Friday, March 25, 2011

A Sad Centennial, by Jack Simony

By Jack Simony

Today is the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on Manhattan's Lower East Side.  The horrific fire took the lives of 146 young immigrant women and teenage girls.  Crowds that gathered at the sight watched in horror as the young women and girls crowded the windows and either leapt to their deaths or were burned to death before the crowd's eyes...or both -- many of those who hit the pavement were already on fire.

The whole city grieved.  Investigations of the building showed that there was no sprinkler system, flammable fabric was strewn throughout the building, there were far too many sewing machines crammed next to one another, an open bucket of oil was kept on the floor to lubricate the sewing machines, the wooden floors were themselves therefore oily, boxes blocked exits and the second floor egress was actually locked, stairwell doors opened inward rather than outward, and there was no third staircase as was required by NYC building codes.

The National Women's Trade Union League pushed for legislation, New York City established a Board of Fire Prevention, and then-State Senate leader Robert F. Wagner led a Factory Investigating Commission to scrutinize manufacturing conditions generally.  That Commission wrote thirty six labor bills to improve workplace conditions.  Later, when he became a US Senator, Wagner pushed through the National Labor Relations Act, a.k.a., the Wagner Act, which, among other things, gave workers the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining with their employers.

A Simony family friend has an odd story about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  It seems his grandmother was one of the teenagers who worked there.  On the morning of the fire, her sister begged and pleaded with her not to go to work that day but to stay in their coldwater flat all day and not venture out, saying that she'd had a strange dream and feared for her sister's safety.  My friend's grandmother scoffed and prepared to leave for work, saying that she'd be fired if she stayed home, and they needed her salary, but her sister became hysterical, so she finally acquiesced and remained at home.  Weird.  My friend likely owes his very existence to his great-aunt: had his then-teenaged grandmother gone to work, she may well have perished that day.

- By Jack Simony

Monday, March 14, 2011

Twain's Autobiography

By Jack Simony

As I'm sure you know, Mark Twain insisted that his autobiography not be published in its complete and unadulterated form until a full century had passed since his death.  Said century has passed, and the first volume of his complete autobiography was released this past November.  Twain's daughter Clara had donated approximately 20,000 of Twain's papers to UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.  It is the largest single collection of Twain's manuscripts, letters and other documents, and the editors and historians there have been painstakingly poring over the documents for over four decades to create the most accurate editions of Twains written works...including his autobiography.

Imagine their surprise when his autobiography became a runaway best seller over the holiday season.  Copies were hard to come by.  According to the LA Times, "editors realized that Twain's sly humor and skepticism about wealthy elites, U.S. Militarism, politicians and organized religion hold a seemingy timeless appeal."

Of course they do.  I'd be hard pressed to come up with a more fun read than Twain letting loose his true opinions on those subjects.  

Meanwhile, the University of California Press is, well, pressing hard for the remaining two volumes of the autobiography to be released earlier than originally scheduled.  But the scholars are holding firm: integrity over commercialism.  They'll use the windfall from book sales of Volume One to bolster staff, but they won't compromise on scholarly accuracy.  The process of sorting out what Twain himself called "a complete and purposed jumble" will take as long as it takes to be correct.  Twain didn't want his views publicized during his lifetime.  Nor did he want them incorrectly and inaccurately publicized a century later.

We'll all just have to wait a spell, I reckon.

Monday, March 7, 2011


By Jack Simony

When you think of going out to dine in New York, you don’t typically think of heading over to Kip’s Bay.  But Riverpark, Tom Colicchio and Sisha Ortuzar’s recent addition to the NYC dining scene, will change that.  It’s been open since the fall, which has given the kitchen and front-of-house staffs time to work out the bugs (should I use that expression in connection with a restaurant?!) and it is very, very good.

You can eat in the more casual bar area or dine in the more formal dining room.  Both are great-looking spaces, pretty masculine and also vast – this is not an intimate space.  The views of the river are terrific.  The staff is warm, welcoming and unpretentious.  The wine list is great and complements the menu well.  And the menu itself?   Intentionally eclectic, inspired by dishes from around the world while being playful with them.  The portions are generous, to say the least, which is rare nowadays in finer restaurants.  They accommodate dietary restrictions without a blink, and the dishes don’t seem to suffer for any omissions – this is a talented kitchen.  I don’t think anyone can go wrong with any of the choices – order whatever strikes you and enjoy.  Oh, and they have outdoor seating, and they serve brunch, too. 

Bon Appetit! -By Jack Simony