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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

FLIGHT OF FANCY

I doubt Galileo ever considered the full human implications of his experiments with falling objects. The formula he came up with reduces the problem to startling simplicity. Six and one half seconds after she threw herself off the 86th floor Observatory of the Empire State Building, Evelyn McHale landed on the roof of a limonene parked on West 33rd Street, 1,050 feet below.
You would not know it to read the headlines but twice as many Americans kill them selves as kill each other. Suicide is the dirty little secret about being human. There is another suicide in the United States every 17 minutes. It is only the 11th leading cause of death overall ( 7th leading cause of death in males, 16th in females), but suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death between the ages of 15 and 24 year olds, and the second leading cause of death in college students. And the working theory seems to be that if we just don't talk about it, it will go away. Honestly, that simply does not seem to be working.
In 1947 Evelyn McHale was a 20 year old bookkeeper at the Kitab engraving company, in the Long Island community of Baldwin. Over the weekend of April 19th she traveled by rail the 67 miles to the little town of Easton, Pennsylvania. It was known as the “City of Churches”, with the highest ratio of houses of Christian worship to overall population in America.
But it had also been known during prohibition as “The Little Apple” where police protected the speakeasies, which were, every weekend, filled with New York City tourists. On the hill overlooking Easton was the (then) all male Lafayette College, a military school of higher learning. And one of the 2,000 students attending Lafayette College in 1947 was Evelyn McHale’s fiancĂ©.
In 1929 the twin luxury hotels, the Waldorf and the Astoria, occupied a block on Fifth Avenue, between 33rd and 34th streets. For over fifty years these jointly managed edifices were the social abode of the vaunted Four Hundred, the supposed cream of New York society. (The number represented how many could comfortably fit in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.) Between the four star restaurants in each hotel ran a winding corridor, lined with marble Corinthian columns, dubbed “Peacock Alley”, for all the elegantly dressed women who strolled there to be seen. That year the management company sold the properties for $13.5 million to the Empire State Corporation. And the instant the sale was finalized the president of Empire State, John Jacob Raskob, led the contractors through the front doors. He was intent upon capturing for his Connecticut estate the peacock alley columns he had often admired. To his disappointment, those symbols of Gilded Age luxury and extravagance proved to have been plaster imposters.
Construction began on the Empire State Building on March 17, 1930. The frame rose at the astounding rate of 4 ½ floors a week. Midway into the construction, one of the steelworkers was given his notice while on the job. He threw himself down an open elevator shaft, becoming the first person to commit suicide on the premises.
John Jacob Raskob may have thought about joining him, because 410 days later, a month and a half ahead of schedule, the building opened. The final cost was $5 million under budget, mostly because the depression had so devalued the dollar. But on opening day, May Day 1931, the Empire State Building was well over half empty. It remained so for years. A decade later the press was still referring to The Empire State Building as a financial disaster.
The visit to Pennsylvania had proven to be a disaster. Evelyn McHale’s fiancĂ© had broken off their engagement. In some ways it was to be expected. So many lives had been placed on hold during the Second World War, and so many lives had changed and were still changing once the war had ended. The divorce rate, which pre-war had been two out of every one thousand marriages, had doubled in 1946. But those were statistics, and when Evelyn returned to her own bookkeeping on Monday morning, she returned with a broken heart. And in the weeks that followed she obsessed on her disappointment.
People do not commit suicide (from the Latin “sui caedere”; to kill yourself) because they are depressed. But add depression to alcohol or other drugs, and the risk of suicide increases by 90%. If there is a family history of suicide, a history of physical or sexual abuse, or if friends have recently committed suicide, the risk grows even greater. And finally, if the person at risk is a Christian the risk is greater still. Protestants and Catholics kill themselves much more often than do Jews, or Buddhists.
In the first fifteen years after its opening 16 people threw themselves to their deaths from the Empire State Building. But 1947 was a very bad year. In January a suicide injured an innocent pedestrian on the street below, and a lawsuit was threatened. The Empire State Corporation, which still owned the building, began to slowly consider alternatives. Thus it was that about 10:30 on the morning of Thursday May 1st, 1947, when Evelyn McHale stepped from the elevator on the 86th floor observatory, there was nothing between her and eternity, except the urge to take the step.
First she took off her grey cloth coat and draped it over the low wall near the south west corner of the observation deck. Then she laid her purse on the floor. Then she deliberately let her scarf float from her fingers into the void. She watched it swirl and float in the wind eddies. And when she saw it begin to slip downward, she clambered atop the lip of the chest high wall and threw herself into space.
Six seconds is long enough to think, and if Evelyn McHale was not radically different than those who attempted suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge and lived, then we know what she was thinking as she plummeted weightless toward the pavement. Universally these failed California suicides report that their first thought after jumping was, “This is the worst mistake of my life.” After that first second, however, the sensory overload would likely have not left her with the ability to think of a prayer.
In the first second of the end of her life Evelyn McHale dropped 32 feet, or about three stories. Over the next second she fell an additional 64 feet. Over the third second she traveled another 128 feet. Over the fourth second she fell 238 feet. By the fifth second she was traveling over 60 miles an hour, and the sensation of falling would have caused her body to release massive amounts of adrenalin. But she would never feel its effects. She would have felt an eerily calm, which I suspect surprised her. She might have realized she was falling away from the building, driven by the wind and by her effort to avoid the abutments and ledges. And she would have felt the regret for her decision, but it was now too late. At the speed of about 100 miles an hour, her body slammed into the sheet steel roof of a Cadillac limonene parked 200 feet up 34th Street.
Something caught traffic cop John Morrissey’s eye. He was working at the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. When he looked up he saw a white cloth, dancing lightly about the upper floors of the Empire State Building. It was just 10:40 A.M. and suddenly there was a loud crash, and the wrenching sound of bending metal. Officer Morrissey ran west on 34th Street. He found a crowd gathered around the big black limo, with United Nations’ license plates, parked on the north side of the street. All of the windows were shattered, and the roof had been caved in. There, embraced by the folded steel, was the body of a young woman.
Her white gloved left hand seemed to be playing with the pearls strung around her neck, almost as if counting a rosary. Her white gloved right hand was cautiously raised as if seeking permission to interrupt. She was barefooted. One stocking was bunched about her crossed ankles, as if she had been caught in the act of undressing. There was no visible blood, no dismemberment. She was a sleeping beauty. But images can be deceiving, as the workers from the medical examiners office could have testified.
When they picked her up, her once firm body must have behaved more like Jell-O. Every bone would have been fractured and splintered, and her internal organs turned to mush by the violence of her death. Those who contemplate suicide should consider the impact of their actions on the innocent who must clean up after them. Suicide is the rudest way to exit this world.
A few minutes after her death, Robert Wiles, a young photography student, approached the scene. He had been eating breakfast across the street, at the same lunch counter as the limo’s driver. Now he approached the scene and snapped a single photo. He immortalized Evelyn McHale. He sold the photo to Life Magazine, which published it a week later, on page 43. The caption read; “At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in the grotesque bier her body punched into the top of a car.” Robert Wiles never took another professional photograph. Each suicide, it is figured, shatters the lives of six other people. I suspect, his was one.
The New York Times headlined the story, “Empire State Leap Ends Life of Girl, 20”. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said, “Doubting Woman Dives to Death”, and the Chicago Tribune claimed, “Afraid to Wed, Girl Plunges to Death from Empire State.” The photograph, now labeled as "The Most Beautiful Suicide”, may have been at least partly responsible for the July 14th, 1947 leap of a 22 year old man from the same obervation deck. Guards were now stationed to stop any copycats.  And during October and November, they managed to stop avert five more deaths.
Finally the management was forced to admit this was not a temporary trend, and in December the now iconic inwardly curving fencing was installed to discourage those possessed by the impulse to end their lives.
If you think someone is might be suicidal, then they are. Do not leave them alone. Immediately remove their access to firearms and all drugs, and call 911. Death can be a release, but it is never beautiful. Never.
 - 30 -

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