By Tuesday afternoon, we knew all about Heath Ledger. He’d been found in Mary-Kate Olsen’s apartment, naked on the floor, wreathed in pills, dead of apparent suicide. By Tuesday evening, he’d been found under the covers, in his own home, with the pills prescribed and in bottles. By Wednesday, he’d been alive until at least noon, when the maid heard him snoring. The masseuse who found him called Olsen once—no, three times—before dialing 911. Olsen’s bodyguards arrived before the EMTs. No, they arrived before the cops. A rolled-up $20 with drugs on it was by the bed. No, the bill was clean.
The sad, surreal story of Heath Ledger’s death was being written in real time, on a 24-hour news cycle, with digital cameras and RSS feeds. Television-news crews, online videographers, and cell-phone “citizen journalists” were participating in a dreamlike spectacle that was in its way more grotesque than the Hollywood Babylon tableau in Ledger’s apartment: Nearly 300 strangers on Broome Street, filming the removal of a body bag. One hundred more outside an Upper East Side funeral home, a scrum of cameras around a wooden box—all looking straight at each other.
According to Google News, there were 24,267 stories about Heath Ledger in the three weeks following his death. But for all the intensive coverage, there was no cohesive narrative. Two diverging accounts of his last months in New York were vying against each other—Ledger the saint and Ledger the sinner. An inconclusive autopsy allowed the conflicting reports to fester for weeks, with members of each contingent trotting out their theories and prophesying the results of the coming toxicology report that would surely prove them right.
“Don’t write one of these disgusting stories,” a Hollywood agent had warned me, after attesting to Ledger’s kindness, beauty, sensitivity, humility, and sobriety. A non-disgusting story would presumably reflect the innumerable accounts I heard of Ledger’s sweet nature, his immense talent, his love of Matilda—and make frequent mentions of Pellegrino water and Diet Coke.
A disgusting story would be like the one published by the U.K. tabloid the Sun the day after Ledger’s death, quoting Rebecca White, a 33-year-old former assistant to Naomi Campbell who claimed to have seen Ledger doing drugs. “The first time I met him, at Puff Daddy’s house in Los Angeles, Heath asked Naomi for cocaine,” she said. “At another party in Paris, Heath took at least six Ecstasy pills, popped them in his mouth all at once, and swigged them with a bottle of Champagne.”
As it happens, White, who was also a key witness to Kate Moss’s drug use when a video of the model snorting cocaine surfaced in 2005, seems to be the source for many accounts of Ledger’s Bunyanesque consumption. Her interview with the Sun was picked up by the Australian Daily Telegraph and Courier Mail and other papers. Then, in an interview with England’s Daily Mail, White elaborated, claiming that Ledger’s drug use had recently spiraled out of control because he was afraid of losing custody of his daughter and adding this striking comment about Ledger’s former fiancée, Michelle Williams: “Heath was an Adonis and she was dowdy and not in his league—career-wise or looks-wise—and no one could understand why they got together.” That version of the story was picked up by dozens of other publications, not to mention those to which she spoke anonymously as a “member of Ledger’s entourage.” She also offered to provide information to New York for a stipulated fee of $1,500 (an offer that was declined).
Whatever the sources—“friends,” “clubgoers,” “insiders”—such stories were spreading as fast as Ledger’s publicist Mara Buxbaum could deny them. By the last week in January, it seemed that there had been two Heath Ledgers living in New York. One, a chaste, sober, unkempt choirboy who bought his daughter organic breakfast sausages at the Gourmet Garage. The other, a womanizing, drug-hoovering rake last seen by, yes, “a clubgoer,” dancing at the Beatrice Inn “in a ski mask with holes cut out at the eyes and mouth and a hood over his head.” The debate over his last few months was about his legacy, about which kind of fallen star he would be: tragic hero (James Dean) or self-destructive burnout (River Phoenix). More than that, it was about what kind of person he was—loving or noncommittal, open or secretive, good father or careless lout, true or false. His cause of death, it seemed, would somehow define the meaning of his life.
Strolling down Smith Street with Michelle and baby Matilda, Ledger had been the most attractive advertisement that young, urban parenthood had had in years: a stubbly boho in lank hair, cord jacket, and scruffy boots; a member of the neighborhood-preservation committee; a doting father who brought Matilda to Book Court and Bar Tabac and made his only tabloid appearances in Us Weekly’s “Just Like Us” section, as another happy, semi-washed stay-at-home dad. “I didn’t want to raise my child in Hollywood,” he had said. And so it seemed that the preternaturally wise 26-year-old had discerned the exact spiritual and geographic antipode to the Viper Room: a brownstone in Boerum Hill.