Towards the end of a “A Secret Love,” the Netflix documentary about the hidden six-decade love affair between Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, Donahue’s niece, Diana Bolan, is sorting through some of the couple’s old photographs as they prepare to move into an assisted living facility. The pictures show Donahue and Henschel traveling and socializing with friends, living a complete life even as they kept the terms of their relationship secret from Donahue’s family.
“They had this whole other family besides us,” Bolan says. “They had this whole other life.”
But “A Secret Love” doesn’t feature many accounts of that life, where Donahue and Henschel are open and thriving within their chosen queer community. The documentary, which was directed by Bolan’s son, Chris Bolan, focuses on the couple’s coming out to Donahue’s family, and the ensuing struggle to move them into an assisted living facility as Donahue’s health begins to fade. The film was shot between 2013-2018, one year before Donahue passed away at 93 years old.
Make no mistake: “A Secret Love” is emotional and heartwarming. It tells the story of Donahue and Henschel, who met in 1947 when they were 22 and 18, respectively. Donahue played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was founded in 1943 by former Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley when the majority of Major League Baseball stars went off to fight in World War II. The league was chronicled in the critically acclaimed fictionalized film, “A League of Their Own,” released in 1992.
The documentary brought this emotionally hardened viewer to tears several times, including when Henschel and Donahue get married in a small ceremony in front of family. The touching scene harkens back to an earlier conversation the two had over dinner with one of their longtime LGBT couple friends, Jack Xagas and John Byrd, about whether getting married would be worth it. Same-sex marriage became legal in Illinois in 2013.
Initially, Donahue pushed back against marriage, saying she was content with the six-decade status of their relationship. For a young gay whose never conceived not getting married one day, it was an eye-opening scene, especially when contrasted with old news clips depicting gay bar raids in the 1950s and 60s. Back when homosexuality was still considered a psychiatric disorder in the U.S. — until 1973! — Donahue and Henschel probably never thought they would even be able to consider getting married. After all, they didn’t come out to Donahue’s family, with whom they were close, until 2009.
Throughout the documentary, Chris Bolan does an excellent job of intersplicing old clips of Donahue and Henschel hanging out with friends and enjoying life together. The visuals, some of which are in black-and-white, depict them as striving young women who are madly in love. They even worked in the same office, and told colleagues they were good friends. That was their cover, including to family.
Since Donahue’s family directed the documentary, the story is understandably told from their perspective. In one of the more poignant scenes, Diana Bolan is pleading with Henschel to move into an assisted living facility near them in Canada, as Donahue battles Parkinson’s Disease and other health complications. At one point, Bolan wails that Donahue is down to just 100 pounds.
But Henschel relents. For almost the entirety of their relationship, they surrounded themselves with a queer family in Chicago. Why leave a place that felt so secure, while the rest of the world was so hostile?
As Donahue herself admits at the beginning of the documentary, sometimes friends know more about you than family. At its core, “A Secret Love” is about Donahue’s family discovering their beloved aunt’s longtime love affair, and not the love affair itself.
We got to know Donahue and Henschel when their life together was ending, and that was powerful. But it would’ve been even better to know more about it when it was sprouting.