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Elderly lesbian couple and stars of Netflix’s bittersweet A Secret Love had no idea why their amazing story was so special

Lily Wakefield May 2, 2020
A secret love

The couple were forced to keep their relationship a secret for six decades. (Netflix)

Two producers of the new Netflix documentary A Secret Love have said that Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel had no idea why their love story was so special.

A Secret Love follows the bittersweet lesbian love story of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, who were forced to keep their relationship a secret for six decades.

Donahue and Henschel met in 1947, when Henschel was just 18, and Donahue was a 22-year-old catcher in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

They fell in love, but were forced to keep their relationship a secret from everyone around them for their own safety, even tearing the names off the bottom of their love letters. The couple finally came out to their remaining family when Henschel was in her late eighties and Donahue was in her early nineties.

The documentary’s producers Brendan Mason and Alexa L Fogel told PinkNews about the four years it took to make the film, what Henschel and Donahue were like off-camera, and how the couple didn’t see why their story was special.

Fogel and Mason have worked together on many films, but have rarely worked on documentaries. Fogel met Chris Bolan, the couple’s great-nephew who directed the A Secret Love, while running workshops for masters students at NYU.

Bolan asked if he could take Fogel out to lunch to discuss a documentary idea he had. She told PinkNews: “I went and I talked to him, and he told me the story about his great aunts. I remember going back to the office and saying: ‘We’re doing our first documentary.'”

Fogel and Mason soon decided that they needed to fly to Chicago to meet the couple.

A Secret Love: Netflix doc tells story of lesbians forced to hide their love
Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel met in 1947. (Netflix)

Mason said: “Who bothers to come out in their 80s? Why put yourself through that? On a basic level, we had to know the answer to that.

“On the first night, they said: ‘We want to make you dinner.’ Alexa and I were sitting with Terry in the dining room, and Pat was in the other room.

“Terry was talking about Pat and giggling about her with such glee and love, it was like people that had met a year ago. Alex and I looked at each other, and we thought, ‘Oh my God, to still feel this way about somebody after 60-something years, that’s an unbelievably deep well of emotion.”

Asked how the couple felt about the film initially, the producers said they simply “didn’t understand” why their story would interest people.

“The thing that’s kind of so amazing about Pat and Terry,” said Mason, “is they truly didn’t see it. They didn’t understand why we would want to be doing this or how they were special.”

But Fogel said that around two years into filming, they visited the John Hancock tower, the tallest building in Chicago.

“It was where their office building had been and we were taken on a tour by a young man, I would say in its early 20s,” she said.

“He was a big fan of the [baseball] league. Brendan explained to him what we were doing and he got really choked up, the idea that these women have been together for so long.

“We told them the story, and I think in that moment it hit them for the first time. They realised that somebody, a young gay man in his early 20s, was so moved by their story, that they they finally understood why it could be maybe have an impact.”

Mason, who is gay himself, added: “Their relationship is such an aspirational relationship. When I was younger and coming out and going through that process, there weren’t really examples that you could look to of a relationship that you wanted to be in one day.

“These kinds of stories are so important for people who need to feel that they are OK, and will be OK, and that there’s a place for them and someone for them in the world, possibly. Pat and Terry are just such a great example of that.”

a secret love
The couple finally came out to their remaining family when Pat was in her late eighties and Terry was in her early nineties. (Netflix)

They said that over the four years of filming, they became “very close with Pat and Terry, in a real human way”. Fogel described the dynamic between the two women: “I think they’re both very strong and both very loving and they are just in different lanes at different times. I think it’s a very even relationship, but they both have strong opinions.”

Mason added: “You know, water always finds its level and I think that could said of their relationship. You look at the fact that when they had health issues over the course of six years, they were never ill at the same time. They have this cellular level connection that was so wild that we always kind of boggle at.”

On the appeal of A Secret Love for anyone, whether “young, old, straight or gay”, Fogel said: “The thing that every human being experiences in some form or another is ageing friends or relatives… the combination of that with this enduring love is something that is identifiable to anybody.”

Mason added that while the couple’s story seems exceptional, “I’m sure if we go back into our grandparents or great grandparents generations, there are a lot of stories like this and just have been a secret and not been told.”

Donahue passed away last year, at the age of 93, but she was able to see an early version of the film before she died.

On the couple’s reaction to the film, Mason said: “They finally got it. I think it was very emotional for both of them because we not only show their life in the present, but we show their life in the past.

A lot of the footage they hadn’t seen him for years because it had been sitting in a suitcase in their basement.

“They were reliving their past, in the present. And I think that was extremely emotional and very powerful for both of them.”

The Netflix documentary A Secret Love is available to stream now.

More: A secret love, Alex Fogel, Brendan Mason, documentary, lesbian couple, netflix, Pat Henschel, Terry Donahue

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