Growing up in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., actor-director Chris Bolan didn’t question the relationship between his two “aunts,” Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, who lived with each other in Chicago for decades.
Henschel wasn’t actually related to Bolan, but the late Donahue was his biological great-aunt and a player in the iconic All-American Girls Baseball League during the Second World War, which inspired the film “A League of Their Own.”
To Bolan, they were simply two awe-inspiring women who would bring a suitcase full of U.S. treats and toys whenever they would visit him as a boy.
To the rest of his family, they were close friends and interior-design colleagues who had a strong bond and shared an apartment in order to save money.
But a few years ago that changed while Bolan and his wife visited the 80-something-year-old duo at their Chicago home.
“We were having a rum and Coke, which is their drink of choice … and they said, ‘We have something to tell you — we’re gay,’” Bolan recalled in a recent interview from his home Westport, Conn.
“We obviously gave them a big hug and said, ‘We don’t care … we love you. We’re so proud of you for finally telling us.’ Then the floodgates opened up and they were literally giddy with telling us, going back through seven decades of these stories of their life together.
“As I was sitting there listening, I was just in complete awe and I was amazed. I’d never heard anything like this. And it was at that moment that I knew I had to tell this story.”
Their story of coming out in their twilight years is in Bolan’s moving new documentary, “A Secret Love,” which premiered Wednesday on Netflix Canada.
Bolan directed while “Glee” co-creator Ryan Murphy — along with Brendan Mason and Alexa L. Fogel — produced the doc, which was slated to premiere at the South By Southwest festival in March until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the event’s cancellation.
Shot from 2013 to 2017, the film profiles the lives and challenges of the Saskatchewan-born couple, who met in Moose Jaw, Sask., and stayed together for 72 years.
Cameras capture them enjoying the freedom and stigma of coming out to their conservative families later in life, and the tough decision to move from their Chicago house to a long-term care facility.
Donahue, who died in March 2019 at age 93, had Parkinson’s disease and the film shows her niece with whom she was close (Bolan’s mother) pleading with the stubborn Henschel to make the move to Edmonton to be closer to family.
It’s there that the two married in 2015, which was captured in the film.
“I remember the first time that they kissed in front of my family, which was huge, and then seeing them sit on the couch together and hold hands,” said Bolan.
“Those little things — a hug here, a hug there — that straight couples just don’t think about. But they had hidden that from their biological family their entire lives. So every time I saw that, it was huge and wonderful and beautiful. And there was definitely a weight that had been lifted off both of their shoulders, I feel.”
Henschel, 91, lives in Edmonton and “is as feisty as ever,” said Bolan.
He got to show the couple a rough cut of the film about six months before Donahue died.
“We all sat around and watched it and they just giggled,” he said, “and parts of it were tough.”
When Bolan was a struggling actor, Donahue would always tell him to follow his heart, like she did.
“It was like: ‘I believe in you. Follow your heart. I followed my dream.’ And she did. She told me she had two loves in her life: Pat and baseball, in that order.”
As the film shows, the charismatic couple were deeply in love for their entire relationship.
“They laughed a lot. That was their secret,” Bolan said. “They teased each other and had so much fun together.”
Mason said he thinks their bond was deepened by them being ”two incredibly independent women who relied on nobody but themselves their whole lives.”
“It was remarkable to watch these two women who were in their 80s go through growing pains that someone would normally go through coming out in their now late teens or early 20s,” Mason said from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“To see them go through those growing pains — do they hold hands walking into the supermarket, things like that — was really very moving and something I could relate to personally, having gone through that in my early 20s.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2020.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press