An Update on the 2020 Brendan Gill Prize

On the Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

March 25, 2021

One hundred and ten years ago today, on a late Saturday afternoon in New York City, a fire broke out in the upper stories of what was then known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The building was touted as fireproof.  That certainly applied to the structure itself. The now name Brown Building on Washington Place remains to this day, as a part of the NYU campus.  However, the young garment workers finishing their workdays inside were left unprotected.

One hundred and forty-six New Yorkers, mostly young immigrant women, found themselves trapped—their employer kept the doors of the building locked shut to prevent theft. The victims piled up, unable to get out as the fire accelerated rapidly. Fifty people jumped to their deaths. Photographs of the building taken a week later showed the fire escape hanging off the building, literally melted by the heat of the flames.  Those women’s last moments of fear and desperation at being trapped, beggars the imagination.

  • Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere of Julia Wolfe's Fire in My Mouth at David Geffen Hall, January 24, 2019. Photo: Chris Lee.
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  • 2020 Brendan Gill Prize winner: Julia Wolfe for "Fire in my mouth." Photo by Chris Lee.
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  • Photo: Chris Lee.
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  • Photo: Chris Lee.
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  • Photo: Chris Lee.
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  • portrait of composer Julia Wolfe
    Julia Wolfe. Photo: Peter Serling.
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These women were white, by and large, but in their time, expendable, easily replaced by the enormous number of women recently arrived in the United States and living check and jowl on the lower eastside and in other nearby tenements.  they were just seeking a foothold in the American dream.  They came voluntarily to the hard work, the miserable working conditions to seek a better life.

Last year, we had hoped to celebrate an extraordinary artistic work based on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  Composer Julia Wolfe’s oratorio, Fire in my mouth, was awarded the 2020 Brendan Gill Prize.  The Jury last year described Fire in my mouth as a hauntingly beautiful retelling of the tragedy.  That award still awaits our ceremony but we are hopeful that we will be able to gather in person this September to give Ms. Wolfe and this amazing work its due.

We sincerely look forward to remembering, learning and finding hope with you in person before the year is out.  As we pass the eerily milestone of more than a year of the COVID pandemic, the end seems in sight.