The Empire State of Leap

It is said that a guilty person sees shadows everywhere. I am fast becoming like that — i now see iconic photos everywhere, even when i don’t. I was watching Stranger than Fiction last night (a good movie, by the way) and a character talks about suicide: “There’s a photograph in the book called The Leaper. It’s old, but it’s beautiful. From above the corpse of a woman who’d just leapt to her death. There’s blood around her head, like a halo… and her leg’s buckled underneath, her arm’s snapped like a twig, but her face is so serene, so at peace. And I think it’s because when she died, she could feel the wind against her face.”

Although they may or may not be talking about the above photo, it is the first thing that came into my mind. It was Life Magazine’s Picture of the Week on May 12, 1947, and was also reprinted in The Best of Life. Andy Warhol used this photo in his work Suicide (Fallen Body) (See below), and Machines of Loving Grace put a recreation of the photo in their album cover for Gilt. There are also some colored versions of this photo, which remind me of one of those Tamara de Lempicka paintings.

The photo was taken on May Day, 1947 at the bottom of the Empire State Building. Photography student, Richard Wiles, was across the street, and heard a loud crash. He rushed to the scene and took the photo four minutes after one Evelyn McHale jumped off from the Observation Deck. Like the movie said, the picture is sad, but it is simultaneously serene. It isn’t full of gore, and Evelyn looked as if she was sleeping. Her calm repose contrasted greatly from the grotesque wreckage of a bier she herself created beneath her.

Life magazine wrote at the time: “On May Day, just after leaving her fiancé, 23-year-old Evelyn McHale wrote a note. ‘He is much better off without me … I wouldn’t make a good wife for anybody,’ … Then she crossed it out. She went to the observation platform of the Empire State Building. Through the mist she gazed at the street, 86 floors below. Then she jumped. In her desperate determination she leaped clear of the setbacks and hit a United Nations limousine parked at the curb.”

Read the story on the Empire State Building’s Observation Desk here.

Suicide (Fallen Body): She had her 15-minutes of fame, Warhol would have said.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

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The Triangle Shirtwaist Company always kept its doors locked to ensure that the young immigrant women stayed stooped over their machines and didn’t steal anything. When a fire broke out just before the working day ended on Saturday, March 25, 1911, on the eighth floor of the New York City factory, the locks sealed the workers’ fate. The fire brigade’s ladders only reached the sixth storey, 30 feet short of the burning floors.

In just 30 minutes, 146 were killed, mostly women, mostly in their teens, and almost all Jewish or Italian immigrants. Witnesses first thought the owners were tossing their best fabric out the windows to save it, then realized workers were jumping, sometimes after sharing a kiss in an eerie precursor to the World Trade Center events of September, 11, 2001, only a mile and a half south. Incidentally, the fire was the worst workplace disaster in New York until 9/11. On the building’s east side were 40 bodies of those who jumped.

The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had fled to the building’s roof when the fire began and survived. They were put on trial, but were acquitted when that the prosecution had failed to prove that the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the time in question. They had to compensate $75 per deceased victim, but the insurance company paid the owners about $400 per casualty. To this day, no one knows whether the fire was accidental or was started to claim this insurance money.

But the disaster was a watershed moment; it spurred a national crusade for workplace safety and unionization. From the unions’ perspective, the disaster could have been prevented if only the employers had given in to union demands the previous year during 20,000 strong citywide garment industry strike. Twice that number attended the memorial service for those who died, the unions insisted, because they could not unionize. Now the momentum was with them.

Within a few years the city and the state would go on to adopt 36 new laws, the country’s most comprehensive labour rules and public-safety codes. Moreover, these laws served as a model for other states and the New Deal’s labour legislation of the 1930s. Among those who witnessed the fire was one Frances Perkins, the future labour secretary under Franklin Roosevelt, who later noted that March 25th 1911 was the day the New Deal began.

[Photo by Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania.]

Ticker-Tape Parades

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Fresh off their 27th World Series win, the New York Yankees will take a victory lap through lower Manhattan this morning. It will be their record-setting ninth trip down the so-called “Canyon of Heroes,” the skyscraper-lined stretch from the island’s southern tip to City Hall. And if past ticker-tape parades for sports champions are any guide, they can expect to be showered with up to 50 tons of confetti and shredded paper.

The stock ticker — a machine that tracked financial data over telegraph lines and stamped it on strips called “ticker-tape” for the sound the printing made — had barely been around two decades before Wall Streeters realized that throwing its ribbony paper out the window was a fun way to celebrate. They first did it on October 29, 1886, inspired by the ceremony to dedicate the Statue of Liberty. The practice was still a novelty ten years later, when the New York Times reported that office workers had “hit on a new and effective scheme of adding to the decorations” at a parade for presidential candidate William McKinley by unfurling hundreds of ticker-tape reels out the window.

By 1899 two million people turned out to make Admiral George Dewey, hero of the Battle of Manila Bay, the first individual honored with a ticker-tape parade. Former President Teddy Roosevelt got one in 1910 upon returning from his African safari. But it wasn’t until 1919, when Grover Whalen was made New York City’s official greeter, that ticker-tape parades took off: from 1919 to 1953 he reportedly threw 86 of them, many at the urging of the State Department. The luminaries he feted in his early years included Albert Einstein in 1921 — the only scientist ever honored with a ticker-tape parade — as well as the U.S. Olympic team in 1924 and Charles Lindbergh in 1927. By then, of course, the tradition had spread: thousands of Chicagoans showered boxer Gene Tunney with paper that year when he arrived in the city to defend his world title; Boston and St. Louis have also held ticker-tape parades, though New York remains their epicenter.

However, all were not happy. A 1904 letter to the editor urged the New York Times to speak out against the “evil” practice, suggesting that parade horses spooked by falling ticker tape might plow into the crowd on the sidewalk and cause “disaster.” A few years later, an overzealous reveler reportedly neglected to tear the pages out of a phone book and instead threw the whole thing out the window; it struck a passerby and knocked him unconscious. By 1926, New York Stock Exchange officials had grown concerned about the cost of tossing miles of ticker tape out the window any time someone important came to town: they considered buying confetti to distribute to employees but decided against it. In 1932, another irate Times letter-writer demanded that lobbing paper be “promptly and strictly banned,” to be replaced by tossing flowers or waving handkerchiefs, the more dignified customs of “civilized cities” in Europe and South America.

In 1945, V-J Day prompted the most lavish ticker-tape parade in history–5,438 tons of material were flung on New York City’s streets. On Aug. 14, 1945, three thousand street-sweepers worked through the night to clean it up, only to have their efforts undone when the merriment continued the next morning. A few months earlier, General Dwight Eisenhower and the Allied Forces were celebrated at the same canyon. The April 20, 1951 parade honoring ousted General Douglas MacArthur was the biggest parade thrown for an individual. [Above, photo by Mark Kauffman].

Queen Elizabeth (and her uncle Edward while he was still Prince of Wales) and Pope John Paul II received a ticker-tape parades  and so did the Yankees, the Mets and the Rangers. The Apollo 11 astronauts were also honored, but by this time, the Stock Exchange was upgrading to electronic boards, leaving them little use for ticker tape, and the parades dwindled. There were only a handful in the 1970s and 1980s. John Glenn saw a fete in 1998 honoring him for becoming the oldest person to go into space, at age 77. Coming 36 years after his first one, it put him in an elite club of multiple-parade honorees, including Amelia Earhart, Dwight Eisenhower, and Charles de Gaulle. Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, a polar explorer, had three ticker-tape parades. That is a record for one individual.

[Excepted from Laura FitzPatrick’s article in Time Magazine].

Wrong_Way_CorriganNew York Post cover, featuring the tickertape parade to honor “Wrong-Way Corrigan”.