Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Death Did Not Diminish Her Beauty

Stare at this picture closely, starting with the serene, composed features of the woman.
Notice she is grasping still her necklace; her feet casually crossed at the ankles. Then see
the ruined car atop which she landed after leaping from the Empire State Building....

The May 1947 edition of LIFE magazine did not include the above photo on its cover; rather, it was inside, filling an entire page. The photograph was taken serendipitously by a student photographer across the street when the woman landed atop a car, punching deep into it with her body, after leaping to her death from the Empire State Building.


Robert Wiles' photograph is considered to be among the most famous portraits of suicide ever made. Wiles "graphically and unforgettably captures the destruction—both literal and figurative—that attends virtually all suicides," as recently noted on LIFE.com, which reran the famous photo.

Evelyn McHale was 23 when she died. Little is known of her life -- or even of her final hours. Over the decades many have sought to fill in some of these gaps. Some "people have put enormous effort into uncovering as much about the troubled, attractive California native as they possibly could," Life noted.

One blog, Codex 99 features some interesting details.

As Life noted: "In Wiles’ photo, Evelyn looks for all the world as if she’s resting, or napping, rather than lying dead amid shattered glass and twisted steel. Everything about her pose—her gloved hand clutching her necklace; her gently crossed ankles; her right hand with its gracefully curved fingers—suggests that she is momentarily quiet, perhaps thinking of her plans for later in the day, or daydreaming of her beau."

The Codex 99 post provides insight into her final hours, and maybe her final thoughts:

Evelyn, still clutching a pearl necklace, looks disarmingly placid and composed – as if simply asleep. Around her, however, the broken glass and crumpled sheet metal of a car roof show the brutally destructive evidence of her 1050 ft jump. Some 60 years later the photo remains as haunting and affecting as when it was first published. 
Evelyn Francis McHale was born 20 Sept 1923 in Berkeley, California. She was the sixth child (of seven) of Vincent and Helen McHale. 
Around 1930 Vincent accepted a position of Federal Land Bank Examiner and the family moved to Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter Helen left the family for unknown (although apparently material) reasons. They were divorced and Vincent took custody of the children. Later he moved the family to Tuckahoe, New York were Evelyn attended high school. 
After high school Evelyn joined the Women’s Army Corps and was stationed in Jefferson, Missouri. After her service it was reported that she burned her uniform. 
Evelyn then moved to Baldwin, New York to live with her brother and sister-in-law and took a job as a bookkeeper with an engraving company.2 It was here that she became engaged to Barry Rhodes, an ex-GI studying at Lafayette College in Easton Pa. They had intended to be married at Barry’s brothers house in Troy, NY in June 1947. 
On 30 Apr she visited her fiance in Easton presumably to celebrate his 24th birthday and boarded a train back to NYC at 7 a.m., 1 May 1947. Barry stated to reporters that “When I kissed her goodbye she was happy and as normal as any girl about to be married.” 
Of course we’ll never know what went through Evelyn’s mind on 66 mi train ride home. But after she arrived in New York she went to the Governor Clinton Hotel where she wrote a suicide note and shortly before 10:30 a.m. bought a ticket to the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building.
Around 10:40 am Patrolman John Morrissey, directing traffic at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, noticed a white scarf floating down from the upper floors of the building. Moments later he heard a crash and saw a crowd converge on 34th street. Evelyn had jumped, cleared the setbacks, and landed on the roof of a United Nations Assembly Cadillac limousine parked on 34th street, some 200 ft west of Fifth Ave.
Across the street, Robert C. Wiles, a student photographer, also noticed the commotion and rushed to the scene where he took several photos, including this one, some four minutes after her death. Later, on the observation deck, Detective Frank Murray found her tan (or maybe gray, reports differ) cloth coat neatly folded over the observation deck wall, a brown make-up kit filled with family pictures and a black pocketbook with the note which read:

“I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me. My fiance asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody. He is much better off without me. Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.” [Note: Evelyn herself made the cross out; many newspapers that later ran the story didn't include the crossed-out details.]

LIFE magazine captioned the picture with: “At the bottom of Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in grotesque bier her falling body punched into the top of a car.”
 
A single paragraph accompanied the image:

On May Day, just after leaving her fiancĂ©, 23-year-old Evelyn McHale wrote a note. ... 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. Across the street photography student Robert Wiles heard an explosive crash. Just four minutes after Evelyn McHale’s death Wiles got this picture of death’s violence and its composure.


Note:
Since the Empire State Building was constructed in 1931 some 36 people have jumped from the building, including 17 from the 86th floor observation deck.

Evelyn was the 12th suicide from the building and the sixth to clear all of the setbacks. She was one of five people in a three week period to attempt suicide from the observation deck. In response a 10-ft wire mesh fence was installed and guards were trained to spot potential jumpers. After the barrier was installed people just jumped from other parts of the building, usually from office windows. The most recent suicide, however, was a 23-yo Yale student who managed to scale the observation deck fence on 30 May 2010.

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