Every morning when they got to work, they'd remove
their hats, gloves and purses, store them in a safe place, put on their
aprons or smocks and sit down at their machines. Maybe it was just habit.
Who knows? Remember, Bessie Gabrilowich, in a moment of panic, raced around
a lot of this book focuses on the survivors' accounts, there is some sense
of that survival, a sense that those lost in the fire remained with the
survivors for as long as they went on to live. Were you trying to capture
the essence of them all, keep the spirits and experiences alive and
A. Yes. I think you're
right, except I was not aware of that. I was writing in the heat of the
moment. I wanted to capture each voice, each personality honestly, and
perhaps as this was happening I was also recording them and keeping them
"alive"....but that was not my original purpose. Sometimes the
Ruth Daigon Biography