Several years ago, filmmaker Chris Bolan gathered with the rest of his family at the suburban Chicago house of his two great aunts, Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel. Over some rum and Cokes, Terry and Pat let their family know there was something they had to tell them. Terry and Pat weren’t just lifelong friends and roommates; they are gay and have been each other’s romantic partner for decades.
The statement opened up a floodgate of emotions, with the family roundly supporting the pair and asking them questions about their relationship. Terry and Pat were finally able to open up about their story: how they met in the 1940s, fell in love, and were able to build a life together. Bolan was struck with the audacious, simple beauty of the moment.
“They got up and then they started dancing together in the living room. I remember looking at them going, ‘Oh my God, I have to tell this story,’” Bolan says. “That was the lightbulb going off for me in terms of knowing that I need to just get it out there because I’d never heard a love story like this between two women of that age before.”
Our culture has a dearth of entertainment and documentary options on depictions of old love. Thankfully for Bolan and A Secret Love, Aunt Terry’s life intersected with something else of tremendous interest to producers and viewers.
Terry Donahue was born in Canada but relocated to the United States in the ‘40s to play in 1946’s All-American Girls Baseball League…better known now as the A League of Their Own league. Terry was a big part of North American sports history and an avid baseball fan. That hook was enough for Bolan to ensure that Terry and Pat’s story finally got told. Bolan embedded himself in his aunts’ lives for nearly six years and created A Secret Love out of the experience.
The documentary was produced by Beech Hill, before catching the eye of the co-President of Blumhouse, Jeremy Gold. Then Jason Blum came aboard. The film was supposed to premiere at SXSW 2020 before the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“I think South By made absolutely the right decision and I totally get why they did it, but it was a gut punch,” Bolan says.
Thankfully the project found at home at Netflix with Ryan Murphy attached as a producer. We spoke with Bolan about his documentary and what it meant to finally share the story of his aunts with the world.
DEN OF GEEK: We don’t often see depictions of romantic love between older people in films and documentaries. How important was it to capture that in A Secret Love?
CHRIS BOLAN: That was the core of this whole film for me. I mean, I completely agree that we don’t see it. When (Terry and Pat) told me their story, that light bulb went off. From day one I’ve never been more sure about any project that I’ve ever worked on before. I knew this was a love story and I was going to tell this love story no matter what.
I pitched it to a couple of producers and people are always interested in it because it had the whole baseball thing and A League of Their Own. But I would say the core of this is a love story and they’re like, “We can’t. That’s too simple. We need some more salacious details here.” I said, “No, this is a love story.” Initially, getting this thing off the ground, I had to really stick firm to that. Of course, you’ve got the baseball and the family and all comes around that as additional themes. But that theme of these two older women having that burning love for each other over seven decades later…for me, it just needed to be the whole through line of the film.
Let’s talk about baseball a little bit and how it pertains to this because you did kind of just sneak it in there. You Trojan horsed it. What was it like growing up with Aunt Terry having been a part of this infamous and legendary league?
It was amazing. I wrote a paper in seventh or eighth grade about my famous aunt from Chicago playing professional baseball who was going to be in this movie A League of Their Own, when that movie came out in 1990 I think. One of the people at the newspaper, the Gazette, was going to publish it but they didn’t believe it because I was writing about this movie that hadn’t been released yet. They thought I was sensationalizing everything.
But I’ve always been enamored with my aunt. I’ve always been enamored with her playing baseball and then that movie was just the cherry on top. It was just incredible. That movie has become pop culture. “There’s No Crying In Baseball” – we all know what that comes from, we all use it. It was a very big part of Terry’s life. Terry had two loves: Pat and baseball. She often talked about her baseball glove being part of her heart. We absolutely needed to tell that story. It couldn’t all be baseball though and like you said, we Trojan horsed it a bit. But it felt organic where it came in as part of the story.
Was a particular character in A League of Their Own based on her?
I always get asked this question and I’m not sure. The Geena Davis character was based off of an actual woman. I think they might’ve done some amalgamation with taking various traits from different characters. But no, I would say that she wasn’t based on anyone in particular.
There was a cool thing of my aunt taking off her baseball hat and catching the ball with her hat or throwing off her face mask. Things like that were used in the movie and whether or not that was a direct comparison to my aunt or not, I don’t know.
There is some astonishing footage of old-timey homophobia that I had never seen before in this documentary. I’m thinking about that weird detective who says, “Look, one-third of girls in this room are going to be lesbians…” How shocking was it to come across that and what other insane stuff did you come up with in your research like that?
I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve done a lot with LGBTQI here in New York. I directed a number of shows for organizations such as the Ali Forney Center, and Point Foundation. I’ve worked with this really famous social justice and gay rights leader, David Mixner. I’ve directed him in one-man shows. I did know. I was aware of how difficult LGBTQI rights were back in the 1940s and the 50s.
That being said, as I dug into this for the movie, it was important for me to shed a light on that – to show why Pat and Terry were so scared…why they were so closeted. Because today’s generation, I don’t think they quite understand how dangerous it was back then. I really wanted to show the audience why they were so closeted and how times have changed. Some of the things as I started to dig in, it was shocking. I mean, they would do lobotomies on people to try to get into their brain and make them not gay, not lesbian. They would print all of their names in the newspapers in Chicago. Mayor Daley at that point would raid bars and print their names in the newspapers. These names would be teachers and principals and police officers and their lives would be ruined and they would commit suicide or be ousted from society. They’d lose their families.
It was awful. These women had to have three pieces of women’s clothing on them at any given time because if there was a bar raid and they didn’t have three pieces of women’s clothing, they would be arrested. Things like that, as I dug into it, I had no idea. I knew it was dangerous, but I didn’t know to what extent.
Midway through the documentary you flash-forward one year in the lives of Terry and Pat. Creatively or maybe even practically, what was behind that decision and what are some things we missed in that year?
I wrestled with this a lot. Bottom line is you need to get this film down to an hour 20, an hour 30 max. And we filmed for five or six years. A lot of great stuff hit the cutting room floor. That’s just par for the course of documentary filmmaking. The decision to make that jump there is that ultimately, we all wanted this film to feel like it was moving forward and had an energy behind it.
When we’re dealing with these two leads who are of older age as dynamic as they are…I didn’t want to get bogged down in all of the sickness and hospitalizations and all of that sort of thing. Once we made the point, I felt it was important to move beyond that because I think we could’ve gotten in the weeds a little bit with that and lost some of that momentum of the film.
Ultimately, I wanted it to be like an uplifting triumphant film about their life and not get stuck in the mire of all of the sicknesses and everything that’s failing and all that. If you remember (Terry’s) workout with a physical therapist. She’s lifting weights and there is that cute little scene. Then because she’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and I wanted to have a drastic comparison of what happened. She goes from being relatively healthy and really vibrant to a year later, taking a really big turn. I think as an audience, that’s interesting to see visually as opposed to having to walk through that whole transformation gradually. Those are some of the reasons why we did that.
Let’s talk about the ending. You kind of graft Terry and Pat’s physical journey back to Canada with the metaphorical end of their journey. That must be the hard part of filmmaking, especially when you’re dealing with reality, is finding a way to visually represent abstract concepts. That one’s a home run, to use a baseball term.
For me, it was also tricky being the director and the writer and also a family member because what makes really interesting movies or anything with those kinds of visual mediums is conflict. I like more of a verité approach to it. I wasn’t really interested in a “talking head” documentary.
Initially, it was very difficult for me because I loved them both so much to just stand back and let them go through it. An example would be Terry coming down the stairs and I wanted just to go there because I’m their strong, great nephew and help them. But it was more interesting to watch how Pat and Terry would do it without me being there and navigate that aging and those kinds of things. That was hard for me because I just wanted to keep saving the day and I had to just learn to be quiet and sit back and watch. Of course, I would never ever put them in dangerous situations, but I always wanted to help out and I had to really stop myself and just let things happen and just film it.
How’s Pat doing now?
She’s good, Alec. They moved back to Canada as you know and my mom put them in an assisted living facility two blocks away from where she lives, which is just perfect. My mom can visit every day. Terry passed away last March, March 14th, 2019. It was tough on Pat obviously, but my mom is right there and sees her every day and brings her great, great niece and my brother’s daughter to visit Pat. Pat loves it. She’s doing good. She’s had some health problems here or there, but her mind is really sharp.
She’s still able to live in their own apartment in the assisted living facility. I think being around family and being around my mom is a great, great support system. Pat calls my mom her angel and their whole journey has been very interesting. As you see in the film, they go through a lot and ultimately I think they’ve really come to have a deeper love and understanding of each other and the relationship has deepened because of that. She’s doing good. She keeps saying she wants to see this damn movie.
A Secret Love is available to stream on Netflix now.