November 28th, (This Wednesday) is the 70th anniversary of the horrific fire in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove. The fire killed 492 people, including my cousin Mac (Lee M. Saunders, Jr.) and his wife Pauline Snow Saunders who were in their late twenties. Now I find myself the only one left with a personal connection to those cousins, and, as a result, I feel a special obligation to keep their memory alive.
Since Boston did not allow night clubs at that time, Cocoanut Grove was termed simply a lounge, a very popular one. On that Saturday evening, “the Grove” was jammed with more than 25% over capacity, filled with the usual patrons as well as revelers from that day’s B.C./Holy Cross game, and sailors from several ships docked in Boston Harbor, this being 1942.
To this day there is no conclusive evidence as to what started the fire, but it is generally believed that it happened thus: A couple seeking more intimacy unscrewed a light bulb from a fixture near the ceiling in the Melody Lounge. The bartender then ordered a bus boy to replace the bulb. He climbed up on a table and lit a match so he could see the fixture, and the nearby artificial palm tree burst into flames. The fire spread very quickly, and the scene which ensued was compounded by the huge crowd and the fact that there were few exits. Windows were made of such thick glass they were hard to break. Some exit doors were chained shut, and the main exit was a revolving door which quickly jammed with patrons trying to escape. The stationary door beside it was one of the ones chained shut, and so bodies piled up at the exit. Actually many died as a result of smoke inhalation while still sitting at their tables.
Although I was only four years old, I recall that Sunday afternoon. Supposedly my grandmother, 85, living in Boston, was listening to the radio and heard announcers reading lists of the dead. She heard Lee M. Saunders – they had omitted the Junior – and thought it was her son. My Aunt Dot and Uncle Sam, arriving soon after this from Cambridge, found my Grandmother overwrought and stayed to calm her, verifying that it was Lee, Junior, which was nearly as upsetting to her. “Oh, that fine young man and his beautiful wife,” moaned my grandmother. Then since we did not have a telephone having moved into the house in the spring and were not able to get a phone line because of the war, Dot and Sam headed to Medford to let my mother know of the tragedy.
This past week, doing some online research, I found an article in the Boston Globe with the headline, “Lee M. Saunders, Jr., and wife reported missing after Holocaust.” The article went on to say that police had gone to my Uncle Lee’s house to notify him of the deaths. He had not known they were in the club that night. Always privy to adult conversation, I recall my mother and aunt crying as they learned that their brother, my Uncle Lee, had to go from morgue to morgue to identify the bodies, finally locating them in two different morgues. In some cases relatives first went to several hospitals, looking among victims before checking the morgues, some of which were temporarily located in car garages. I have read that it took ninety hours to identify all the bodies.
Being four, this was my first experience with death , and I don’t suppose I really understood why we couldn’t visit Mac and Pauline anymore, but I think I slowly understood as items from my cousins’ house started appearing in our house: a piano, dining room furniture, beds, and the games of “Monopoly” and “Sorry.” To this day I have those board games which have endured because the “Sorry” men are made of wood as are the houses and hotels in “Monopoly.” The latter’s play pieces are metal. Doubtless it is because of these board games that the memory of these cousins has been kept alive in my mind through all the years. I continued to play “Monopoly” and “Sorry” with my children and now my grandchildren, and would tell them, perhaps all too frequently, about Mac and Pauline.
Many books have been written about this tragic fire, and I have read several of them. Not only are there fascinating stories of those who died but of those who lived. Fortunately for the burn victims, a Dr. Cope, at Mass General, had recently pioneered a new method of treating burns, which was very controversial at first but ultimately extremely successful. Those who did survive though, not just the badly burned, were never the same, no doubt victims of what we today call survivor’s guilt and, for others, PTSD.
There were also stories of bizarre twists and turns. One haunting story is of the 21-year-old Coast Guardsman, Clifford Johnson, who went back into the Grove four times searching for his date. He did not find her (She had already made it outside.) but saved others. He suffered 3rd degree burns over half of his body and 2nd degree burns over another quarter. No one so badly burned had ever survived, but because of the new treatment methods, after twenty-one months Johnson was able to leave Mass General and return to his native Missouri. Fourteen years after the Cocoanut Grove fire, he was driving home from work when his car skidded, ran off the road, and burst into flames after overturning. He died in that fire.
It has always bothered me that the site of the Cocoanut Grove fire was unmarked until finally, in 1993, more than fifty years after the tragedy, a small bronze plaque was erected at the site by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association. One must make a determined effort to find even this memorial. Nor are the names of the victims inscribed publicly anywhere as are names in other tragedies. Although now you can get the information on the Internet, twenty years ago, to find the list, I had to go to the Boston Public Library and view papers from that time on microfiche.
This horrendous fire did result in important changes in fire safety laws nationwide and yielded innovations and improvements in the treatment of burn victims, so I suppose those things are a living memorial. But I ask that this week you take a moment to think of those who died in that fire, and particularly my cousins, Mac and Pauline.
© Dorothy C. Judd
Next Post: Thursday, November 29th