A new Netflix documentary has given a PK grad the best way to send a love letter to two very special people in his life.
Chris Bolan’s tender and beautiful film A Secret Love tells the story of his two aunts Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel who lived together for more than 70 years but only came out as a same-sex couple in 2009. The moment is indelible in his memory, though it happened 10 years ago when he and his own wife flew out to visit Donahue (his biological great-aunt) and her partner Henschel in the suburbs of Chicago.
The revelation came over some easy afternoon highballs.
“Terry and Pat ... there's two things they love to do: drink rum and cokes, and play cards. We were doing that and then they just said, ‘You know, we have something that we want to tell you both. We're gay.’ Of course, my wife and I were completely supportive. We gave him a big hug and said, ‘We're so glad you told us. We love you both,’ and then these floodgates opened up with them,” he recalled.
“I began to hear stories that I had never heard my whole life about this other life that they had with their LGBTQ family in Chicago, and then this love story about how they met. I remember sitting there and hearing these stories about them kissing in the middle of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan on a main street when there's a dust storm because no one could see them, or running into a church and they got locked in because they were finding places where they could be together or running out the back door into the wheat fields as the boyfriends are coming to the front door to take them out on a date.”
The stories were fantastic and fascinating, and vivid enough to spark his own imagination, especially considering the sources. These two women in their 80s were revealing long-held secrets. Bolan, a St. Albert Children’s Theatre alumnus who had previously only directed stage productions, said it was more than enough inspiration to turn him into a filmmaker.
“I had never heard anything like it. They were incredible stories and the light bulb went off in my head. I just felt compelled to make a movie about it.”
The film is a seriously wonderful depiction that tugs at the heartstrings in a lot of different ways. It shows the deep affections between the two while doing more than hint at the many traumas and struggles that have had to be overcome, or simply abided by along the way. Same sex life isn’t an easy journey; Terry and Pat’s relationship shows that they have had to work at their relationship and navigate a path through social norms and societal acceptance.
Complicating things was Terry’s claim to fame: a stint as a utility player and catcher in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II. She had a .947 fielding average and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Their game received its long-overdue publicity in the Geena Davis/Madonna/Tom Hanks film A League of Their Own.
Donahue, sadly, died last year after battling Parkinson’s disease for years but thankfully she and Henschel were legally married in Canada on Donahue’s birthday in 2015 and moved up to Edmonton to be closer to family. Before Donahue died, however, the couple was able to see a working version of the documentary that was originally scheduled to be premiered at the South by Southwest Festival in Texas in March.
“These women of this generation are disappearing, and with them their stories,” Bolan continued. “They grew up in a time and they're from a generation where they weren't allowed to be ‘out and proud’ and the ones that were fighting against it and standing up for LGBTQ rights were put in jail. Terry and Pat weren't those types of women.”
Seeing the importance of sharing their story didn’t just hit home with him. He garnered the support of Glee producer Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions in order to get it made and available for the public to see.
This has all made the novice but accomplished filmmaker very grateful.
“I'm very excited that we're finally able to share this beautiful story with the world. It's been a long road, and a lot of hard work. It's nice to have a platform like Netflix to really get it out there globally.”