Robert Wiles  Evelyn McHale 1947

This photo was published as a full-page image in the 12 May 1947 issue of Life Magazine. It ran with the caption: “At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in grotesque bier, her falling body punched into the top of a car.” Remarkably Evelyn shows absolutely no evidence of trauma and appears disarmingly placid and composed – as if asleep. Around her, however, the crumpled sheet metal and broken glass show the violent destructive evidence of her jump. This apparent juxtaposition is what makes Wiles’ image so arresting and memorable. Some 60 years later it remains a haunting and affecting piece of photo-journalism. Evelyn Francis McHale, 20 (or maybe 23, reports differ), was a bookkeeper at an engraving company and lived with her sister’s family in Baldwin, New York. She had just returned from visiting her fiance, an ex-GI studying at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Exactly what happened during that visit will never be known but the next day, Thur, 1 May 1947, she went to the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building. Around 10:40 am Patrolman John Morrissey, directing traffic at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, noticed a white scarf floating down from the upper floors of the building. Moments later he heard a crash and saw a crowd converge on 34th street. Evelyn had jumped, cleared the setbacks, and landed on the roof of a United Nations Assembly limousine parked on 34th street, some 200 feet west of 5th Ave. Across the street, Robert Wiles, a student photographer, also noticed the commotion and rushed to the scene where he took this photo some four minutes after her death. Later, on the observation deck, Detective Frank Murray found her gray cloth coat, her pocketbook, a make-up kit filled with family pictures and a suicide note. According to police she wrote about having to fix a June wedding date and crossed out the line “He is much better off without me…I wouldn’t make a good wife for anybody.” After Wiles sold his photograph to Life magazine it was widely reprinted and Evelyn’s image has become something of a pop culture icon. Warhol even expropriated it for his 1962 painting, Suicide (Fallen Body).