March 25, 2019, will commemorate the 108th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The 1911 fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC before 9-11. It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated significant reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. You may remember a similar fire at a factory in Bangladesh some weeks ago.
When I decided to write a mystery against the backdrop of the Triangle, I had no idea what I was in for. Research took me in several directions: the forensics of fire, the consequences of “defenestration,” that is, vertical falls from high places, the difficulty in identifying bodies falling from such heights, the safety hazards for garment workers, women’s rights, workers’ rights, changes in the American workplace.
But I also researched the time and place of the disaster. 1911, Greenwich Village, New York City. A time when Ellis Island kept its arms open to immigrants from many countries — immigrants who came for a better life, but often wound up in sweatshops, or worse. A time of Tammany Hall and corruption. A time of women’s suppression. But also a time of new beginnings, hope, and freedom in a new land.
I am a native New Yorker and was amazed at the fantastic bits of information I dug up. I learned, for instance, that Washington Square Park is built on what was once a potter’s field, where 100,000 people were buried for a century and a half. I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, saw the buildings my characters would have seen, drank in bars they patronized, and gazed up at the ninth story of the Asch Building (now part of NYU) to visualize the flames bursting through the windows and the workers leaping to their deaths.
The cover of my book is a photo I took of the building in 2010, with smoke and color added for dramatic effect.
For those of you who write about history, or simply enjoy reading it, I know you’ll agree that real-life events in the past make a grand backdrop for a fictional story.
Murder, in particular.
Thank you to the readers and writers who responded to my query about a concept for my next book. Your input and my proclivity toward war(s) has helped me decide: I shall return to World War II. Instead of the Nazi confiscation of art and a missing Van Gogh painting as in my book, Deadly Provenance, I will focus on music and stolen music manuscripts. Working title: The Final Note.
Historical fact: Beginning in the early 1930s, edicts against the Jewish population began emerging in Germany. These edicts became increasingly distressing and disruptive, causing Jews to forfeit their businesses, their homes, their possessions. Slowly and inexorably they were impelled toward the Final Solution where they would forfeit their most precious commodity: their lives.
In 1933, a group of German Jews set up Der Jüdische Kulturbund, a cultural federation consisting of unemployed Jewish musicians, actors, artists, and singers. The Kulturbund, or Kubu, was created with the consent of the Nazis strictly for Jewish audiences. The Nazis cleverly permitted this association in order to hide its oppression of the Jews. The Kubu was illustrative of Jewish creativity in response to cultural exclusion.
The Kubu performed theatrical performances, concerts, exhibitions, operas, and lectures all over Germany, allowing Jewish performers to earn their livelihood, however scarce. Under the watchful eye of Sturmbannführer, Hans Hinkel, whose boss was Joseph Goebbels, Kubu survived for eight years performing for audiences that continued to diminish.
My research into the life of Jews at this time is only part of my work. Since the Kubu musicians were permitted to play only “Jewish” musical compositions, I will be researching music history during this period. In addition, my musician protagonist in the back story will be writing his own compositions. While I play the piano, I have little music theory background and have never written music.
Writers of historical fiction must become artists, teachers, police officers, lawyers, detectives, photographers, doctors . . . all manner of occupations in their novels. For this book I will become a musicologist. Well, I can only hope.
The stolen music manuscripts will lead to dire consequences when we fast forward to the modern storyline. Can the manuscripts be authenticated? Can we learn through modern science and technology, the attribution of these brilliant symphonies? My task is to find the answers.
Your ideas are welcome.
I thought I would share a brief “behind-the-scenes” tour of my most popular book to date, Deadly Provenance.
Originally titled Provenance (until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island,) Deadly Provenance is about the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.
The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it’s hard to know where to begin; thus, my plan is to write several blogs. First, there’s the Nazi confiscation of art, how it happened, who was involved, and why? Next, what happened to all that displaced art? How much was recovered and how? How much is still missing? Then there’s my world — the museum world. How have museums been involved? Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?
An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork. She is portrayed as the heroine she truly was. In the film, Monuments Men, Cate Blanchette played her character, but looked nothing like her as you can see from the photo here.
Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire. Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers. Did he ever forge a van Gogh? In my book he did.
On another front, the book brings up a hypothetical situation where the protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph. Can it be done? Has it ever been done? What is the science of art authentication today? How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis? Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply, I promise.
Confiscated degenerate art stored at Jeu de Paume. Photo: Archives des Musees Nationaux
I often visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries
Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there. Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.
And last, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever. “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights. But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting. Which it is.
Deadly Provenance gave me a glimpse into the art world and I enjoyed creating a mystery against this backdrop. The book made it to the front page of San Diego Union-Tribune and also to NPR radio.
Unfortunately, Vase With Oleanders is still missing today, as are many precious pieces of art stolen during WWII.
Perhaps you might check in your attic . . . just in case.
A few months ago, I premiered my sixth book, Hart of Madness. With several book signings under my belt and a successful marketing program under way, I am ready to take on the next project. But, I can’t decide on the topic for my next book.
You might think that writers have a hundred ideas for stories waiting to jump onto the page. My books are rather specialized, however. I need a tragic event or time period to use as a backdrop. The place where a mystery unfolds. Such as the Triangle Factory fire in 1911, New York City, or the Salem Witch trials, in 1692, Massachusetts.
I also need a modern story line, where science or technology can resolve the historic mystery. Digital photography and facial recognition as in the Civil War photographs, document analysis, as in the witch trials, DNA, fiber, ballistics or fire forensics to name a few areas of specialty in crime investigations.
And, most important, I need a mystery to get me jazzed about doing the research required to make a fictional account as authentic as possible. The further back in time I go, the more difficult it is to make the modern story work.
Here are a few ideas I’ve bandied about:
- 1492 The Spanish Inquisition and a lost pendant of Queen Isabella, which turns up mysteriously today in a box of jewelry discovered by a Jewish descendant of the Inquisition.
- 1587 The lost colony of Roanoke, an island off North Carolina. What happened to the missing English men, women and children that settled this colony before Jamestown?
- 1917 The disaster in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when two ships collided in Halifax Harbour, one loaded with munitions. The tragedy killed more than 2,000 people, many school children.
- 1942 World War II A Jewish musician is condemned to a concentration camp and his music is stolen by German musician. In modern times, can the music be attributed to the real composer?
I’d love to get your feedback on these ideas or any others you think might fit my book concept of historical mysteries solved by modern technology. Many thanks.
When I wrote The Triangle Murders, I researched the details of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in NYC, in 1911, and blogged about it in past posts. I fictionalized a murder set against the backdrop of the actual fire and detailed the forensic analysis of the fire after the fact. I also blogged about heroines like Clara Lemlich and Frances Perkins who helped raise awareness of the deplorable conditions the garment workers found themselves in every day, as well as the changes Clara and Frances helped institute to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.
Reading stories from several years ago of fires at garment factories, first in Bangladesh, India, then in Karachi, Pakistan, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/world/asia/pakistan-factory-fire-shows-flaws-in-monitoring.html?pagewanted=all, you’ll notice the lamentable similarities to the Triangle fire in this country.
MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
But first, back up to Saturday, March 25, 1911, and a few grim facts: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village. On the eighth floor, fire broke out in a scrap bin. Perhaps someone tossed a match or cigarette butt into the bin. Soon flames leaped out and caught other fabrics. About 180 people worked on this floor. They rushed for the exit doors, which were locked to prevent the workers from stealing, and the fire escape. Many were trapped.
For various reasons, the workers on the ninth floor of the Asch building could not be contacted. It was estimated that 250 workers were on the floor that day. For an exquisitely poignant description of the events, you must read ‘Triangle-The Fire That Changed America” by David Von Drehle. https://www.amazon.com/Triangle-Fire-That-Changed-America-ebook/dp/B004RPY48I/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1533148223&sr=8-1&keywords=the+fire+that+changed+america
Many of the workers were women and young girls, trapped by locked exit doors and only one poorly designed fire escape. Fire hoses reached only to the sixth floor, safety nets were unable to break the falls. To avoid suffocating or burning to death, the girls jumped nine stories to the pavement and their death. 146 of them.
“My building is fireproof,” Joseph J. Asch insisted. You might recall that the White Star Line directors made similar proclamations about the Titanic.
Fast forward to recent times. On September 11, 2012 in Karachi, Pakistan, close to 300 people, many of them women and children, died in a factory fire, trapped behind locked doors and barred windows. “There were no safety measures taken in the building design,” said a senior police official. “There was no emergency exit. These people were trapped.”
A few months later, another tragedy occurred. Over 112 people, possibly seventy percent women, died in a fire at a garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. Why? Bangladesh’s garment industry, second only to China, has a notoriously poor fire safety record. Most of the workers killed were on the first and second floors and died because there were not enough exits. One survivor on the fifth floor said he escaped by climbing out of a third floor window onto bamboo scaffolding used for construction workers.
Yikes. What am I missing here? With today’s lightning-fast communications, surely most industrial nations got the message about safety in the workplace. Right? Why must we wait for a disaster to occur before we decide to act?
There must be a more effective way to learn from history, to take those lessons and apply them today. History is not just hard facts that inform us about our past. History is the measure of our past deeds, good and bad. If we don’t take those lessons seriously, as a human race, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes
We can do better. We must do better.
A few years ago, my third book, Deadly Provenance, was published. I had originally titled it Provenance until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island. Of course it is a mystery and contains several murders, so I decided to call it Deadly Provenance. The story revolves around the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.
The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it was hard to know where to begin. First, there was the Nazi confiscation of art: the logistics of stealing, storing and moving millions of pieces of precious artworks. Next, what happened to all that displaced art? How much was recovered and how? How much is still missing? Then there’s my world — the museum world. How have museums been involved? Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?
Then there are the players. An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork. She is portrayed in Deadly Provenance as the heroine she truly was. Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire. Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers. Did he ever forge a van Gogh? In my book he did.
There is the modern story, where the mystery is solved years later. Protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph. Can it be done? Has it ever been done? What is the science of art authentication today? How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis? Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply here.
Hitler in Paris
As mentioned in a former blog, I always visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen from Jews and other “undesirables” and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there. Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.
And last but central to the storyline, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever. “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights. But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting. Which it is.
The painting was owned by the Bernheim-Jeunes, a French Jewish family of art collectors. When they realized their art was about to be confiscated by the Nazis, they hid their collection, including the Van Gogh, at a friend’s mansion – The Chateau de Rastignac, near Bordeaux. Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nazis raided and looted the Chateau then burned it to the ground. Was the Van Gogh trundled aboard a Nazi truck and whisked away? Did a soldier steal it? A civilian in the town? Was it burned with the Chateau?
Today, there is still a great deal of interest in this subject and the world of art looting and theft. I’ve spoken about it to a number of different audiences and each time I must update it because new information appears almost weekly in the news. Lost paintings found, fought over by heirs in the courts, and, sometimes, won. Like Maria Altmann and the portrait of her aunt, The Woman in Gold.
History can never remain solely in the past. Past events have a profound influence on the present and the future. I believe they should.
Your thoughts welcome.