Film & Television

New Documentary Shines Loving Light
On ‘A Secret Love’

“Once I had a secret love
That lived within the heart of me . . .”

So begins Doris Day’s 1953 hit from the Warner Brothers movie Calamity Jane. Although her character, the eponymous female gunslinger, is secretly pining for Wild Bill Hickok in the film, many in the audience could relate to the lyrics. In 1953, if your heart’s desire didn’t prescribe to heteronormative conventions, the consequences were dire: arrest, public exposure, social and familial ostracism, loss of livelihood, and in many cases even suicide.

Little wonder, then, that Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel led a very private life together after falling in love in 1947. Their story, spanning seven decades, is told in the moving documentary A Secret Love.

Both women were originally from Edmonton, Canada. Terry, older by four years, was a member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (made famous by Penny Marshall’s 1992 A League of Their Own). She still remembers every detail, from tryouts through charm school to the thrill of playing ball. Her roommate warned her that some of the other players were lesbians, a concept that was new to Terry. As a precaution, the roommates not only locked their door but pushed a bureau against it. 

Terry had been a catcher for the Peoria Redwings for four years when she met Pat, an accomplished skater and hockey player. “You were pretty cute, my dear,” Pat remembers. 

It turns out tht Pat was also a poet, and she immortalized their meeting this way:

It might have been just one more walk
Beneath a moonlight hue
But darling — it meant everything
Because I walked with you
It might have been just one more night
A single night of seven
My darling — you were there with me
‘Twas one more night of heaven
On we sauntered seldom speaking
As we passed through Moonlight Lane
Happiness walked there inside me
When you smiled and called my name
Hours fled like winged moments
Hand in hand we walked alone
‘Twas one night I shall remember
One more night to call our own.

Hailing from conservative families (“My mother would have disowned me,” Henschel remembers), Pat and Terry decided to move to Chicago. There they hoped to find anonymity if not freedom. They both worked for an interior design company, and lived together as “best friends” or “cousins,” citing their budgets as the reason for sharing a place. They avoided the lesbian clubs of the day for fear that they would be deported if caught. They did manage to build a family of sorts with other gay couples. But, as Pat states matter-of-factly, “Anybody who was not gay didn’t know.”

A Secret Life uses marvelous archival footage, personal photographs, home movies, and mementos to bring Terry and Pat’s past to life. Much of the film, however, follows the two women in their 80s and 90s as they make difficult decisions about where and how they’ll live as they succumb to the inevitable health challenges of old age. At the time of filming, Terry is already plagued by tremors from Parkinson’s disease. (But she still carries a handful of signed baseball cards in her purse. “People get so excited,” she grins.) 

They’re assisted by Terry’s niece Diane, the first member of either family to learn that they were more than just roommates when they finally chose to come out in 2009. Her response was one of acceptance and love, as well as relief on their account that they could finally live their lives in the open. Other relatives weren’t quite as understanding; one niece expressed a feeling of betrayal, but hoped that they would choose to get married so they’d no longer be living in sin. Pat is all for it, but Terry has reservations.



Although Terry is eager to move back to Canada, where their savings will last much longer, Pat resists. She likes their life and the suburban home they’ve shared for more than twenty years. She would rather head to a warm climate. She also, it seems, likes having Terry all to herself. “Everybody loves Terry,” she complains half-seriously. “They put up with me only because of Terry.” As they consider options (one assisted living facility director tells them that they don’t have any same-sex couples yet, but that everyone is friendly), they experience the same emotional ups and downs that any couple would. A Secret Love is as much about the heartbreak of heading into the last chapter of life as it is about living in a nontraditional union. With Diane’s help, the two women pack up their shared life, from dusty bric-a-brac to lovingly curated photo albums — their niece marvels when she sees pictures of their travels with friends and realizes that their lives were richer than she knew. 

In a League of Their Own, Tom Hanks famously chastises one of his Rockford Peaches that “There’s no crying in baseball!” You may find yourself weeping at several points during A Secret Love. A quick scene that nearly undid me was when Diane finds an old suitcase filled with pictures and love letters. Each handwritten note is torn across the bottom so that if it were found, there’d be no proof of who had written it. Pat and Terry couldn’t resist putting their words of love on paper, but they also couldn’t risk being exposed.

A Secret Love is directed by Chris Bolan, Diane’s son and Terry’s great-nephew, and the intimacy and love he has for his subjects is clear. The film was produced for Netflix by Ryan Murphy. It’s an interesting counterpoint to his current miniseries Hollywood, in which he’s imagined a golden age of Tinseltown where gay, African- American, and Asian actors could succeed. He rewrites the careers of Rock Hudson, Hattie McDaniel, Anna May Wong, and others, and gives them the happy endings they were never afforded. Hollywood is entertaining, but at times its revisionism feels disrespectful to the memories of the very outsiders it attempts to celebrate.

There is nothing but respect and genuine affection in A Secret Love. If anything, the film evokes a sense of admiration and wonder not just with regard to the obstacles Pat and Terry overcame as lesbians, but for any couple (of any gender combination) that can maintain the love and sense of sheer joy for and about each other that these two do. They are happy that same-sex couples have more rights and freedoms than they experienced in the 1940s, but they have no regrets and cherish their many years of secret love. And, in that spirit, they finally decide to make their union official.

As Doris Day’s song ends  . . .

“At last my heart’s an open door
And my secret love’s no secret anymore.”


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