This detail from a photo by Robert C. Wiles was published as the “Picture of the Week” 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.” 1
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 shows how brutally destructive her 1040 ft jump was. 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.2
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 reasons (although, apparently, they were due to her mental illness). They were divorced and Vincent took custody of the children. Later he moved the family to Tuckahoe, New York were Evelyn attended high school. Helen returned home to California.
After high school Evelyn joined the Women’s Army Corps and was stationed in Jefferson, Missouri. It was reported that after her service she burned her uniform.
After the War Evelyn 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.3 It was here that she became engaged to Barry Rhodes, an ex-GI studying at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. They had intended to be married at Barry’s brothers house in Troy, New York in June 1947.
On 30 Apr she visited her fiancé in Easton presumably to celebrate his 24th birthday and boarded a train back to NYC at 7 am, 1 May 1947. Barry later stated to reporters that “When I kissed her goodbye she was happy and as normal as any girl about to be married.”4
Of course we’ll never know what went through Evelyn’s mind on 66-mile train ride home, but after she arrived at Penn Station around 9 am she went across the street to the Governor Clinton Hotel where she wrote a suicide note then walked two blocks east where, shortly before 10:30 am, she bought a ticket to the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building.
Around 10:40 am Patrolman John Morrissey, directing traffic at 34th 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.5 Evelyn had stepped out on the parapet, 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.6 As one reporter wrote "Forenoon shoppers on Fifth Ave were horrified."7
Across the street, Robert C. Wiles, a student photographer, also noticed the commotion and rushed to the scene where he took his iconic photo 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 to her sister 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.”8
Her body was identified by her sister Helen Brenner and, according to her wishes, she was cremated. There is no grave. Her fiancé Barry eventually relocated to Florida. He never married.
After Wiles photograph appeared in Life it was widely republished in a number of photography anthologies and became one of the iconic images of the 20th century. It was the only photograph he ever published.
The photo eventually transcended reportage and entered popular culture. Andy Warhol appropriated the photo for his Suicide (Fallen Body) serigraph, part of his Death and Disaster series (1962–1967):
and Matthew Barney used the actual Life article in his Drawing Restraint 17 (2010):
1. “Picture of the Week.” Life. 12 May 1947. The image was also featured in a number of photography anthologies, including Maloney, Tom (ed). U.S. Camera 1948. New York: U.S. Camera Pub., 1948 (WorldCat) as well as several Best of Life collections.
2. Much of Evelyn’s life story as presented here is based on research by Kathy Mechan and is used by kind permission. The writer Lauren Anne Rice has been researching Evelyn’s life for the last several years (much more deeply than I could ever hope to) and is writing a non-fiction novel about her life (online).
3. Kitab Engraving Company, 40 Pearl Street, Baldwin, New York.
4. Evelyn’s suicide was picked up by the International wire services and the basic story including the quote from her fiancé was widely reported the next day in many newspapers: “Afraid to Wed, Girl Plunges to Death from Empire State.” Chicago Tribune. 2 May 1947: 4 and “Doubting Woman Dives to Death.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 2 May 1947: 1. Here a photo released by the family and used by the wire services:
5. Reported in “Empire State Leap Ends Life of Girl, 20.” New York Times. 2 May 1947: 23.
6. 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.
7. “Girl, 25, Hurtles 1,040 Ft. to Death From Empire State.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 2 May 1947, 1.
8. The suicide note was reported in “Girl Who Leaped to Death Planned Wedding in Troy.” The Times Record (Troy, NY). 2 May 1947: 1,17. The striked sentences were crossed out by Evelyn.
8 Oct 2009, updated 16 Jun 2015 ‧ Photography