Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel probably never considered themselves worthy subjects for a documentary — largely because, for most of their lives, they didn’t necessarily want a lot of attention pointed their way. Donahue, who was born in the summer of 1925, grew up a talented athlete in Saskatchewan, eventually moving to the States to be part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which was immortalized in the 1992 film A League of Their Own. Becoming a star in the league, she went home during the offseason in 1947, which is when she met Henschel, who was a few years younger and a hockey player. Although both of them identified as straight in public — and had dated men — they quickly fell in love, having to hide their relationship for much of their lives. When Donahue died in March of last year, they’d been together for seven decades.
The couple swore to their families that they were just friends, even though they lived together in Chicago. (It was cheaper to have a roommate, they’d explain — you know how expensive the Windy City is.) Around outsiders, Donahue and Henschel would say that they were cousins, and nobody bothered to fact-check. It was only in 2009 that they finally came out to Donahue’s family — including Terry’s great-nephew Chris Bolan, a theater director and actor who’s appeared on Billions. A husband and father, Bolan wasn’t scandalized by Donahue’s admission — he was just happy that she was happy. After all, he’d been close to his great-aunt since he was a boy. And although he’d never made a film before, he thought that Donahue and Henschel’s enduring love was deserving of being chronicled.
The result of seven years of work is A Secret Love, streaming now on Netflix. It’s a warm, affectionate film that touches on the couple’s early days, their courtship, Donahue’s days in baseball and the health struggles that clouded their later years. (Donahue had Parkinson’s, which contributed to her death.) But as well as being a record of how one closeted couple had to be careful during a bigoted age, the documentary is also surprisingly intimate in its depiction of the tensions within Donahue’s family — namely, that Bolan’s mom Diana (who is Terry’s niece) believes the couple should move back to Canada so they can be close to family and move into an assisted living facility. Henschel absolutely disagrees — she doesn’t want to lose their freedom and happy life in Illinois — and Bolan was there for some pretty intense fights. If A Secret Love celebrates true love, it also laments the tough decisions that must be made when age becomes an issue.
Not that Bolan had any idea where his personal project would lead. “I’ve never been behind the camera as a director,” he tells me. “But I had an idea of what I wanted the story to be — I knew at the core it was a love story. We just kind of followed where it went.” And even in death, Donahue continues to be an inspiration for him: “Terry was a very positive person — she would always see the positive side of things,” even as her body was failing her. During our interview, we talked about why Donahue never wanted to get married, what A League of Their Own left out about the AAGPBL and how he managed to get the movie’s centerpiece “fight scene.”
When Terry Donahue told your family that she and Pat Henschel were a gay couple, were you surprised? What was that moment like when they told you?
It was a strange thing. Yes, we were surprised — I think my family members more so than me. They had been asked over the years, point blank, “Are you gay?” And they always answered, “No.” They said they were just really good friends, and it was cheaper to split the rent while living in Chicago, so it was out of convenience. And you have to remember, too, that Pat [had been] engaged to two or three different men and Terry had suitors who wanted to get married — they both had boyfriends — and so we just took them at their word. But, obviously, the family was like, “You’ve been living together for so long.”
For me, because I’m in the entertainment industry and I grew up in theater, it wasn’t shocking. It didn’t really matter to me [about] their sexuality, but it was definitely a surprise — especially coming out so late in their life, in their 80s.
For straight viewers, it might be surprising that a longtime gay couple decides not to get married — the assumption is that, because gay couples were denied that right for so long, they’d want to jump at it. But we see in A Secret Love that Terry just isn’t interested — whereas Pat really is.
It’s largely a generational thing. [Donahue] was born in the 1920s, and they spent their formative years in the 1940s. They come from a generation [where being gay] was so dangerous. It was so taboo. You’re ostracized — your life was ruined — so I think part of it was due to just thinking they were part of that generation of having to keep everything secret. And because everything was going so well between Terry and Pat, Terry didn’t understand [why they needed to get married]. I don’t think she felt that a ring was going to legitimize their love. And it’s so interesting, [they have a] conversation [in the film] at the dinner table with their two friends — two [older] gay men — and one of them wanted to get married and the other one didn’t want to.
But, yeah, the younger generation, I’ve noticed that they’re jumping at the opportunity [to get married] because it’s something that’s never been [allowed] in this country before. It’s a huge leap forward in terms of social justice and LGBTQ rights, which is amazing. But Terry thought they had a good thing going and she didn’t necessarily need to do it. Pat really wanted to do it, and ultimately because Terry loves Pat so much, I think that’s why she agreed to finally go along with it.
Terry’s time in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League serves as this great digression in the movie. I kept thinking about how she and other women were probably advertised as these sexy, girly girls to a male fan base, who wouldn’t have been happy to learn that some of them were gay.
There were other women in that league who were lesbians, of course, so they had to keep it a secret — either to maintain the optics of the league or because they were in a generation where it was totally dangerous and taboo.
These women were all amazing athletes, and they wanted to be perceived as athletes, period. They didn’t want that conversation about sexual orientation even to come into play — who’s gay or who’s straight didn’t matter to them. They just wanted to be taken seriously as ballplayers, and they were. I think, in 1949, a million people were watching them play ball. But they did have to maintain the secret — they called it “the lipstick league.” You have to look pretty — there was a charm school.
A League of Their Own was a wonderful gift by really elevating this league and bringing it to the forefront in the American [consciousness]. Terry often said, “If that movie hadn’t been made, we would have just disappeared into oblivion. No one would have known us.” So, that was great what they did. What they didn’t do is they didn’t talk about everything else underneath — the things that, for instance, Terry was wrestling with, having to hide who she was. I mean, as she was becoming a celebrity ballplayer, she’d go back up to Canada — her name’s being printed in the paper, and then she’s going into a hotel room with Pat so they can be alone together. That’s what the movie didn’t touch on. And in the 1990s, we were still not at a place of acceptance — we’re still getting there, despite all the leaps forward that we’ve made.
A Secret Love doesn’t shy away from the fact that Pat and your mom Diana really kept bumping heads. Your mom wanted them to move home to Canada to an assisted living facility, and Pat refused.
It was particularly difficult for my mom with Pat, because [Donahue and Henschel] had established this life in Chicago together and it was a great life. They had their found family and all their friends there, and she didn’t want to leave that. My mom, obviously, was doing it out of love, but she was starting to see that Terry was failing and her health was getting worse and that their friends were passing away around them. So, in a short time, they were going to be stuck there all alone. And what happens if something happens to one of them? They’ve got nobody around them.
So there was that tug of war, and you definitely see it in the culminating fight scene that breaks out that one morning. There was resistance from Pat, but what I think was beautiful and what I think made it interesting is the journey that Pat and Diana and Terry all took.
Let’s talk about that “fight scene.” It’s remarkable that you got that intimate footage of the three of them arguing about assisted living — it’s angry, and there’s crying, and yet they don’t seem to care at all that you’re there. How did you get that?
They had no idea I was filming them. [Laughs sheepishly] So, here’s what happened. We had been there for several days on a shoot, and my wonderful crew [was small] because I always wanted to maintain a low footprint. I didn’t want cameras and mics in their faces — I wanted to get this honest, intimate portrayal of their life. But we were running out of money constantly — we couldn’t afford to keep [the crew] there all the time — so they flew home. So, they left, and a few hours [later], I’m sitting at the dinner table in their house, and this huge argument broke out.
I just remember sitting there [thinking], “Oh my God, I have to film this.” But I can’t say, “Okay, cut! Please stop, I need to go get my good camera from the car.” I can’t do that. So the only thing I could think of was I had my iPhone — I picked up my iPhone and I started just filming it. And I just made it very low-profile so they didn’t know I was doing it.
There were moments where Pat was looking right at me — I thought for sure she knew I was filming, but they didn’t have any idea. It was so hard for me to just sit there and shut up and not try to help: “No, listen, Auntie Pat, Diana means well…” You want to do that because you love them all, but I just had to sit there. I was just nodding a lot.
Of course, I asked them permission afterwards. And when I told them [that I had been filming] they were shocked. I said, “Listen, there’s some really raw stuff here, but we need conflict in the film — otherwise, it’s not very interesting.” They said, “You can absolutely use it.”
I understand, as a filmmaker, that’s great to have on camera. But you’re still part of the family. How did you convince them to let you keep that in the movie?
It was very hard for me to walk that line as a filmmaker and as a family member. I had the benefit that they adored me and I adored them, and we’ve had a great relationship from the time I was two years old, so there was a trust there. Once I sat them down, I explained why this [scene] is important — this is happening in other families, these kinds of conversations and these fights. I’m sure we all have a grandmother, a mother or a father that we have to put into an assisted living facility — and those conversations are never easy. We’re all going to have them.
When I explained that to them — “Pat, we see your point of view. Diana, we see your point of view. Terry, we see how you’re stuck in the middle.” — they understood and they trusted me with their story. I was very grateful that they let me use it.
We have a tough time in movies with aging and dying — it’s something we don’t want to see. But A Secret Love is very matter-of-fact about it.
As a country, ageism is rampant. People who are older, we don’t want to make movies about them. We don’t want to really celebrate them. We want to put them into assisted living facilities and forget about them. And when you make a movie, you think about all these things: “Are we going to be able to sell this with two older women? No one wants to buy that.” And credit my wonderful producers and Netflix and [producer] Ryan Murphy for really championing us and believing that, yes, they are an important voice. Those people of those generations have important things to share — wonderful stories and wisdom to give.
I spent so much time in assisted living facilities hanging out with all of their friends, and I loved it. I mean, I learned so much. This generation is disappearing, they’re dying — and with them, their stories. So I’m so glad that we were able to preserve one of these stories.
Yes, but people are freaked out by retirement homes. We don’t want to think that, one day, we may end up there. What was it like to watch them navigate that transition?
It was tough. There’s a universal theme in this film that I think we can all identify with — you have a mother or father or somebody that you love that you’re going to have to go through this with. And it was tough watching them have to do this, but I took solace in the fact that they were together. Terry says in the movie, “It doesn’t matter where we go, as long as we’re together, we’re going to be happy.” And that was it for them.
They had such a wonderful life together. After seven decades, they still loved spending time with just each other. Now, of course, they’re realizing that they’re aging and that the life that they know is changing, and that was tough. It was especially tough for Pat, and yet Pat has such a resiliency. She’s like, “You’re not getting rid of my golf clubs. I’m still going to go golfing.” They had a resiliency to them that was just astounding.
You’re a husband and a father. Did spending time with Terry and Pat teach you anything?
Well, as a husband, my God, I hope I get to seven decades with my wife. I hope we can laugh when we’re in our 80s and in a marriage like Pat and Terry did. They had fun with each other — they respected each other and they laughed together. And they were patient with each other. I hope I have that with my marriage with my wife.
And in terms of a father, I hope my son, it doesn’t matter what he ends up being or his sexual orientation. Terry used to tell me all the time — as I was starting out my career as a struggling actor — just to follow your dream. My career has been up and down, and there’s been great highs and really tough lows. As a father, learning what I learned with her and watching her, I hope I can impart that onto my son: “Follow your dream.” She followed her dream and good things happened.