"A Secret Love's" Pat Henschel Shares What Made Her 72-Year Relationship Last

Elena Nicolaou
Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

From Oprah Magazine

  • Pat Henschel's seven decade relationship with Terry Donahue is explored in the moving Netflix documentary, A Secret Love.

  • A Secret Love was directed by Donahue's great-nephew, Christopher Bolan.

  • In an interview with OprahMag.com, Henschel opens up about her life now.

If you watched Netflix's A Secret Love, then you can already guess this about Pat Henschel: She still misses Illinois. "I loved Illinois," the nonagenarian tells OprahMag.com from her assisted living facility in Edmonton, Canada.

But what Henschel, 91, misses far, far more than Chicago is her wife, Terry Donahue, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 93. "I feel her, always," Henschel says of Donahue, whom she met in 1947.

Henschel and Donahue were together for over 70 years—and for much of that time, they kept their relationship hidden. With the release of the documentary on Netflix, Henschel is looking forward to doing the opposite.

"We want to share our love with the rest of the world," Henschel says. "I hope that audiences learn to see how true love really works, and how wonderful it is."

She adds, "Terry would be surprised and pleased, and happy to know that it's happening. She'd say, I'm glad I was a part of this."

Since Donahue's death, Henschel remains connected to her wife's family—including her niece Diana Bolan, featured prominently in the documentary. In fact, if director (and Bolan's son) Christopher Bolan were to make a follow-up to A Secret Love, it would inevitably follow Henschel and Bolan’s bond, which has utterly transformed since the documentary was filmed, between 2013 and 2018.

"We have become so close. Who would've thought after all the fights that we had, Auntie Pat?" Diana jokes that Henschel classifies their relationship another way: "It's a wonderful love affair, if you want to know the truth."

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Now, Bolan and Henschel see each other five days a week. Henschel also spends time with Bolan’s four-year-old granddaughter, whom she is raising. “I absolutely adore the little girl. I’m crazy about her,” Henschel says. “And I’m glad she likes me too.”

Their strong relationship is Donahue’s final gift to them both. Originally, Bolan explains, she saw Henschel frequently because she had made a promise to her aunt.

"I said, 'Honey, if you want to go to God, then go,'' she says, recounting their final conversation. "She looked at me with those blue eyes, and she said, 'But I'm worried about Patty.' And I said to her, 'Don't you worry one bit about Patty. I will take care of her,'" Bolan says.

Now, Bolan explains, her reasoning for visiting Henschel has shifted: "I'm doing it now not because I promised Auntie Terry, but because I love Aunt Patty."

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

It’s a dramatic shift from the fraught relationship depicted in A Secret Love. One of the documentary's most riveting and wrenching sequences is a fight—or rather, heated misunderstanding—between Bolan and Henschel, who had different opinions on how Donahue should spend her remaining years.

Bolan desperately wanted the couple to move to Canada, closer to a solid support system. Henschel was reluctant to abandon Chicago and their hard-won independence, even if both women were so frail that their independence had become a liability. She was also attached to their network of close friends, many of whom were in the LGBTQ community. "It was so difficult to leave them," Henschel says.

But as Bolan explains, many of those friends had either passed away, or had already left Chicago. "They were basically left on their own. [Their friends] were urging me to get them here. They were losing their support system and everybody knew it, except Auntie Terry and Auntie Pat," Bolan says.

Director Christopher Bolan captured the fight on his iPhone, unbeknownst to the women, and got their permission to include the unvarnished footage afterwards.

Bolan and Henschel’s passions ran high—but only because they shared the same passion: Above all, both wanted Donahue to be safe and happy. Today, the women see they were standing on common ground all along.

"We've had a chance to dig deep. We know where each one was coming from. We both understand why were fighting for what we wanted, Bolan says. "It's drawn us closer than we've ever been."

Looking back, Bolan treasures the fact that she got to witness her aunts' extraordinary bond first-hand, after they moved to Canada. "It was such a strong love. I've never seen anything like it, ever," she says.

When asked for advice about how to create a lasting relationship, Henschel doesn't hesitate. "When you're in a relationship, you better give it everything you've got. You're going to share this. It's going to be part of your life. It's going to be wonderful if you're all in it together," she says.

In the end, Henschel's advice applies as much to her 72-year relationship with Donahue as it does to her new one with Bolan.

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