Change Emerging from Tragedy
Because we learn
“Calamities are of two kinds: misfortune to ourselves, and good fortune to others.” — Ambrose Bierce, 1906
When you put a lawyer in charge of an establishment—a good lawyer—you’d expect that everything would happen according to the law.
But that’s not how things ran at Barney Welansky’s place.
Barney was a lawyer, alright. But he was a lawyer for Charles Solomon, also known as “Boston Charlie,” one of Boston’s gangland leaders. Charlie was a Russian-born mob boss who controlled Boston’s bootlegging, narcotics, and illegal gambling during the Prohibition era.
Charlie was a big shot, and so was Barney, by association. So when Solomon was gunned down in the men’s room of the Cotton Club in Roxbury, ownership of Charlie’s supper club passed to Barney.
As the new owner, Barney wanted to class up the joint. Privately, he was proud of his association with the Mafia and his ties to Boston’s mayor Maurice Tobin. But his hiring practices were more closely aligned with his private views: he hired teenagers to work as busboys for low wages, and street thugs doubled as waiters and bouncers.
Determined to prevent customers from doing the old dine-and-dash, Barney locked exits, concealed others with draperies, and even bricked up one emergency exit. All in the name of respectability.
But reputation is immaterial when it comes face to face with the spark of reality, which in this case was ignited in the basement of Barney’s club, which was festooned with South Pacific artificial palm tree décor. It was all part of the theme of the Cocoanut Grove Supper Club.
It was in the Melody Lounge in the basement that one of those inexperienced busboys lit a match to help him see while replacing a lightbulb.
The palm tree burst into flames and spread so quickly even the efforts of quick-thinking bartenders were powerless to contain them. Some of the diners made for the four-foot wide set of stairs—the only public exit from the basement.
A wild panic ensued as a mixture of toxic gas (from the decorations) and a fireball engulfed the stairway area. People were trapped, as the emergency exit was locked.
The fire entered the entrance area on the ground floor, by the coatroom, restrooms, and main entrance. By this time, more patrons were aware of the emergency, and they couldn’t find the drapery-covered exits or were unable to open doors because they opened inward, and the mass crush of people behind them prevented it.
So they quickly moved toward the only visible egress, at the front of the building: a revolving door.
With people rushing for the exit, the revolving door became jammed. Outside, observers could only watch in horror as relatives and friends were crushed by the weight of the crowd surging against the jammed door.
Authorities later estimated that there were nearly 1,000 people inside when the fire began—well over the official occupant capacity of 460. In the aftermath of the fire, officials determined that 492 people died as a result of the Cocoanut Grove fire.
Barney was indicted and convicted of manslaughter for his role in lax oversight and skirting of the law at the Cocoanut Grove. He served four years before being released due to advanced cancer, which killed him just weeks later.
Mayor Tobin was responsible for overseeing the fire codes of the city, but avoided indictment himself after being hauled before a Grand Jury.
Pair this with the essay Finding Hope:
“Phoenix Out of the Ashes”
It was one of the most deadly fires in U.S. history, but it did not happen in vain. A memorial plaque at the former site of the Cocoanut Grove on Piedmont Street reads:
“In memory of the more than 490 people who died in the Cocoanut Grove fire on November 28, 1942. As a result of that terrible tragedy, major changes were made in the fire codes, and improvements in the treatment of burn victims, not only in Boston but across the nation. “Phoenix out of the Ashes.””
The Cocoanut Grove tragedy prompted major changes and enforcement of laws and regulations in fire prevention and control for places of business. As a result, corrective actions were taken to provide for emergency lighting, exit lights, occupant capacity placards in places of assembly, prohibition of flammable décor, and outward-opening doors.
A horrible and tragic loss of life gave rise to a new era of awareness—one that had previously made only minor changes based on other major fires in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere—changes that have since saved tens of thousands of other lives.
The death of every single one of those 492 patrons at the Cocoanut Grove was sorrowful. But the lesson is clear: when we look for opportunity, change, and improvement in times of tragedy, it defines who we are.
We can’t change the past. But being aware of it, we can adapt for our future.
Hey, are you listening to Timeless Leadership yet? It’s my podcast where I interview authors, executives, and entrepreneurs about timeless leadership virtues. I hope you’ll subscribe on the podcast player of your choice.
The latest episode is “Optimism” with Harry Cohen:
“It’s the end of the world every day, for someone.” — Margaret Atwood, 2000
Entertainment and media companies are building business models that are resilient to the enduring changes in consumer behavior ushered in by COVID-19. (strategy+business)
Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging—to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs. To one historian, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working. Only his models indicate the next decade could be even worse. (The Atlantic)
How do we know when society is ready to collapse? Meet the scholars who study civilizations’ declines. (The New York Times)
“I think we are inexterminable, like flies and bedbugs.” — Robert Frost, 1959
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was one of 14,405 fires in New York City that year and led to a new push to prioritize fire safety and punish negligent building owners. (Lapham’s Quarterly)
We are in a nightmare, and have been for a long time. But nightmares, like pandemics, eventually end. The most important question to keep in front of us, in the long night of the coming months, is who will we be when we wake? (Literary Hub)
What will happen to your classic car after you leave this mortal coil? In the case of an ancient Pompeiian, it was preserved for future study. The discovery of a ceremonial chariot outside of Pompeii is an unexpected surprise. (Smithsonian Mag)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“It would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character-reading.” — Virginia Woolf, 1924
🎧 “What if everything we’ve been told about human nature is wrong?” That’s the question Rebecca Solnit is asking. The author, activist and historian explores whether disasters like pandemics reveal a surprising truth—that human beings are more generous, more altruistic, more hopeful than we commonly believe. From On Point: What Disaster Reveal About Hope and Humanity.
📚 Drawing on her decades of activism and a wide reading of environmental, cultural, and political history, Rebecca Solnit argues that radicals have a long, neglected history of transformative victories. She stresses that the positive consequences of our acts are not always immediately seen, directly knowable, or even measurable, and that pessimism and despair rest on an unwarranted confidence about what is going to happen next. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.
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Further reading: the Cocoanut Grove Fire (Wikipedia)