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The most beautiful suicide

Robert Wiles (1947) The most beautiful suicide

“The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”
(Poe, 1846: 19; quoted in Bronfen, 1992: 59)

The American writer Edgar Allan Poe stated these words in 1846 in his Philosophy of Composition.

Almost a century later, on May 1947, Life magazine published The most beautiful suicide, a picture

taken by student photographer Robert Wiles that immortalizes the dead body of Evelyn McHale, an

American girl who jumped from the Empire State Building eleven days before publication.

In The most beautiful suicide the beauty of the subject seems to be emphasized over the tragedy of

the death. It is, therefore, an example of a case where the boundary between photography made to

document and photography aimed to please has not been clearly defined.
In fact, it is above all a picture of a deceased person, whose last will, as reported on her suicide note,

happened to be of an ironic sort: “I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me.

Could you destroy my body by cremation?” (The Times Record, 1947: 1,17; quoted in Evelyn McHale,

2015)

In this essay, I will endeavour to explain the reason why the visual representations of femininity and

death seems to imply aesthetic pleasure, investigating the influence of the social context.

Subsequently I will illustrate the risks resulting from the conjunction of mortality and beauty in

photography, when the dignity of the person is not always guaranteed.

In the picture of R. Wiles, the woman appears supine on the top of the car, among twisted steel

deformed by her crush. The position of the body gives the idea of a person who is resting. The gently

crossed legs and the gloved hand clutching her necklace, embrace the impression of quietness that

connote her image, enforced by the peaceful expression of her face. The fashionable and accurate

clothes style of the woman is indicative of the epoch in which the incident occurred. The photographer

caught the picture from a frontal prospective, which emphasizes the shape of her body. Faces from

the crowd emerge in the background.

Robert Wiles captured The most beautiful suicide in the instant preceding the disintegration of the

body while it was still intact in its beauty. In that moment, in fact, the decomposition process resulting

from death had not started yet; therefore, the latter appears as a perfect form of an unanimated figure.

The aesthetic pleasure derived by the beauty of the body is increased by the viewer’s implicit

awareness that the form they are looking at is still intact and about to decompose. Consequently, the

picture is fascinating because it unconsciously invalidates the principle of disintegration and

vulnerability, which we tend to reject, despite being typical of the human existence.

According to Elisabeth Bronfen (1992), we are captivated by the image of a dead body because, being

projected in another dimension, we experience the event indirectly. Moreover, despite the fact that

we are forced to confront ourselves with the presence of death in life, at the same time the
representation of someone else’s death confirms our own immortality: “there is death, but it is not my

own” (Bronfen, 1992: x)

Since the visual representations of death are influenced by a common cultural context, investigating

the historical circumstances in which The most beautiful suicide occurs can be useful to understand

the reason why it became an iconic image. The death of Evelyne McHale arose in the period just

after World War II, when America was experiencing a moment of instability that affected society on

all levels, including the culture and the conception of woman, who had acquired more independence

during the war. The post war period saw the attempt of society to reintroduce those feminine ideals

of the woman who works at home looking after the family. To facilitate this conversion, forms of

mass media contributed to introduce a new ideal of the perfect feminine figure. After 1940, American

journalism saw the introduction of picture-based magazines like Life and Look, which were consumed

especially by the growing middle class. Despite the multitude of body types disseminated by the

media, it was possible to delineate a profile of the ideal American lady: a thin, tall and busty woman,

who wears cutaway suits and Chanel gloves. Above all, a female with blonde hair and white skin,

such as Evelyn McHale, who embodies that ideal of beauty spread across post war America.

It is perhaps its cultural context and aesthetics that inspired artists Andy Warhol and Matthew Barney

to appropriate The most beautiful suicide and create the Suicide (Fallen Body) serigraph (1962) and

the Drawing Restraint 17 (2010), respectively. The appropriation of a photograph to create a body of

art is frequent in western culture. However, considering that the picture of Wiles, beyond the aesthetic

composition and subject, documents the suicide of a person makes us reflect on the moral value of

the photograph.

A debate on the ethic of representation brings us back to 1836, when in New York the Herald

published a lithograph made by Henry Robinson that erotized Ellen Jewett, a 23 years old courtesan

who was murdered a few days before by a man called Richard Robinson. Designed as a calculated
strategy to increase sales, the publication of the print received the criticism of The New York Sun

(1836: 1), which acclaimed:

It is sufficiently indecent to render it attractive to persons of depraved tastes, […] those

who have seen her said that Henry Robinson has murdered her far more barbarously than

Richard Robinson did. (1836: 1, quoted in Leja, 2015: 149).

The outrage committed on the body of Ellen Jewett can equally be identified with the case of Evelyn

McHale. In fact, her picture has been published by Life with a caption that, similarly to the one on

the Herald, minimizes the tragedy of the death of the girl, who “reposes calmly in grotesque bier”

(Life, 1947: 1, quoted in Evelyn McHale, 2015), as Ellen Jewett “[is] reposing in the embrace of

death” (New York Herald, 1836: 1, quoted in Leja, 2015: 149).

In conclusion, Evelyn McHale can be seen in the same way as a victim of a marketing operation,

which took advantage of the aesthetic pleasure conveyed by the photograph of Wiles to increase sales.

This is a circumstance still encountered nowadays, which originates from the fact that news is, today

as in the past, a commercial as well as a social product. Therefore, the contemporary debate on the

ethics of representation seems to affirm that there is still the need to formulate a regulatory code able

to guarantee the dignity of the person in any circumstance.


Reference List

Bronfen E. (1992) Over her dead body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic, Manchester University

Press

Evelyn McHale (2015) Available at: http://www.codex99.com/photography/43.html (Accessed:

15/11/2016)

Leja, M. (2015) News Pictures in the Early Years of Mass Visual Culture in New York: Lithographs

and Penny Press, in Getting the picture: The visual culture of the news, Hill J.E. and Schwartz V.

R. (2015), Bloomsbury Academic, p. 146-153

Matelski E. M. (2011) The Color(s) of Perfection: The Feminine Body, Beauty Ideals, and Identity

in Postwar America, 1945-1970 in Dissertation, Loyola University Chicago, p.158. Available at:

http://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/158 (Accessed: 18/11/2016)