Forty years ago when I was in college, I sat in a darkened classroom next to a window, watching snow fall outside. The class was called Photography and Modern Culture and the professor, Dr. Graffam, who is now dead, violently pulled the blind down.
“Am I disturbing you?” he asked and everyone stared.
I’d taken the course as an elective, but I’d be lucky if I passed since he hated all my essays. Our papers analyzed the pictures he showed on the overhead projector, a device which is now as obsolete as a slide rule or as Dr. Graffam, himself.
He especially admired the work of Diane Arbus and Weegee because he said they revealed the ‘menace in ordinary life’, but on that day, he was showing the single known picture of an obscure photography student named Robert Wiles.
Stretched across the screen in front of the blackboard, was a picture of a girl who’d jumped off the Empire State Building. She’d landed on a limousine, shattering the car though she remained stunningly intact. It was the first time I’d ever seen the image and it took about a minute for my eyes to focus on what I was looking at.
The picture was black and white, but not murky like the other photos Dr. Graffam had a penchant for. The image was glossy, but remarkably discreet in spite of the subject matter. The girl looked like a mermaid asleep at the bottom of the sea, nestled by the gleaming chrome of the flattened limousine as if it were black obsidian. Her ankles were crossed, her skirt in place and one of her gloved hands demurely clasped the pearls around her neck. Her lipstick was flawless
as were the mascaraed lashes on her closed eyes. It was an unintentional glamour shot and that was what made it so shocking.
“The obvious puzzle here is why she did it,” Dr. Graffam said. “That’s your assignment for this week. Explain why you think an attractive young woman, so fashionably dressed, would kill herself and do it so drastically. Why not take sleeping pills or stick her head in an oven, which is how most females kill themselves so as not to muss their face and hair.”
To me, her reason to end her life was not the mystery in the image. What made it enigmatic was her tranquility after hurling herself off the highest building in the world. It also seemed miraculous that her body was unscathed. If she’d been smashed and bloody, he wouldn’t be showing the picture in class because it wouldn’t be provocative, just disgusting.
A few weeks before, we’d been told to analyze Weegee’s photo of a girl at Coney Island who was smiling like a starlet in her swim suit while paramedics frantically tried to revive her drowned boyfriend.
When Dr. Graffam handed back our essays, mine had earned a D. I’d written that the girl was in a state of shock, but Dr. Graffam told the class her reaction was a symptom of the narcissism infecting our culture since the advent of motion pictures and she’d posed for the camera, hoping to be discovered. I still think his conclusion was ridiculous, but he spoke as if his opinions were scientific facts.
When class ended, I went to the library because I was curious about the picture he’d shown us that afternoon. It had nothing to do with academic diligence. That morning, I’d seen my guidance counselor about dropping Graffam’s class and she said I had a week to think about it.
After he’d humiliated me for staring out the window, I made up my mind. I never wanted to see that repulsive man, again.
At that time, research had to be done in a library which required poring over newspaper clippings preserved on microfiche like examining specimens under glass. Unless you had specific names and dates, you couldn’t even find what you were looking for.
There was no information on the girl at Coney Island though tons of books had been written about Weegee and Diane Arbus. It didn’t seem fair since their subjects had made them famous. What about their lives and how the pictures affected them? I’d imagine some of the people felt raped afterwards when they saw their raw, ugly portraits displayed in museums for as long as they lived.
That was why the writer, Susan Sontag, hated Diane Arbus. It was completely personal. Arbus had photographed Sontag and her young son, Davey, in Central Park, and the pictures were very unflattering. Sontag decorously fawns over him while he seems hostile if not mentally disturbed, but that’s how Arbus made people look. Even babies’ faces are drained of joy as if the flash of her camera was a vampire’s kiss.
I didn’t know where to begin to search for information so I went straight to a librarian at the reference desk. She was a slight blonde with black, horn-rimmed glasses that were too large for her face. Though her pursed lips looked snippy, she turned out to be very helpful.
“I’m in Dr. Graffam’s photography class and I have this assignment,” I told her. “Blanche Monnier?”
Blanch Monnier had been another subject he’d shown us, a lovely French socialite whose mother had locked her in a room for twenty-five years because she wanted to marry a man with no money. When police finally rescued her, she was an emaciated hag cowering on her filthy bed, whose matted knee-length hair was all that covered her nakedness. The photograph caused a public uproar and inspired a book by Andre Gide.
“Not her. The girl who jumped off the Empire State building.”
The librarian burst out laughing and shook her head. “Graffam really has issues with women.” “Absolutely,“ I said, but didn’t disclose that I was dropping his class.
It turned out the photo of the girl who’d jumped off the Empire State Building had been Life Magazine’s picture of the week in May of 1947. Graffam hadn’t even mentioned that. Her name was Evelyn McHale and her suicide note, which was as remote as a standard resignation letter, had been found in her pocketbook next to her folded coat on the observation tower.
I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me. My fiance asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody. He is much better off without me. Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.
She’d crossed out the last two lines as if she didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Another news item disclosed she’d just returned from visiting her fiancé who insisted she’d seemed very happy. The item also showed her picture which bore no resemblance to the chiseled face of the siren on top of the limousine. She was smiling in the picture, devoid of makeup and drably pretty at best.
There was little else to learn about her, though in recent years, the internet has given her a cult following and the last picture taken of her has even been called ‘the Most beautiful suicide’. Her fans mostly speculate about why she chose to die the way she did. I can only think her world felt as stagnant as Blanche Monnier’s shuttered room, but unlike Monnier, she chose to escape.
Evelyn no longer interests me as much as Robert Wiles does. Most people cover their pain with obliging smiles, but live out their lives the best way they can. It’s Wiles’ work I’d like to see more of, but none exists.
If I learned anything from Graffam’s class, it’s that pictures reflect photographers more than their subjects and I think Wiles had exalted vision. He captured transcendence as if our souls come from somewhere else and he’d caught Evelyn’s on her return, there.