It was a friend from Berlin who first pointed out his house to me. “That’s where Heath and Michelle live.”
“Really? How do you know?”
She looked at me sideways, unsure whether to believe me. “How do you not know?”
I could easily name the Brooklyn streets where Marianne Moore, Truman Capote, and Walt Whitman had lived. But this sort of celebrity? Of course I knew who he was. In fact, after seeing Brokeback Mountain, heart aching, I’d combed through the magazines at the supermarket checkout—a thing I’d not been compelled to do since the days of Scott Baio. I was looking for a way back to Wyoming, looking for Ledger’s photo. I just hadn’t known—until that moment—that he lived down the street from me.
Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams chose Brooklyn. They chose to do their laundry, take out their trash, change their baby’s diapers among us, in this place where so many end up washed up after the early, damaged days of youth, after dating bad men and drinking too much. To settle down (not to say settle, exactly). They could live wherever they wanted, but they chose Brooklyn. Ledger donned all that was good and laid-back about living here as if it were his best role, the most independent film yet, and we his happy extras.
When Brownstoner.com initially reported that Ledger and Williams had bought a home in Boerum Hill, one commenter posted that “roughly half the couples in the neighborhood with babies could be them.” But that’s not true, of course. They’d bought a fantastic corner brownstone. It was huge. There was a garden, soaring windows, an unheard-of three-car garage. The house shimmered as if they had a bit of Wyoming hidden behind that fence, loads of fresh air, mountains, horses, and gorgeous, gay cowboys who were, just then, saddling up to go give Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner hell. We imagined Ledger’s life. We lived it for him, and we didn’t even have to ask permission, because he was a celebrity. Here they could play at being regular people. They could go grocery shopping without having the clothes ripped from their bodies. We wouldn’t even sneak quick cell-phone photos of their child. We would keep our cool. We were that mature. We lived in Brooklyn now. The faked privacy we offered afforded these movie stars the casual grace that belongs to the rest of us, the ability to curl up inside their Brooklyn roles like Method actors, just a couple of hipsters in our little village. And in that, didn’t they became the proof that we were all living our dreams?
At the very least, for a brief moment, we could stand next to the fire of their beauty, the breathlessness of their youth and glory, while we pretended to ignore them at Bar Tabac.
Death returns Ledger from a star back to a son, a partner, a father—those relationships that actually matter. As fans, we are incidental. Still, the loss is compounded here because we’d gotten used to pretending he was like us. We thought he was safe. We thought he was ours. How did he slip back to Soho, where his brownstone and his baby meant so very little to death?
There are no cowboys on Dean Street. The magic of the movies is dampened here. Having admired Ledger from afar, having brushed shoulders and shopping carts with him, we are left wondering what it was we thought we saw flickering behind those brownstone walls.