Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel shared a love that endured decades and discrimination for over 70 years

By Ale Russian
April 30, 2020 10:47 AM
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Through it all, love is love and love endures.

That's the message behind Netflix's latest documentary, A Secret Love. The movie lovingly follows the over 70-year romance between Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel — two women who met in the late '40s and hid their love for years. They finally came out to the families in 2009, and the film was born out of that bravery.

Chris Bolan, the director and Donahue's grand-nephew, was one of the first people to find out about his Aunt Terry and Aunt Pat's relationship and he realized by the end of their stunning revelation that he had to tell their story.

"You could see a load lifted and they became giddy school girls, and these wonderful, amazing stories came flooding out," Bolan tells PEOPLE.

The stories frame the documentary, which flips back and forth between their touching beginning and their lives during filming, including their sweet retirement home wedding.

Netflix
Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel at their wedding
Netflix

One scene finds Donahue remembering how Henschel confessed her feelings in a letter she gave her after they met. Henschel continued to write letters throughout their relationship. The documentary hits an emotional note when, decades later, while moving out of their longtime home, Donahue and Henschel find an old suitcase full of letters Henschel wrote.

In the scene above, Henschel reads an especially emotional poem she wrote to Donahue about a night they shared together, posted here exclusively by PEOPLE.

Courtesy Netflix

Another exclusive letter shows the early love between the two as Donahue lived in America playing baseball in the All-American  Girls Professional Baseball League while Henschel stayed in Canada. The poem has Henschel wishing her luck in the league where her heart lies, even though she'll miss having her around.

The two met as young women in 1947, when Donahue was 22 and Henschel was 18. Donahue played catcher in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the women’s league featured in the hit 1992 movie A League of Their Own.

While they kept up appearances on the outside, Donahue and Henschel were very much in love.

“All of these strange things are happening, and I thought, this is not what I was supposed to do,” Henschel recalls in the movie. “That was before I met Terry. That changed everything.”

“I don’t know what happened, but that was it,” Donahue agreed.

Netflix

The two later settled down in Chicago near where Donahue had been playing ball and built a life with a found-family of friends, documenting it all in letters, pictures, videos and old tapes talking about their vacations. They lived their life in secret — telling family they were simply close friends and strangers they were cousins — until reaching a turning point in their eighties.

Realizing they could die without their families knowing the truth, Donahue comes out to her niece Diana, Bolan's mom, who had been like a daughter to her.

Through the happiness of their bravery, the present day is tempered as Donahue and Henschel experience health setbacks and Donahue is diagnosed with Parkinson's. They eventually settle into a home in Canada, where Donahue lives her final years alongside Henschel.

The former baseball player died in March 2019, knowing her story was being told thanks to Bolan.

Netflix

"I got to show them both a rough cut of the film before Terry passed away, which meant a lot to me," he says. "They loved it, and they laughed, and they couldn't believe it. They were blown away."

He continues, "They just keep saying over and over and over, 'I can't believe. Why are people interested in us? I don't understand,' which I think is the reason why people are interested now."

Near the end of the film, Bolan points out how Donahue has “kind of broke the rules your whole life.”

“Yes, I have,” she answered. “That’s why I’m happy. No regrets — I’d do it all over again.”

A Secret Love is streaming on Netflix now.