On May 12, 1947, Life Magazine published a photo later named The Most Beautiful Suicide 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.” In an attempt to understand what was going through 23-year-old Evelyn’s mind, people have desperately searched for the details of her history. Unfortunately, there aren’t many.
One of seven siblings, Evelyn was born on September 20, 1923. Seven years later, Vincent McHale took a job as Federal Land Bank Examiner and moved the family to Washington, D.C. It wasn’t long after that Evelyn’s mother, Helen, left the family for unknown reasons, though most suspect mental illness. The couple divorced, and Vincent retained custody of all their children. After high school, Evelyn joined the Women’s Army Corps. She was stationed in Jefferson, Missouri, and it “was reported that after her service she burned her uniform.” Evelyn then moved to New York City and became a bookkeeper, living quietly with her brother and sister-in-law in Baldwin, Long Island. There, she met Barry Rhodes, a Pennsylvania college student recently discharged from the Air Force. Barry and Evelyn were soon engaged to be married. Evelyn was so close with Barry’s family that she was a bridesmaid at Barry’s younger brother’s wedding.
April 30, 1947 was Barry’s 24th birthday. Evelyn took a train from New York to Easton to visit him, happy to celebrate. “All seemed well between the couple, and the next day, Barry kissed his fiancé goodbye as she boarded the 7:00 AM train to Penn Station. ‘When I kissed her goodbye, she was happy and as normal as any girl about to be married.’ Their wedding was set to be held at Barry’s brother’s home in Troy, New York, that June.”
At 9 AM, Evelyn arrived at Penn Station and crossed the street to enter the Governor Clinton Hotel. There, she entered, wrote a suicide note, and “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.” At about 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 was Robert C. Wiles, a photography student, who heard the loud crash of Evelyn’s body upon impact. He took the picture only four minutes after Evelyn’s death. After Wiles’s photograph was published in Life, it was widely used in numerous photography anthologies and grew to be one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. It was the only photograph Wiles ever published.
Evelyn fell 1,050 feet from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. Yet she “shows absolutely no evidence of trauma and appears disarmingly placid and composed – as if asleep. Around her, however, the crumpled sheet metal and broken glass show the violent destructive evidence of her jump. This apparent juxtaposition is what makes Wiles’ image so arresting and memorable.”
Despite her strangely peaceful exterior, Evelyn’s insides were liquefied as a result of the fall and the impact. Reports from observers say Evelyn’s body essentially “fell apart” when they moved her body from the wreckage. Detective Frank Murray went up to the observation deck from which Evelyn jumped and found her tan (possibly gray, as reports differ) cloth coat folded neatly over the deck wall. Placed next to it were her brown make-up kit full of family pictures and a black pocketbook with a note to her sister:
“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.”
Evelyn was the 12th person to ever jump from the Empire State Building and one of five who jumped within a three week period, “an event which prompted the construction of a 10 foot tall wire mesh barrier, and the employment of guards trained to spot jumpers, in an effort to prevent any more suicides at the location.”
The discomforting attraction to this photograph lies in the “profound mystery of how a single photograph of a dead woman can feel so technically rich, visually compelling and—it must be said—so downright beautiful so many years after it was made. There’s a reason, after all, why she is often referred to as ‘the most beautiful suicide’; why Andy Warhol appropriated Wiles’ picture for his Suicide: Fallen Body (1962); why once we look, it’s so hard to look away.” 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.”
Evelyn’s body was identified by her sister and later cremated. There is no grave for her, as per her request. Her fiancé Barry eventually moved to Florida. He never married.