William Holden, a famous actor, was standing on the subway platform at Columbus Circle in Manhattan on November 12, 1981. He was leaning over the edge to look for the uptown local when someone pushed him onto the tracks and into the path of an oncoming C train.
My father told me about William Holden’s untimely death more than 25 years ago, and every time I stand near the edge of a subway platform, I think about how I could die the same way. I instinctively move as close as I can to the wall.
William Holden did not die in a train accident, though. In fact, William Holden wasn’t even in New York City when he died. On November 12, 1981, he was at his home in Santa Monica, Calif., trying to change a light bulb when he fell from a wheeled office chair he was standing on.
That’s also not true.
My father learned a lot from the many accidental deaths of William Holden. My father, André Aciman, is a writer. Before he turned 18, he had already lived on three continents, so I grew up hearing stories from many different cultures.
William Holden, who is known for his roles in Hollywood classics like “Sunset Boulevard,” “Sabrina,” and “Stalag 17,” was the main character in many of these stories. In the upcoming movie “Licorice Pizza” by Paul Thomas Anderson, Sean Penn plays a fictionalized version of Mr. Holden for a short but memorable scene.
But Mr. Holden’s “canonical” body of work did not change me. His death, as retold by my father, the storyteller, and caretaker, came to define how I moved through the world with a body that could easily be horribly mangled if I wasn’t careful.
When my dad first became a parent, the world was a scary place. Since then, it has only gotten worse. After all, I learned these stories before Sept. 11, long before a virus made everything we did dangerously. But I already knew how to recognize danger.
William Holden died on November 12, 1981, when he put his wet feet on the marble edge of his bathtub. He tried desperately to grab the shower curtain as he fell, but the fabric tore, and he broke his neck when he landed on the tile.
Mr. Holden always seemed to trip and fall like Achilles, who was a hero with one fatal flaw: he was completely careless. American parents might just tell their kids not to run into the street or to be careful around the stove. But my immigrant dad would tell me stories of violence and scary things that could happen to keep me safe.
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My father grew up in Egypt, where he saw a rogue organ grinder’s baboon gouge out the eye of a child. He thought the world was full of dangers that most Americans couldn’t see, in part because Americans weren’t exposed to many of the risks that people in other countries took for granted. Americans have never been in an air raid, so how could they possibly understand something as simple as slipping in the bathroom or falling on the subway tracks? Americans seemed to understand the idea of a threat, but not the threat itself, and my father thought that was reflected in how they warned their children.
William Holden died on November 12, 1981, as he ran through Central Park with his hands in his pockets. He tripped over a crooked tree stump or cobblestone, fell on his face, went into a coma, and never woke up.
Most of Mr. Holden’s deaths were caused by common carelessness that led to physical accidents. True, Mr. Holden died after getting lost from his parents at the Museum of Natural History and walking into the arms of kidnappers. But he was much more likely to die because he took off his sweater at the top of the stairs and fell down to the bottom by accident.
My dad’s biggest worry about me was that I wouldn’t be aware of the dangers that could be around every corner. Fear that I would die like William Holden kept me up at night. But now I’m starting to think that if I ever have kids, I might tell them stories like that to teach them about danger. William Holden died thousand times so that I could live one life that was pretty safe.
These stories have had a huge impact on how I think about risks. I’m aware of risks that most normal people aren’t, like how taxis stop two feet over the crosswalk, making it more likely that I’ll get hit even when the light is green, or how a scared carriage horse in Central Park could rear up and hit my head by accident. After a heavy rainstorm, I don’t like to walk because I’m afraid a broken tree will fall and kill me. Even though it might seem silly, I once pulled a friend out of the way of a piece of falling ice. So you can’t tell.
In 2020, when risk assessment had to be done all the time, my dad’s stories started to make sense. William Holden must have gotten Covid after drinking martinis at the 21 Club or talking to strangers without a mask on a cross-country flight. My siblings and I double-masked before it was cool to do so, and we rode our bikes to work instead of taking the subway. Our father had taught us to be this care for as long as we could remember.
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Still, my father seemed to have no idea. He did things like go to the store several times a day for things like a single onion. Hadn’t he heard his own stories before? Didn’t he know how the great actor was going to die in 2020? Were these stories just my dad’s way of making up for the fact that he didn’t have a good sense of danger, in the hopes that I would grow up to know better?
On November 12, 1981, William Holden was killed by a taxi because he didn’t look both ways before crossing the street. Every time I cross the street without looking, I can almost hear a voice in my head that sounds a lot like William Holden’s telling me to be more careful.
What really happened when William Holden died? I find it hard to know what’s true. Around November 12, 1981, William Holden fell on a rug after drinking too much and hit his head on a table. A cut on his forehead caused him to bleed to death.
Really. That’s what really happened.
Still, I have a gut feeling that the truth about the death of the great star is so much stranger, darker, and more shocking. When danger comes close and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I remember that my dad was trying to teach me that life is fragile. Don’t believe me? Just remember what happened to the big Hollywood star on that terrible night in November 1981.