‘The Most Beautiful Suicide’

The observation deck of the Empire State Building likely taken during the 1940s.

Has anyone else ever heard of this before? Without me saying anything else, do you know what this is in reference to before I tell you? I had no idea until 10:39 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Dec. 19, 2020. After taking my noir-filtered photograph of the dark curtains in my room for the previous daily haiku post, I got curious about looking at black and white photographs. My search turned up, “the most beautiful suicide.” At first, I thought the people who made the list were being dark or crass. After all, what a peculiar way to refer to a suicide. But then I Googled it, and well, the photograph is known as “the most beautiful suicide.”

From what I can gather from Wikipedia and this New York Times article, Evelyn McHale, a bookkeeper who was only 23 at the time, jumped from the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building in 1947, and within four minutes, a photography student, Robert Wiles, took a photograph of her. That photograph became iconic, and was even printed in the 1976 book, The Best of LIFE, which was a roundup of the best photographs from LIFE magazine. The book came out four years after LIFE went from weekly to monthly.

Here’s the image:

Evelyn McHale, a “most beautiful suicide,” taken by photographer Robert Wiles in 1947.

The architectural historian, Max Page, who wrote the 2006 article I linked above, said, “In the image of this sleeping beauty, I saw not only unrequited love but also the skyscraper’s sheer gravitational power.” Andy Warhol even used the photo in his work Suicide (Fallen Body).

I’m fascinated in the most macabre way imaginable. How grotesque and weird is this? It’s a suicide. Someone at their worst possible moment. And it’s considered beautiful. People suggest as much because McHale seems at peace, maybe even asleep, and she’ll wake up at any moment, and the way her legs are entwined only add to that representation. Again, in the most macabre way, yeah, I can see what people mean. But there’s also hints at just how destructive it actually is, mainly, the destroyed United Nations limousine that she fell upon. But also, her shoes are off. I wonder, did she take her shoes off prior to jumping or did they fly off during the fall?

According to LIFE magazine, she left her fiancé, writing that he was better off without her [a classic of someone depressed/suicidal is thinking X person(s) is/are better off without them], ” … I wouldn’t make a good wife for anybody.”

Perhaps the most ironic, macabre twist of it all is that part of her note said, “I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation?”

Yet, by jumping from one of the most famous buildings in the world, and the happenstance of a photographer being nearby, her body in its final act and moment became an iconic image for decades to come. Wow.

Here’s a picture of McHale that isn’t her final moment.

The whole Page piece I linked to above is worth reading, both for its beautiful writing and as a rather interesting artifact itself to the allure of the Empire State Building, both as a place of death, dying dreams, and even almost mystical power. Our culture is one of building things up and tearing them back down, and in a literal sense, that’s what happens even with our most impressive buildings. Almost as soon as it was erected it in the 1930s, the Empire State Building was being mounted and destroyed in popular culture. So would be the same for years after and with other popular buildings and landmarks. I could do a whole post just on this digression, as I’m fascinated by it. But I suppose, you can’t talk about McHale without digressing about the Empire State Building itself.

After all, if McHale really wanted nobody to remember her or see her again, there are many ways to do it that didn’t involve that building. But something pulled here there that day.

“Virtually all of the four million who yearly rise to the top of the Empire State Building come down safely. But each one is changed by the experience.”

Max Page.

I have visited the Empire State Building (I believe I’ve done it more than once, but don’t quote me on that) and get chills even now thinking about it. There’s nothing quite like it. Page is right on that score.

This was circa 2014.

But as you can see from the photo, and I wonder if this was influenced by McHale, it’s virtually impossible to jump from the building now.

Addendum: I just learned that one of my favorite Radiohead songs, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” pays homage (if that’s the right word) to the photograph in the music video. I’ve seen the music video for the song before, but obviously never made that connection. Watching it now, whew. The video is even in black and white.

3 thoughts

  1. It’s definitely darkly beautiful. I love that video, especially the dancers (and Jonny Greenwood, haha what a ledge). It was Jonathan Glazer I think (that made it), who directed Under the Skin. I found that really hard to watch!

    Liked by 1 person

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