The 1942 Genesee Hotel Suicide January 19, 2011Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture.
So: I’m minding my own business, surfing around, when I stumbled across this amazing photograph:
I had to go searching for more information; my original source was an article about suicide in general that did not even bother to identify the year the photo was taken. It turns out that in 1942, a photographer for the Buffalo Courier Express, I. Russel Sorgi, was sent out on assignment. On his way back to the office, Sorgi decided not to follow his usual route. A few minutes later, a police car sped by him, and Sorgi seized the moment and followed the cops. The trail led to the Genesee Hotel, where a woman was “sitting on a ledge outside an eighth-floor window.” (The Genesee was built in 1882; a 1910 postcard (shown here) and an undated photograph both depict it as being only six stories tall. Neither image shows much of what I would consider a “ledge.” Two links on the web allege that the Genesee only lasted until 1922, ceasing to exist at 530 Main Street a mere 20 years before the dramatic photograph above was made — and if you look closely you can see the “530” painted on the transom over the door the cop is rushing through.)
The May 8, 1942 edition of the New York Times reported that 35-year-old Mary Miller had checked into the Genesee as “M. Miller, Chicago.” She “entered a women’s restroom, locked the door from the inside, and crept out onto the ledge.” (Leading us to the inference that in May 1942, hotel rooms at the Genesee did not have individual bathrooms, as we take for granted today.) Two days later, the Times confirmed that the suicide was indeed Mary Miller, who lived with her sister in Buffalo, but had told her sister that she was going to Indiana to visit relatives.
The sister had no idea why Mary Miller would want to commit suicide, but this has not stopped history from referring to this dramatic photo as “the Despondent Divorcée.” My own fantasy — let me stress that I have been able to discover no facts — is that Mary Miller was in love with someone who had just been killed in World War II. The Germans had begun bombing cathedral cities in England in late April, and the Bataan Death March had just taken place, in which the Japanese killed between 6,000 and 18,000 American and Phillippine POWs with appalling savagery. (The Japanese government formally apologized for the massacre on May 30, 2009.) The legendary Battle of the Coral Sea, in which the U.S. Navy defeated the Japanese after days of bloody fighting, began on May 4, 1942 — days before Miller’s suicide. Perhaps Mary Miller was so deeply in love with a sailor killed in that battle that she could not imagine life continuing without him; perhaps she had just learned she was pregnant. Divorce was deeply shameful in 1942, particularly for women. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy could look like an unthinkable disaster for which death was the only reasonable answer.
According to Sorgi:
“I snatched my camera from the car and took two quick shots as [Miller] seemed to hesitate . . . As quickly as possible I shoved the exposed film into the case and reached for a fresh holder. I no sooner had pulled the slide out and got set for another shot than she waved to the crowd below and pushed herself into space. Screams and shouts burst from the horrified onlookers as her body plummeted toward the street. I took a firm grip on myself, waited until the woman passed the second or third story, and then shot.”
Sorgi was probably using a Graflex Speed Graphic camera, which in 1942 was used almost universally for newspaper photography. This was an SLR that used 5″ by 4″ sheet film, which is where the amazing detail in this photo comes from. Whereas with a 35mm SLR one could snap off up to 36 images before reloading, Sorgi had to remove each exposed slide and reload the camera before he could make his next photograph. His coolness is evident: He had to wait for just the right instant to capture this shot, or he would have been too busy reloading the camera. He must have seen his two “establishing shots” as a huge risk. I only hope I can track them down some day. (One of the commenters at Snopes.com wants a photo of the splat. For me: UGH! — no, thank you!)
Although I’m sure it all happened in less than five minutes, I’m a little sorry that Sorgi’s first instinct was to photograph the imminent suicide rather than try to stop it. But I wasn’t there; I can’t know what was in his mind, or her demeanor. Sorgi might have seen his role as chronicling the efforts of the police to stop the suicide and his own potential involvement as impeding them.
Now I look at the photo and think about the instant in early May 1942 that is now frozen in time:
- The policewoman who appears to be running into the hotel, perhaps with the idea of stopping the suicide. (Sexists must remember that able-bodied policemen were mostly off fighting in World War II. If you enlarge the photo, you can see that the police officer has long hair — in 1942 — and is wearing a skirt.)
- The man sitting in the window of the coffee shop, apparently unaware what was going on, or the shirt-sleeved man standing behind him (maître d’?), who may have been wondering what the screaming was all about.
- The apparent calm of the woman, who looks almost as if she’s turning her fall into a dive. Her long blonde hair, which at first I thought was one of those silly hats so popular at the time. Did she feel embarrassed knowing that her skirt had flown up and the crowd she had been waving to could see her underwear?
- The signs that say “$1.00 up” (presumably the room rate) and “Sandwiches 10¢.” The sign in the café window that says, “Give till it hurts Hitler.”
- Where was the crowd whose “screams and shouts” Sorgi remembered? The sidewalk looks empty.
W.H. Auden had just published his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” in 1940, a poem about a 16th-century Old Master painting depicting the fall of Icarus from the sky.In his poem, Auden talks about the painting’s everyday setting and the obliviousness of passers-by to the oil’s central drama. Auden takes note of how humans suffer while all around them life continues its humdrum way, oblivious.
One of the links I found today via Snopes compares Auden’s poem, the Brueghel that Auden wrote about, and this photo: the prosaic details (is the seated man wearing a napkin under his chin?), the people depicted who had no idea of how their lives were about to change. After reading the excerpt below, you decide:
[Horror] takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
. . .
[a passer-by] may
Have heard . . . the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the [woman] falling out of the sky,
[while life] sailed calmly on.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
According to one of the links I followed, a psychologist did an experiment involving this photograph, and only 4 percent of the students noticed Mary Miller!
I got most of the details about this photograph from Terence Wright’s 2004 The Photography Handbook; if you follow this link to the Amazon listing, do a “search inside” for “Sorgi.”
Unrelated cool trivia: Wondering whether Mary Miller knew about Superman (she looks almost as though she were trying for a “Superman in flight” pose), I checked Wikipedia and discovered that yes, Superman was introduced as a villain in 1932 and morphed into a superhero in 1933. Superman was based on Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., while Clark Kent was based on Harold Lloyd!