I wanted to write a bit about Evelyn McHale today. Her restless ghost seems to swirl eternally around the world of art and thus swims into my consciousness every 6 months or so. I wondered why that was, undeniably she looked serene and beautiful in death, but is that all there is to it? Has she merely, tragically, become the poster-girl for angst-ridden, teen suicide wannabes or is there something deeper at work here? So, rather than use the photograph of Evelyn's calm repose - perplexing and contradictory as it is to the violence of her death - as a hook to hang a couple of songs on, I wanted to think a little bit about the power of the image itself first.
For those of you who have never heard of Evelyn McHale, and for whom that first paragraph makes no sense, here (below) is a detail from the extraordinary image of Evelyn, which has inspired so many artists.
This photo by Robert C. Wiles, a student photographer, was published as a full-page image in the 12 May 1947 issue of Life Magazine. It ran with the caption:
“At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in grotesque bier, her falling body punched into the top of a car.”
The accompanying text read:
"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. 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."
Death's violence and it's composure, is that what it's about? Is that what makes this image so striking, so seductive? This idea that we will find peace in death, no matter how grisly our end? It could be, but personally I'm not sure that she looks at peace. Yes, her face is calm, composed as though sleeping and her legs crossed at the ankles as though in an attitude of relaxation. But look at her hands, balled in to fists, betraying tension despite the almost studied insouciance elsewhere. Is it instead this juxtaposition that catches the attention?
Or is it the creepy, faux-glamorous intimacy conveyed by the composition? We watch, unseen, a beautiful girl; she is completely relaxed, unaware, her eyes closed, her shoes kicked off. This effect is heightened by the point of view of the witnesses in the background; the crumpled metal of the car shields Evelyn from their gaze. Our viewpoint alone provides association, sympathy, participation even; with Evelyn and through her with death?
Perhaps there is no humane reason and this image merely serves as the cardinal example of the cold visual logic of photography; its ability, supreme among the arts, to turn horror into beauty. I'm not sure. What is noticable is that this image arrests the attention even before one knows the melancholy back-story. For further details of that, Codex 99, a weblog about the history of the visual arts and graphic design, has a well-researched article 'here'.
Further to this, the following can be found on ancestry.com:
Evelyn Francis McHale was born in Berkeley California Sept 20, 1923. She was the next to the youngest of seven children, the first four children were spaced 1 year apart, the last three were spaced 2 years apart. Her father was a bank examiner, orig from Illinois, her mother orig from Pa, was a housewife. Around 1930, they moved to Washington, DC, where her father became an examiner for the Federal Land Bank. Also at this time the mother left, moving to an apartment in another part of Washington. The father retained custody of all seven children. Evelyn was 6. Whether the mother left voluntarily or was told to leave is unknown at his time. They appear to have moved a few years later to Tuckahoe NY, where Evelyn went to high school. After high school, in 1943, Evelyn became a WAC and was stationed down in Jefferson Mo. After she was discharged, she burned her uniform. At some point, she moved to NYC to work, and met and became engaged to a young man named Barry Rhodes, who was just out of the Air Force and attending Lafayette College in Easton Pa. They were to be married at his brother’s house in Troy, NY. A year before her death, Evelyn had been a bridesmaid at Barry’s younger brother’s wedding. After the wedding, she removed her bridesmaid gown, said “I never want to see this again” and burned it. On the day she jumped, Barry said she seemed happy and looking forward to the marriage when she boarded the train home. Barry’s birthday being April 30th, I assume Evelyn had gone to celebrate his birthday with him. There was a security guard less than twelve feet from where she jumped. She dropped her handkerchief over the ledge just prior to climbing over and leaping to her death. In her suicide note, she wrote the following: ” My fiance asked me to marry him in June, but I don’t think I would make a good wife for anyone. He is much better off without me. Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies. 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 or remembrance for me.”
She was cremated.
And so that should have been the end of the story of Evelyn McHale - a woman who pleaded not to be remembered. Yet remembered she most certainly continues to be, the compelling, iconic image of her dead body a seemingly irresistible lure to any passing artist. The first to do so appears to be the great hoodwinker himself, Andy Warhol, who used Wyle's original photograph as the basis for his abstract print, Suicide (Fallen Body) (below).
The image also inspired the cover art of the 1995 album Gilt by industrial rockers, Machines of Loving Grace (below):
Although this image fails to capture the power of the original in my opinion.
Musicians too have been inspired by Evelyn's story. Most famously, perhaps, excellent, Portland-based, experimental pop band Parenthetical Girls who released a track entitled Evelyn McHale on their 2010 release Privilege, pt. I: On Death & Endearments EP.
Here's a video of the song (below), an MP3 of which can be downloaded for free 'here'.
The other artist who swam into my ken via tragic Evelyn is bleak, melancholic UK song-writer Anton Rothschild whose thoughtful, introverted indie-pop is well worth seeking out. His track 'A Love Song to Evelyn McHale' is the superb opener to his 2009 album The Diffident, released on Dainty Records (…the world’s most fragile recording company). A visit to the latter's wonderful little site will enable you to freely download the aforementioned album, as well as the rather fine Bratislava EP, released earlier this year by Fire Island Pines, the band with whom he now plays.
Here's the track now:
A love song to Evelyn McHale by anton rothschild
I'll finish off by embedding (below) Beautiful Suicide, an experimental art-film submitted for his final-year thesis by Jordan Morris, a film student at Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia, US.
I hope that you have found this article, written in response to the art inspired by Evelyn McHale's death, thoughtful and sensitive and that it hasn't come off as tacky and exploitative; if so, then I do apologise. Please feel free to comment on your responses to the photograph in the comments box below and to let me know of any other Evelyn McHale inspired art that I may have overlooked.