There may be no crying in baseball, but you’ll be hard pressed not to shed a tear or two while watching A Secret Love. Chris Bolan’s moving documentary details the 65-year relationship of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, which saw them through everything from traveling with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League to the relief of coming out to family members when they reached their 80s.
Because even though they told almost everyone for decades that they were cousins — or really good friends who wanted to save money by sharing an apartment — Terry and Pat were a couple since they met in 1947 and fell deeply in love. They built a happy life together despite the fear of being found out by intolerant acquaintances, co-workers, and family members, but it wasn’t until they could share the truth of their relationship with the people they loved most that they were fully free to celebrate it.
Bolan — Terry’s great-nephew — delivers a powerfully intimate film in his directorial debut. Presumably thanks to his familial closeness to Pat and Terry, he has access to an amazing range of their vintage photos and film clips, which beautifully illustrate the length and depth of their life together. (It’s also a fascinating look into the AAGPBL.) Young, strong, and athletic when they met in the 1940s, they’re elderly and frail in the movie’s present (it was filmed between 2013-2018) — but their independence and connection to each other are as powerful as ever.
That independence, which is tied to a desire to protect each other and keep their love safe, is what gives the movie’s central conflict — whether Terry and Pat are ready to listen to the advice of Terry’s beloved niece Diana (Bolan’s mother) and move into assisted living — its drama. But it’s the romance between these two women, so ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, that will capture your heart. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Liz Whittemore This beautiful documentary tells the tale of a once forbidden love story. Pat and Terry met in the 1940’s and began a lifelong love affair that, at one point in our history, could have put them in jail. These two brave women defied close-minded societal conventions to show the world what a stable and passionate relationship can look like between two women. With old photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, and honest, intimate sit-down interviews with Pat, Terry, and their friends and family, A Secret Love explores the challenges of following your heart against all odds.
Susan Wloszczyna: The best thing about A Secret Love is that it treats its female subjects not like radical beings from an less-enlightened age or a history lesson from the past. Instead, we see Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel simply as human beings who fell in love in 1947 but weren’t able to acknowledge their true relationship — given legal and societal barriers — to their conservative families and the world at large for over 60 years.
MaryAnn Johanson What an absolutely beautiful film! Not just a deeply touching coming-out story, but also a gorgeous portrait of two women who “broke the rules” their whole lives, and a patchwork quilt of the many kinds of love and friendship that make a family. Oh, and it’s a bittersweet look at growing old from the perspectives both of those in their later years — and how hard it can be to let go of independence — and their younger relatives desperate to help as best they can. A tear-jerker in the very best sense of the term, one that leaves you feeling deeply connected to and invested in its subjects. Bravo!
Pam Grady: Director Chris Bolan pays tender homage to his great aunts Terry and Pat with this touching film that at once recounts the women’s great love story, Terry’s career as one of the athletes that inspired A League of Their Own, and the challenges presented by illness and aging to a couple who are as devoted to one another in the seventh decade of their relationship as they were at the beginning. Read full review.
Nikki Baughan: This sensitive, eye-opening documentary looks at the lives of elderly lesbian couple Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, during what will be the final chapter of their nearly 70-year romance. Although a couple for most of their adult lives, the pair only came out to their families fairly recently, and this film charts the reasons why they felt they had to keep their relationship a secret, and the fallout from that revelation. Director Chris Bolan delves into Terry and Pat’s incredible history — that Terry was a professional baseball player during the war years is just one of the colourful strings to their bows — but keeps the majority of the focus on the here and now. And as the pair navigate the new challenges of old age and family concerns, we are reminded that, no matter what your age or experience, the path of true love may never run smooth.
Loren King The intimate documentary A Secret Love chronicles the life partnership between Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel that began in the very closeted 1940s and endured for the next 70 years. This fascinating and inspiring look at ordinary LGBT lives woven through history is the best part of the film and the reason to watch. Read full review.
Leslie Combemale The new documentary A Secret Love may not be as tight as it could be in terms of editing or inventiveness, but only the hardest hearts won’t warm to its story. We witness the experiences of one-time All-American baseball player Terry Donahue, who played for the Peoria Redwings in the 40s, a-la-A League of Their Own, and her partner Pat Henschel, who have traveled through their 60+ year love relationship in secret. The fact that after all that time, when they come out, they still must brave bigotry, judgment, and rejection from family and former friends, shows just how far lesbians in the US have to go to gain acceptance. Vintage footage of 40s era baseball games and home movies of the couple add a historical element, but the power is all in seeing Terry and Pat express their love in many little ways, moment by moment, and after so many years.
Jennifer Merin Chris Bolan’s intimate documentary A Secret Love chronicles the 65-year relationship between two women who had to hide their love for each other for decades because of homophobic social stigma and legal restrictions, and who transcended all of that. The film is an inspiring celebration of Pat Henschel and pro baseball player Terry Donahue who are heroic, down to earth and thoroughly engaging characters whose love story is truly and profoundly moving.
Nell Minow: The tenderness of this love story over nearly 70 years makes this movie a treasure. Because it is made by the nephew of one of the central characters, the access and understanding give the documentary a naturalness and intimacy that make us feel like family, too.
Cate Marquis In the touching documentary A Secret Love, a lesbian couple who’ve been together for more than 60 years realize that declining health means they’ll have to come out to their family. After decades of keeping their love secret, telling the truth in this new era sparks old fears of rejection and challenges them to break habits of a lifetime, which once kept them safe in a homophobic world. The documentary is both a warm-hearted portrait of a remarkable couple, one of whom was one of the professional women baseball player who inspired A League of Their Own, and a tour of another homophobic time. In some ways, it’s a story of any aging couple confronting the need to give up some independence and a portrait of a couple who cleverly found a way to build a good life and a circle of friends – gay men included – despite the need for secrets. If this amazing tale of bravura and love does not both impress and a bring a tear, nothing will.
Sandie Angulo Chen: The poignant and personal Netflix documentary A Secret Love is a reminder of the truths in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2016 Tonys speech: “And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.” Canadian-born Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel met and fell in love on the same Saskatchewan ice hockey team in 1947 at 22 and 18. Neither of them had contemplated what falling in love with another woman would mean, and they were sure they were “the only ones.” For more than 60 years, they kept the reality of their relationship a secret, telling family and heterosexual friends that they were best friends who lived together to stay safe and save money in the Chicago area. Director Chris Bolan isn’t a dispassionate observer, he’s Terry’s grandnephew, and his mom Diana is Terry’s closest niece, making the film a true labor of love. Bolan explores Terry’s experiences in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (the inspiration for A League of Their Own), but his real focus is his great-aunt’s 70+-year relationship with “Auntie Pat.” Not only did the women live together, but they also worked in the same office, and went to every family event together. Still, their families didn’t know they were a couple until 2014 when Terry, who had Parkinson’s, felt overwhelmed with a need to tell Diana and her other grandnieces and nephews. Despite a bit of tension between Pat (who has little living family) and Terry’s close relatives, who want the couple to move closer to them in Canada, this film is a heartfelt chronicle of a love story for the ages.
Title: A Secret Love
Director: Chris Bolan
Release Date: April 29, 2020
Running Time: 81 minutes
Distribution Company: Netflix
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin