Fire in the Grove: The Cocoanut Grove Tragedy and Its Aftermath by John C. Esposito
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Having read and been fascinated by my father's copy of "Holocaust!" by Paul Benzaquin (1959), I was familiar with the subject of the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire of 1942, and looked forward to reading this book. It was okay, but I liked Benzaquin's book much better.
"Fire In The Grove: The Cocoanut Grove Tragedy And Its Aftermath" concentrates largely on the behind-the-scenes chicanery that set the stage for this disastrous fire in which almost five hundred people lost their lives. Public officials who accepted bland assurances that "everything is according to Hoyle" without actually conducting inspections, shady nightclub management that placed profits over safety--many of the exits were locked or blocked, to prevent anyone skipping out on their check--and accounts of the trial of those accused of involuntary manslaughter, dominate this book.
I had hoped for more personal stories of ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary disaster. A thousand people went out to the Grove that night expecting nothing more dramatic than a good time; half of them died, and many more were injured and traumatized. From the newlyweds whose life together lasted only three hours, to the illegally hired underage busboy whose match may have started the blaze, to the Coast Guardsman who escaped unharmed, only to rush back in to save his date, there is plenty to be told, but Esposito doesn't spend a lot of time on these stories. The Coast Guardsman returned into the burning nightclub four times, managing to rescue several patrons, but never finding his date, who he had met only that afternoon. The last time he emerged, he was engulfed in flames. No one so badly burned had ever survived up to that time, but he did survive, lived another fourteen years, and married one of his nurses. In an incredibly cruel twist of fate, he died in 1956 when his vehicle ran off the road in heavy fog and he burned to death. Esposito tells his story, but almost only in passing.
What this book goes into depth about, are the tangled web of Boston politics, the shady practices of the owners of a prohibition era speakeasy turned nightclub, the scrambling, after the fire, to shift blame, and the legal maneuverings of the subsequent trial. Esposito has done his homework as to the many locked or blocked exits, the flammable nature of the Grove's "exotic" decor, and such stuff as the dummy corporation that owned the Grove, and the public officials who enjoyed being on the club's "free list", having their drinks and dinners comped, and then failing to perform their duties to insure public safety.
It's not a bad book, but I would say to be aware of its focus before reading it.
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