Little is known about what drove Evelyn McHale to jump from the Empire State Building and be captured in the “most beautiful suicide [photograph] ever” on 1st May 1947.
Berkeley, California born bookkeeper McHale was one of nine children of a divorced bank examiner. The 23-year-old worked at the Kitab Engraving Company in Pearl Street, Manhattan and was engaged to a college student discharged from the United States Army Air Force named Barry Rhodes. She seemed to have had it all, but chose to end her life from atop one of the most famous buildings in the world.
“Elegantly attired and wearing a silk scarf, white gloves and a pearl necklace… [she is said to have] carefully removed her coat and neatly folded it, next she placed her black pocketbook on top of her coat [along with her makeup compact filled with family pictures and a handbag]. At 10:40am: Patrolman John Morrisey of Traffic C, directing traffic at 34th and 35th Avenue, reported seeing a white scarf floating lazily down from the heavens. Moments later this peaceful, dreamy scene was brutally interrupted by a heart rendering boom” as McHale had jumped 1,050-feet to her death and a crowd had converged.
Photography student Robert Wiles is said to have run over and captured a “poignant and surreal photo.” It was the only image of his ever published and Life Magazine captioned it: “At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes in grotesque bier, her falling body punched into the top of a [United Nations Assembly Cadillac limousine].” The driver was “in a nearby drug store, thereby escaping death or serious injury” other reports added.
A note found in her pocketbook announced: “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.” She had crossed out the following: “My fiancé 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” and then ended: “Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.”
Of the image, one commentator later remarked: “Evelyn’s gloved hand appears to be serenely touching her pearl necklace, and her legs crossed as if taking a nap,” whilst another added: “Evelyn McHale will go down in history as something akin to a fallen angel, as poignant and iconic as Marilyn Monroe.”
She was cremated with no service, grave or memorial and her fiancé reportedly said of her: “When I kissed her goodbye, she was happy and as normal as any girl about to be married.” He remained single for the rest of his life and died in Melbourne, Florida in 2007.
Many ‘sightings’ of Evelyn McHale wearing bright red lipstick and “looking distressed” on the 86th floor observation deck have been reported and in the years since her death, she has been recalled in the works of Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Pearl Jam and Taylor Swift amongst others.