The Most Beautiful Suicide

Cristen Conger

I wrote this post a couple weeks ago after running across a LIFE article about Evelyn Hale and the photograph of her dead body, popularly known as "the most beautiful suicide." I didn't immediately publish it because of the inherent discomfort of those two words side-by-side, "beautiful" and "suicide" and the potential for it to be misinterpreted as a glorification of the act. Then, the subsequent news of Robin Williams' suicide and subsequent outpouring of grief reminded me of Hale, a woman whose suicide similarly received national attention, though not for who she was but for her haunting final image. It made me wonder whether if her public profile and legacy had been as rich and endearing as Williams, there would be far less superficial "beauty" read into the photograph, if we had known more of who she was as a person, she wouldn't have been immortalized in the popular press as merely a "suicide."

On May 01, 1947, Evelyn McHale leaped to her death from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Four minutes after she died upon impact with a limousine parked outside the United Nations building, photography student Robert Wiles rushed to the scene and snapped photos of what's now known as "the most beautiful suicide." On the observation deck wall, along with her coat, a makeup compact and a handbag, McHale left behind a brief note requesting she be cremated and that no funeral take place. Her family complied with her final wishes, and not even a headstone commemorates her life.

Evelyn McHale after she jumped to her death in the photograph known as "the most beautiful suicide."
Courtesy: Robert Wiles/LIFE/Kottke

The haunting photograph captured national attention, and news of her death was reported on in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers. LIFE magazine ran the photo on a full page, along 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." Codex 99 describes the photo as "one of the iconic images of the 20th century," and perhaps rendered all the more gripping since so few details were known of McHale's life.

It was the only photograph Wiles would ever publish.

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LIFE: The Most Beautiful Suicide': A Violent Death, an Immortal Photo

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)