A Secret Life

It’s remarkable how easy it is to become completely invested in the love and lives of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel.

Before they’re introduced as Chicago residents, star athletes, and lesbian pioneers, Donahue and Henschel are introduced as two old women with wispy gray hair and striking eyes, as Auntie Terry and Auntie Pat. It’s obvious from the start of the documentary just how in love the elderly couple remains, but sharing those feelings publicly is a privilege only granted to them a few years back, in their late 80s and early 90s.

A Secret Love gets its name not just from the Doris Day song that plays during the title sequence, but from the fact that Donahue and Heschel kept their relationship a secret for almost the entire seven decades they spent together. Director Chris Bolan—also the pair’s great-nephew—shares their story and the cultural context surrounding it, resulting in a winding narrative that goes so much deeper than two people falling in love.

As expected, the documentary dives into LGBTQ history, making it clear why secrecy was so necessary, especially back in the 1940s when the pair met. There are brief interviews with activists and experts, and the documentary could have certainly benefited from including more. People like Yvonne Zipter from University of Chicago Press, activist Marge Summit, and even our own Reader publisher Tracy Baim spoke to offer context about the criminalization of gays and lesbians, some of which feels so antiquated it’s almost laughable: “If you went to the bars, they would check you with a flashlight, and as you came out of the bar, if you had fly-front pants on, you went in the paddy wagon. You were impersonating a man.”

An accusation of queerness carried heavy consequences: countless people were arrested from the bars. Their names would be printed in the paper, outing them, resulting in lost jobs, lost child custody, even suicide. It’s no wonder that Donahue and Henschel stayed far away.

It would have been all too easy for them to get caught, considering Donahue was something of a public figure in her youth, both where she grew up in Saskatchewan and in her new home of Chicago. She came to the midwest in 1946 to play in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). She was there for the very beginning, when Philip Wrigley started the women’s league that inspired the film A League of Their Own. Bolan runs clips of the dress-wearing athletes, a full Wrigley Field, the Rockford Peaches, the Chicago Colleens, the Peoria Redwings (Donahue’s team), and more. One highlight is an old announcer’s clip from the era, in which a booming voice calls, “‘Tiby’ Eisen slides home with a run and a nicely bruised leg. Better a bruise than long pants, hey gals?”

More than baseball, however, and even more than LGBTQ history, A Secret Love is about growing old, and every wonderful and heartbreaking thing that happens when we do. The film is a tear-jerker for anyone who has seen a parent, grandparent, or other loved one through the end of their life. It’s all traumatizing but so thoroughly human: packing up a home that has been in the family for decades, finding boxes of letters and photos and memorabilia, saying goodbye to friends, searching for a suitable eldercare facility, managing finances and logistics and health issues and everything all at once. Add to that the fact that Donahue and Henschel made the difficult call to come out as gay to some family and friends after decades of secret-keeping, and it’s no surprise that A Secret Love evokes a whirlwind of emotions.

As a whole, the film weaves together the highs and lows of loving someone for a lifetime. It’s a triumph in its seemingly endless supply of old photographs and home video clips that provide a brilliant window into the past. Bolan smartly captures both the innocence of true love and the hardships that accompany it, particularly the disproportionate amount of maturity that queer people are often forced to develop just to keep themselves safe. It’s heartwrenching to see two people, who rely on only one another, learn to ask for help and learn to trust. The documentary is, in so many ways, an exploration of love and trust, one that will stand the test of time, just like Donahue’s and Henschel’s not-so-secret love. v