When we first see Terry Donahue on screen in the documentary A Secret Love, the octogenarian is wearing a green t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “There’s No Crying in Baseball.” Movie fans know that cherished line of dialogue from A League of Their Own, the 1992 film based on the true story of the first women’s professional baseball league, founded during World War II.
There’s good reason Donahue is wearing that shirt. She was one the real-life athletes who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
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“One of the first things we did [for the documentary project] was we went to a reunion of the league [in] 2013,” recalls producer Alexa Fogel. “It was just extraordinary…to see the older girls and just how revered they were.”
Chris Bolan directed the Netflix documentary, which is now in contention for Emmy nominations. The film’s primary focus is not the baseball league of yesteryear, but the relationship between two central characters, Donahue and her friend Pat Henschel. Bolan’s connection to the women is deeply personal.
“I have been extremely close to both of them my entire life. I’m totally in awe of Terry, since a young boy,” he tells Deadline. Donahue is his great aunt and, even though they lived a considerable distance from each other, “We’ve always been very, very close.”
As the documentary explores, family members simply regarded Terry and Pat as chums who had roomed together for over 60 years. It wasn’t until 2009 that the secret—the one alluded to in the documentary title—finally came out.
A Secret Love, executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum, tells the story of a romance between two women that blossomed in a time of widespread homophobia, when to be “exposed” as homosexual meant public humiliation, the probable loss of a job and shunning from family members.
Terry and Pat had been “out” to gay friends for decades, but even well into their 80s they did not disclose to loved ones the true nature of their bond.
“I felt like I was sort of living a lie,” Donahue admits in the film, revealing she most feared the reaction of her niece Diana, the director’s mom. The two were like mother and daughter. Donahue confides, “I didn’t want to lose her love.”
To the couple’s relief, the family embraced them (although another niece bristled about the unmarried pair “living in sin”).
After the revelation, “This weight was lifted off their shoulders,” Bolan remembers. “The stories just started flooding out of them, stories that I had never heard, how they met in the 1940s and this whole relationship that the biological family had never been privy to. So that’s when I felt compelled to do this [film].”
The documentary weaves back and forth between the present and earlier moments in Pat and Terry’s lives, and in the life of their adopted country (they grew up in Canada but came to the U.S. after Terry won her baseball contract). Terry recalls the strict emphasis for the league’s players on projecting a feminine image at all times. They were dispatched to charm school and sported makeup in public.
“They wanted us to look like ladies and play ball like men,” Terry recounts. “And that’s what we did.”
Male baseball players, of course, wore long pants on the field. But skirts were the uniform for the women professionals—not exactly ideal when you’re running the bases.
“At that point they did the baselines with lime,” Bolan says. “You slid, and not only did it scrape, then it got into your [skin] and it burned.”
Terry and Pat worked together at an interior design company in Chicago after Donahue’s baseball career ended. They say they didn’t dare venture out to gay clubs in the city, because those establishments were regularly raided by Chicago police. By rule, women who frequented clubs had to wear at least three articles of feminine clothing or face arrest.
“[Police] would check you with a flashlight when you came out of the bar,” Marge Summit, the former owner of a Chicago lesbian bar, told the filmmakers. “If you had fly-front pants on, you went in the paddy wagon. You were impersonating a man.”
A Secret Love is replete with cultural and personal history. In one scene, Pat and Terry look through love letters they exchanged long ago. One of them contained a poem Pat wrote to her sweetheart, with these lines: “Hours fled, like winged moments, hand in hand we walked alone…T’was one night I shall remember. One more night to call our own.”
But they had torn their signatures from the letters, afraid their families might later find the missives and discover the truth.
Henschel reiterates, “You had to be very careful.”
The documentary is also a poignant depiction of aging, distinctive because so few films have examined this through the experience of a same-sex couple. For so many reasons the documentary has touched viewers, Bolan and Fogel note.
“What’s been astounding to me is how it’s having such a wonderful response in the LGBTQ community, but also outside of that community,” Bolan attests. “I got something sent to me from this woman in Texas who’s a staunch Republican, loves Trump…She wrote how much she loved this film. She said, ‘My jaw has just dropped and love is love.’”
The filmmakers hope Emmy voters respond with similar affection. Fogel, an acclaimed casting director, already has three Emmys to her name.
“It’s great to be recognized for your work, particularly from your peers, something that I have enjoyed from time to time,” comments Fogel. “But the most important thing for me is that there are eyes on the movie.”
Bolan is an actor and theater director noted for his work in Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.
“I’ve never won an Emmy, never been nominated for an Emmy,” he tells Deadline. “We did this film on a shoestring budget…My dream was to make a movie that would be seen. And so, listen, would [Emmy recognition] be great? Absolutely. Even just to be nominated, it will be such an honor, but that’s like the cherry on top.”
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