Evelyn McHale wrote in her suicide note that she didn't want her family to see "any part" of her body. Instead, a photo of her death would become one of the most famous photographs of all time.
Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions and/or images of violent, disturbing, or otherwise potentially distressing events.
Evelyn McHale’s dying wish was that no one would see her body. She wanted her family to remember her the way she had been before she jumped off the 86th-floor Observation Deck of the Empire State Building.
But Evelyn McHale never got her wish.
On May 1, 1947, McHale fell through the air and landed on a United Nations limousine that was parked at the curb nearby. Upon hearing the crash, a young photography student named Robert Wiles ran to the scene. Just four minutes after her death, he snapped a photo of McHale’s body, lying in peaceful repose amid the twisted metal.
The photo that Wiles snapped shows Evelyn McHale looking almost serene, as though she could be sleeping, lying cradled in the mess of crumpled car. 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 seems as though it could be staged. And though the truth is of course much darker than that, Wiles’ photo of McHale’s body soon spread around the world.
His photo was published as LIFE Magazine‘s “Picture of the Week” on May 12, 1947. And McHale’s body, which she’d hoped no one would see after her death, was soon looked upon by people everywhere.
But who was Evelyn McHale? And what led her to jump off the Empire State Building in May 1947?
This is the story of the mysterious woman pictured in the photo known as “the most beautiful suicide.”
The Mysterious Life Of Evelyn McHale
Though her death is infamous thanks to the “most beautiful suicide” photo, not much is known about Evelyn McHale’s life.
She was born on Sept. 20, 1923, in Berkeley, California. According to the website Codex 99, she was the sixth of seven children, and McHale and her siblings had something of a tumultuous childhood.
Not only did they move often because of her father’s career, but McHale’s mother purportedly suffered from depression so severe that it contributed to the breakdown of McHale’s parents’ marriage. In 1940, they separated. Once their divorce was finalized, McHale’s father was awarded custody.
McHale then attended high school in St. Louis, briefly enlisted with the Women’s Army Corps, and eventually made her way to Baldwin, Long Island, where she moved in with one of her brothers and found a job working as a bookkeeper in Manhattan.
In 1945, Evelyn McHale met her fiancé, Barry Rhodes, and the two started to plan their wedding. Codex 99 reports that they intended to get married at the home of one of Barry’s brothers in June 1947.
But their wedding, of course, never came to pass. A month before it was supposed to take place, McHale died by suicide.
Inside ‘The Most Beautiful Suicide’
What would cause a young, beautiful, soon-to-be-married woman to die by suicide? If little is known about Evelyn McHale’s life, even less is known about her desire to die.
The day before her death, April 30, 1947, McHale had visited her fiancé. Rhodes later claimed that all was well upon her departure the next morning, but acknowledged that McHale had expressed apprehension about their upcoming nuptials.
“She often voiced fears of not being a good wife,” Rhodes later said, “[but] when I kissed her goodbye she was happy and as normal as any girl about to be married.”
McHale’s apprehensions, however, were apparently more serious than anyone could see.
On May 1, 1947, Evelyn McHale arrived in New York around nine a.m. She wrote a suicide note on stationary from the Governor Clinton Hotel and purchased a ticket for the Empire State Building observation deck.
She calmly removed her coat and placed it neatly over the railing. Then, Evelyn McHale jumped off the 86th floor.
On the street below, the first sign that something was amiss came in the form of a white scarf that witnesses saw floating through the air. Then — a crash. Evelyn McHale had plummeted more than 1,000 feet through the air and landed on top of a United Nations limousine.
She was the 12th person to leap to their death from the Empire State Building since it had opened its doors to the public in 1931.
But why? The only clue that McHale left was her suicide note. It read, as reported by The St. Louis Star and Times:
“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 that they don’t have any service for me or remembrance of me.”
The next few lines had a line crossed through them.
“My fiance asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anyone. He is much better off without me.”
Then, McHale wrote: “Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.”
In keeping with her wishes, her body was cremated and she had no funeral. But McHale’s wish that no one see her body was, of course, unfulfilled. Wiles’ photo was published less than two weeks after her death and swiftly became one of the most well-known photos of all time.
The Legacy Of Evelyn McHale’s Suicide
Today, the image of Evelyn McHale’s last moments is still regarded as one of the best photographs ever taken. Indeed, since being captured on that day in May, the photo has become something of an icon. News outlets called it the “most beautiful suicide.” And even Andy Warhol used it in one of his prints, Suicide (Fallen Body).
Like other famous pictures, including the “Kiss of Life” photo, it’s a beautiful portrayal of a poignant — and in this case, heartbreaking — moment.
But as the photograph grew more and more well-known, the story of its subject has remained frustratingly opaque. Why did Evelyn McHale decide to take her own life? Why did she decide to die by suicide by jumping from the Empire State Building? She left only a hint of her motivations in her note.
But her full story will ultimately never be known.
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.