The Tragic Story Of Evelyn McHale And “The Most Beautiful Suicide”

Published December 1, 2021
Updated October 20, 2022

As her last wish, Evelyn McHale didn't want anyone to see her body, but the photo of her death has lived on for decades as "the most beautiful suicide."

Evelyn McHale’s dying wish was that no one sees her body. She wanted her family to remember her body the way it was before she jumped off the 86th-floor Observation Deck of the Empire State Building.

Evelyn McHale

Wikimedia Commons / YouTubeSide by side of the final photograph of Evelyn McHale and the Empire State Building.

Evelyn McHale never got her wish.

Four minutes after her body landed on a United Nations limousine, parked at the curb, a photography student named Robert Wiles ran across the street and snapped a photo that would become world-famous.

The Photos That Captivated The World

The photo that the student snapped shows Evelyn McHale looking almost peaceful, like she could be sleeping, lying cradled in a mess of crumpled steel. Her feet are crossed at the ankles, and her gloved left hand rests on her chest, clutching her pearl necklace. Looking at the image without context, it looks like it could be staged. But the truth is much darker than that, but the photo became famous around the world.

Since being taken on May 1, 1947, the photo has become infamous, with Time magazine calling it “the most beautiful suicide.” Even Andy Warhol used it in one of his prints, Suicide (Fallen Body).

Evelyn McHale

Wikepedia CommonsA picture of Evelyn McHale.

But Who Is Evelyn McHale?

Though her death is infamous, not much is known about Evelyn McHale’s life.

Evelyn McHale was born on September 20, 1923, in Berkeley, California, to Helen and Vincent McHale as one of eight brothers and sisters. Sometime after 1930, her parents divorced, and the children all moved to New York to live with their dad, Vincent.

In high school, Evelyn was part of the Women’s Army Corps and was stationed in Jefferson City, Missouri. Later, she relocated to Baldwin, New York, to live with her brother and sister-in-law. And that’s where she lived until her death.

She worked as a bookkeeper at the Kitab Engraving Company on Pearl Street in Manhattan. That’s where she met her fiance, Barry Rhodes, who was a college student discharged from the United States Army Air Force. According to reports, Evelyn McHale and Barry Rhodes intended to get married at Barry’s brother’s house in Troy, New York in June 1947. But their wedding never came.

“The Most Beautiful Suicide”

As far as the events leading up to Evelyn McHale’s suicide, even less is known.

Observation Deck Of The Empire State Building

YouTubeThe view of the 86th floor observation deck.

The day before her death, she had visited Rhodes in Pennsylvania, but he claimed that all was well upon her departure.

The morning of her death, she arrived at the observation deck of the Empire State Building, removed her coat and placed it neatly over the railing, and penned a short note, found beside the coat. Then, Evelyn McHale jumped off the 86th-floor observatory. She landed on top of a parked car.

According to police, a security guard was standing only 10 feet away from her when she jumped.

The note, found by a detective, didn’t give much insight into why she had done it but asked that her body be cremated.

“I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me,” the note read. “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.”

Keeping with her wishes, her body was cremated and she had no funeral.

Evelyn McHale's Most Beautiful Suicide

Wikimedia CommonsEvelyn McHale’s body on top of the limousine she landed on next to the Empire State Building.

The Legacy Of The Photo Of Evelyn McHale’s Suicide

The photo, however, has lived on for 70 years and is still regarded as one of the best photographs taken.

The image of her body on the car, taken by Robert Wiles, “has been compared to the photograph by Malcolm Wilde Browne of the self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức who burned himself alive at a busy Saigon road intersection on June 11, 1963,” which is another photograph that’s highly regarded as one of the best in history.

Ben Cosgrove of Time described the photo as “technically rich, visually compelling and … downright beautiful.” He said her body looked more like it was “resting, or napping, rather than … dead” and looks like she is laying there “daydreaming of her beau.”

After learning about Evelyn McHale and the tragic story behind “the most beautiful suicide,” read about the Jonestown massacre, the largest mass-suicide in history. Then, read about Japan’s suicide forest.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or use their 24/7 Lifeline Crisis Chat.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.