The Mysterious Case of Heath & Mary-Kate

AUGUST 18 2018


On the cover of Nylon’s January 2008 issue, Mary-Kate Olsen, wrapped in plaid and a Gucci leather biker jacket, appeared next to the text “There’s Something About Mary-Kate.” 

At the time of its publication, Olsen was a 21-year old former child star-cum-fashion designer, sometime actress, and full-time gypsy who had spent the better part of her adulthood cultivating an eccentric fashion persona that was equal parts Stevie Nicks, Kurt Cobain and Edie Sedgwick.

She was also, alongside twin sister Ashley, one half of a billion-dollar empire that generated sales from products ranging from affordable cosmetics sold in Walmart to $300 tee shirts stocked at Barney’s New York. 

Her innate ability to be both stylistically on the fringe and commercially mainstream helped commodify a bougie bohemian subculture that ran deep from Brooklyn to Beverly Hills. 

This was the ‘something’ Nylon certainly meant to highlight, but their cover line took on a new, purely coincidental, meaning when Olsen became entangled in the narrative of Heath Ledger’s death the same month the magazine hit newsstands. 

For a handful of tabloid editors, the starlet’s connection to Ledger provided a rare opportunity to exploit the personal life of a fixture who’s tendency to chain smoke and drink Starbucks coffee made up a large percentage of their coverage.

In the immediate hours following Ledger’s death on January 22, 2008, in his SoHo loft, the news media went rabid. They ran stories claiming Ledger had been found dead in an apartment owned by Olsen, a detail erroneously leaked by police, while others speculated that the actor was a substance abuser who committed suicide. 

When reports surfaced that Olsen received a series of phone calls around the time Ledger’s body was discovered, a flurry of headlines (“What Does Mary-Kate Know?”) followed. Some crude outlets went so far as to label the multi-hyphenate a murderer.

It was grotesque clickbait, plain and simple. And yet, ten years later the circumstances of Mary-Kate’s relationship to Heath remains somewhat of an enigma. 

Here’s the story, as reported by various news media outlets, where facts and sensationalized fiction intersect to form a comprehensive tale of one fallen idol and the elusive nymph who nearly fell with him. 

Mary-Kate Olsen and Heath Ledger were first spotted together sometime in the summer of 2006, dining with friends at the Chateau Marmont. The storied hotel — synonymous with secrets and scandal— had become somewhat of a West Coast outpost for Ledger and his then-girlfriend, actress Michelle Williams, during awards season earlier that year.

At the time, Ledger and Williams were red carpet darlings thanks to their brilliant on-screen work in Brokeback Mountain and their off-screen storybook romance. 

The pair had met on the set of Mountain, Ang Lee’s relentlessly hyped homoerotic western, in the summer of 2004; their daughter, Matilda Rose, was born in the fall of 2005; Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and Academy Award nominations followed shortly thereafter for both.

But there was trouble in paradise. 

“They would come out to the [Chateau Marmont] patio early in the evening and sit together. Michelle was very attentive to Matilda and Heath seemed distant. He looked fidgety and just didn’t seem part of the family. It was as if they were in different worlds,” a source would tattle to People about the couple. “[Williams] would go into the room with the baby. Heath would stay in the garden and lobby for hours.”

Ledger’s aimless lobby wandering would eventually lead him to a late night cocaine party at the hotel following the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January 2006. (A videotape verifying the actor’s attendance at the party would only surface after his passing.) 

“I’m going to get serious shit from my girlfriend, we had a baby three months ago,” Ledger utters in the tape, “I shouldn’t be here at all.”

Reportedly fed up with his addiction to cocaine and heroin, Williams drove Ledger to a Malibu rehabilitation center in March of 2006, but he refused treatment. Reps for the actress would label the story a “fabricated” lie. Nevertheless, the couple seemed to rebound the following year. 

They nested in a gorgeous, ivy covered, Brooklyn townhouse and were often photographed strolling through the neighborhood with baby Matilda. By spring, Williams was in London filming Incendiary while Ledger prepared to film his career-defining, albeit penultimate, performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel The Dark Knight

Elsewhere, Olsen was in Los Angeles filming a guest role on the Showtime series Weeds. She and Ledger wouldn’t publicly cross paths again until July 18, 2007, when both attended the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros concert at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. 

As fall approached, Ledger and Williams had called it quits. His partying, universally cited as the catalyst.

“Heath partied a lot. He didn’t really stop partying,” a source told People. “He had a lifestyle that really wasn’t compatible with raising a child and continuing in that relationship,” added Senior Editor JD Heyman. 

It was around this time that various news outlets suggested Ledger and Olsen, both fond of up-all-night partying, began “casually dating for three months” prior to his untimely death. 

Little photographic proof exists of the couple, but the pair was said to “party hard.” Others sources recall the duo’s quieter nights spent watching movies in Ledger’s newly rented SoHo loft and weekends holed up at the Chateau Marmont.

“[Olsen] said Heath would often talk to her about the joys of fatherhood,” a source told The National Enquirer. “He told [Mary-Kate] being a dad was the best thing he’d ever done.”

Their budding romance would quietly take a backseat in the winter, however, when work obligations sent them in opposite directions. He to London, where his next film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was shootingShe to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival premiere of her upcoming comedy The Wackness.

Early in the Doctor Parnassus production, it was evident that Ledger had developed early signs of pneumonia. The actor was also battling chronic insomnia that had plagued him for the preceding months.

“Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night,” he told a New York Times reporter in November 2007. In the same interview Ledger admitted to relying on Ambien to rest, if only for the average run-time of his latest film. 

Despite his fragile condition, Ledger pushed through the arduous London shoot.

When a week-long production break commenced, Ledger boarded a flight back to New York City on Sunday, January 20, 2008. With Williams and Matilda in Sweden, where the actress was currently filming, and a business meeting with Steven Spielberg as his only scheduled appointment, Ledger’s trip back home was rather lonely and equally bizarre.

There was a pedestrian grocery shopping trip to Gourmet Garage where he bought fruit and sausages. Then there was his odd night out at Manhattan’s Beatrice Inn where the actor threw back liquor whilst donning a ski mask. Two days later, Ledger would be found dead at 28. 

At 12:30 PM on Tuesday, January 22, 2008, housekeeper Teresa Solomon arrived at Ledger’s Broome Street apartment and entered using her own key. Thirty minutes after arriving, Solomon knocked on the actor’s closed bedroom door before entering to change a lightbulb in an adjoining bathroom. She witnessed Ledger lying facedown on his bed, audibly snoring. 

By 2:45 PM Solomon had let masseuse Diana Wolozin into the apartment for a scheduled appointment at 3:00 PM. When Ledger still hadn’t emerged from his bedroom by 3:10 PM, Wolozin called his cell phone and knocked on the door to no avail.

Under the assumption that he was merely sleeping, she entered the room and began to set up a massage table beside the actor, who remained facedown on his bed. When Wolozin proceeded to rouse Ledger at 3:17 PM he was, to her horror, unresponsive.

Using the actor’s personal cell phone, Wolozin spent a total of nine minutes making a series of three phone calls to Mary-Kate Olsen, who she knew to be a close friend. The pint-sized mogul, in Beverly Hills at the time, picked up just one of the calls and told the frantic masseuse she would send over members of her New York security team. Within 99 seconds, the conversation was over. 

At 3:26 PM Wolozin finally phoned 911. As emergency crews were dispatched to the apartment, Wolozin tried and failed to revive the actor via CPR. Paramedics arrived at 3:33 PM, as did one of Olsen’s private security guards. A minute later, Wolozin made a fourth and final call to Mary-Kate.

Just as police officers and two more of Olsen’s security guards arrived on the scene at 3:36 PM, Ledger was pronounced dead. 

In the days that followed, police would release details regarding the actor’s apparent overdose including the presence of six prescription drugs and a rolled up $20 bill found in the apartment. The bill, like Olsen, would become a shiny distraction until investigators ruled it clean. 

On January 24, exactly one day after an initial autopsy was performed on Ledger’s body, Mary-Kate was caught sipping martinis and partying with friends at two New York City hotspots. The negligent display resulted in further media speculation that Olsen had something to hide and spurred the star to release a trite statement the following day. 

“Heath was a friend. His death is a tragic loss,” she said, “My thoughts are with his family.”

Whether the media bought into the optics or not was debatable, but the NYPD seemed less concerned with the former Full House actress. 

“There’s absolutely no indication investigators were going to speak to Mary-Kate Olsen. They determined that they had all the info needed from witnesses who were on scene,” stated Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. 

Officials were far more interested in how Ledger obtained the six prescriptions present in his system at the time of death which resulted in “acute intoxication.”

Among the drugs identified by the New York medical examiner were oxycodone and hydrocodone — two powerful narcotics sold under the brand names OxyContin and Vicodin  — along with the sedatives alprazolam, diazepam, temazepam. Also present: doxylamine, an antihistamine commonly used to aid with sleep.

As a result of the findings, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) opened an investigation to determine whether any of the medications that resulted in Ledger’s accidental overdose were obtained illegally. Of particular interest to federal agents was the source(s) of the Oxycontin and Vicodin.

Momentarily in the clear, Olsen retreated into work. She and Ashley had been quietly conducting interviews with inspiring artists, models and fashion designers for a glossy coffee table book, Influence, to be released that fall. 

The same day she issued her statement on Ledger, Olsen was interviewing Margherita Missoni, heiress to the famed Italian fashion house. A few days later, on January 29, she and Ashley were meeting with photographer Terry Richardson for a feature in the book. 

In subsequent months she would attend runway presentations at Paris Fashion Week, walk the Met Gala red carpet, celebrate her 22nd birthday at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, and appear on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote The Wackness

By July, Mary-Kate Olsen had all but been forgotten in the Ledger narrative; until an Elle reporter asked her about his death for a cover story interview. 

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Olsen is quoted, “I won’t give you a word about that in the nicest way possible. Let’s move on.” 

It was also around this time that The Dark Knight was released. Ledger’s disturbing performance became a cultural talking point and propelled the film’s worldwide box office total to over a billion dollars. 

Like many eager moviegoers, Olsen was spotted at a 7:30 PM screening of the movie in New York City’s Battery Park on July 24, but the “somber” star left after just 20 minutes. (Ledger, coincidentally, first appears 23 minutes into the film’s runtime.)

“She wanted to go unnoticed, but people recognized her and started whispering,” a source divulged to Life & Style. “Between dealing with Heath on screen and with everyone around her, she couldn’t take it. So she left.” 

One week later, those whispers would become a deafening roar.

On August 4, New York Post reporter Murray Weiss published a damning story claiming Olsen had refused to cooperate with the DEA’s investigation into Ledger’s obtainment of prescription drugs unless she received immunity from future prosecution. 

The article’s validity was backed up when ABC News obtained records showing a federal grand jury had issued a subpoena for Olsen back on April 23, although it hadn’t been formally served. 

Olsen’s lawyer, Michael Miller, released a lengthy statement on behalf of the actress-designer following the publication of the “incomplete and inaccurate” article.

“Despite tabloid speculation, Mary-Kate Olsen had nothing whatsoever to do with the drugs found in Heath Ledger’s home or his body, and she does not know where he obtained them,” the statement read. 

It ended affirming that Olsen had “provided the Government with relevant information including facts in the chronology of events surrounding Mr. Ledger’s death.” 

For Mary-Kate, the media frenzy was fortunately short-lived. On August 6, 2008, the U.S. Attorney General of Manhattan formerly closed the inquisition. How Ledger came in the possession of OxyContin and Vicodin remains a mystery, as does his relationship with Olsen.

Perhaps all they shared was a general distaste for the tabloid industry, hellbent on exploiting the lives of so many who are simply misunderstood. 

“You look at a story that’s written about you and you’re like ‘Who is that? That’s not me,’” Olsen told Nylon. “The people that know me, my friends, my family, the people I care and respect and the people who respect me — they know who I am.”

Ledger echoed a similar statement during his Times sit-down saying, “People always feel compelled to sum you up, to presume that they have you and can describe you. That’s fine. But there are many stories inside of me and a lot I want to achieve outside of one flat note.”

In any case, ten years later, this is one true, tragic, crime that will not be solved by dinner time. 

Let the speculation rest.