In the summer of 2012, shortly after she filed divorce papers to dissolve her marriage to Tom Cruise, the actress Katie Holmes moved into a Manhattan apartment complex called the Chelsea Mercantile. The prewar building has 354 units, a private garage, and, on the street level, a Whole Foods Market, where Holmes began appearing with her and Cruise’s then-six-year-old daughter, Suri. Celebrity photo databases contain blurry pictures of Holmes and Suri strolling the organic grocer’s aisles, and clearer ones of them leaving through the front entrance.
The paparazzi who took these photos noticed something was off about these excursions. It was clear, of course, that Holmes was shopping at Whole Foods. But it wasn’t clear how Holmes was entering the Whole Foods. The only way to access the store, at least officially, is on the street level. Even if you live at the Mercantile, you need to go outside if you want to enter the part of the building occupied by Whole Foods. But nobody had seen Holmes, who had become one of Hollywood’s most surveilled celebrities in a matter of hours, leaving her apartment to shop there.
This ontological mystery bred a unique conspiracy theory: Katie Holmes was using a secret, private entrance to access Whole Foods, allowing her to purchase kale and carrot juice without stepping outside. Hillary Reinsberg, a former BuzzFeed editor who now works for a restaurant review startup, wrote what appears to be the first account of this theory in July 2012:
Holmes had recently been inside the building’s ground-floor Whole Foods, which she has visited numerous times in the past two weeks. But the photographers didn’t expect a photo out of it. Nearly every lingering photographer seemed to have figured out that Holmes has a way of getting into the store from inside her swanky apartment building, The Chelsea Mercantile at 252 7th Avenue.
But how? Nearly a year later, in May 2013, a New York Observer reporter named Jordyn Taylor went looking for the unofficial passageway through which Holmes may have been entering the store–only to be laughed off by a Whole Foods employee:
We needed to know: Is it a secret revolving bookshelf, activated by touching a certain tome? Does she enter through a nondescript girls’ bathroom, á la “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?” Can Katie Holmes teleport?
We ask a Whole Foods employee if Ms. Holmes really has a private entrance to the grocery store. He laughs—he has heard the rumor before. But, he says, there’s definitely no secret entrance for the rich and famous. “There’s no Batcave in here, there’s only one door.”
And this is where the story has stood for the past two years. The passage of time, coupled with Holmes and Suri’s August 2014 relocation to Calabasas, California, have understandably diminished tabloid interest in illuminating this peripheral question. (Housing records suggest she declined to keep her Mercantile apartment, located on the 11th floor, as a pied-à-terre.) But when you think about it—when you realize this conundrum involves the laws of physics—this is precisely the kind of mystery that begs to be solved.
Indeed, when I visited the store this week, it became immediately clear that the anonymous employee’s testimony deserved further scrutiny. There is, in fact, a single door at the Chelsea Whole Foods through which customers are allowed to enter or exit, on the corner of 7th Avenue and West 24th Street:
But there is certainly more than “one door” dividing Whole Foods from the outside. For example, there is a glass door on West 24th Street that serves as an emergency exit:
This method seems unlikely, though, given the door’s interior alarm system. Here’s what it looks like from the inside:
On the other side of the building, facing West 25th Street, are three loading docks where trucks deposit deliveries:
Closer to 7th Avenue is a separate service entrance:
And: It just so happens that the service entrance to The Mercantile—at 252 7th Avenue—is situated directly between these separate entrances:
This method seems as convenient—just exit one service entrance and enter the other!—as it is implausible. Directly next to the loading docks is the opening to the Mercantile’s private underground garage—across from which paparazzi camped out to capture a glimpse of Holmes and Suri. Here’s an Associated Press photo of what that looked like in 2012:
I was momentarily stumped. How was Holmes getting into this Whole Foods, evading the detection of people who are paid to detect celebrities, and in a relatively small amount of space?
It’s worth pointing out here that the very suggestion that Holmes was entering Whole Foods in a manner hidden from others—the idea that Holmes had secrets—had a unique valence in the summer of 2012. Holmes decided to divorce Tom Cruise after she learned, to her horror, that he was covertly indoctrinating Suri into the Church of Scientology. This meant that Holmes would only divorce Cruise when she could be certain, or as certain as possible, that she would be able to obtain sole custody of their daughter.
The first order of business, then, was for Holmes to move to New York City, whose family courts typically favor mothers in custody disputes, but without sending up any red flags for Cruise to notice. To pull this off, Holmes began relaying her hourly whereabouts to her father, an Ohio divorce lawyer, using a burner cell phone; and arranged to purchase an apartment at an undisclosed location in Manhattan, to meet the residency requirements for divorce cases. All in secret.
The Whole Foods mystery simply reinforced the dominant narrative of Katie Holmes’ dramatic escape—from Cruise, most importantly, but also the fiction that she had subordinated herself to his ambitions. “To embrace the portrayal of her as a victim,” New York’s Benjamin Wallace wrote that July, “is to deny her agency.” And the fact that nobody looked too closely into this tale fell out of the same story: If Holmes had secrets, maybe it was for a good reason.
But nearly three years later, it seems ridiculous that we still don’t know how Holmes seemed to transcend the physics that otherwise govern human bodies—how she appeared to have passed, unscathed, through solid walls.
While I was walking around the Whole Foods location, I noticed something I’d initially overlooked: On the opposite end of The Mercantile’s ground floor stood a store called Whole Body. Here’s where it is in relation to Whole Foods and The Mercantile’s lobby entrance:
And here’s what it looks like from the outside:
As its name suggests, it’s a cosmetic and toiletry outlet owned by Whole Foods. Yet from the outside and the inside, Whole Foods and Whole Body appear as separate entities—you can’t enter one and cross into the other. At least one Yelp user has complained about this conundrum: “Ugh, can you have a little secret door to Whole Foods or something?”
But while I was looking around the Whole Foods store, I noticed a curious door in the corner of the produce section:
Beyond the door, as I saw when two people emerged from it, were a set of stairs that clearly led to the building’s cellar. But what was in the cellar itself?
To (maybe) answer this question, I paid a trip to the City of New York’s Department of Buildings, in Lower Manhattan, where I obtained a copy of the blueprints submitted by Whole Foods’ architectural firm in 2000, shortly before construction on the store began. Here’s what the ground floor’s “egress plan” looks like:
The big circular structure in the middle, and the arms extending from it, belong to The Mercantile. The rest belongs to Whole Foods (on the south and west sides) and Whole Body (on the northeast corner). Let’s zoom in on the produce section, which abuts the entryway to the Mercantile’s lobby. Inside the red circle are the stairs I happened upon:
But where do these stairs lead? The probable answer appeared in the blueprint for the building’s cellar:
A closer look:
Circled, at the bottom, is the same stairwell in the produce section that I circled above—only at the cellar level. The portion circled on top is another stairwell, accessed by a door in the part of the cellar directly under Whole Body. Remember the blueprint of the ground floor? It indicates a corresponding stairwell in the very same location:
Taken together, these blueprints suggest these two stairwells access precisely the same area: a warren of underground rooms used by Whole Foods employees. (The rooms are designated with titles like “Lounge,” “Store Team Leaders,” and “Accounting.”) But is it possible to use them to go between Whole Body and Whole Foods undetected? Could the maze-like hallway connecting these rooms have let Katie Holmes access Whole Foods without using the front door?
To test this theory—and it remains, alas, only a theory—I tried it myself.
I began by finding the door within Whole Body that appeared to lead to the northernmost stairway indicated on the blueprint. It’s a heavy gray door, decorated with a single sign: “SPRINKLER CONTROL VALVE.” It was also unlocked.
Behind the door was—surprise—a stairwell:
At the bottom of the stairwell was another door:
Behind that door were, indeed, the very rooms described on the 2000 cellar blueprints. Here’s what it looked like walking through the connecting hallway:
Around the corner:
Around another corner was the stairwell at the opposite end of the cellar:
Inside the stairwell:
I walked up. And then I saw it—the very same corner door I had seen in Whole Foods, only from the other side:
I pushed it open and ...
... found myself, unsurprisingly, in the produce section. Then I exited the store in a state of miscomprehension. Had I just replicated Katie Holmes’ method of covertly entering Whole Foods?
Well. The case is certainly not airtight. There are no photos of Katie Holmes doing what I did. Plus the required steps are kind of complicated to pull off. And the paparazzi present at the time were, presumably, keeping a close eye on the Whole Body store too. But it’s not entirely impossible that, to access Whole Foods, Holmes did something along the lines of:
- Exited The Mercantile’s private garage in a vehicle driven by one of her security personnel
- Instructed her driver to drive around Chelsea a bit to shake loose any trailing paparazzi
- Directed her driver back to Whole Body (a much smaller store)
- Walked through the door in the back of the store
- Traversed the Whole Foods’ cellar—directly underneath The Mercantile’s entryway—and reappeared in the corner of the produce section.
It sounds crazy, right? All of that effort just to shop at Whole Foods. But if the American public learned anything in the summer of 2012, it was that Katie Holmes was not to be underestimated. As with her marriage to Tom Cruise, and her eventual escape from his clutches, only Holmes herself knows exactly how she did it, and why.
*** UPDATE, 1:20 p.m. ***
A reader writes in:
I usually don’t like to comment on articles, but I felt like you over complicated your Whole Foods theory. Based on my review of the plans, there is a door between the cellar level employee area and the cellar level corridor of the Mercantile building. Ms. Holmes probably went through this door and never had to step outside.
I used to work in Chelsea right near this Whole Foods and I’m an engineer and have been in many NYC buildings and reviewed many building plans. I don’t recall if I’ve ever been in the cellar of this building, but I probably have.
Here’s the door this reader is talking about:
I happened to run into this door after I (very) momentarily got lost in the cellar hallway; it’s at a complete dead end, and appeared to be protected by several different alarms. But the same reader indicated that Holmes could have bypassed this:
If it’s alarmed, someone has keys to it. Ms. Holmes just had to make nice with the building superintendent or a maintenance worker at Whole Foods. It seems more plausible then sneaking into Whole Body just to get into Whole Foods.
In other words: Holmes almost certainly entered Whole Foods via the cellar and door in the produce section, but how she accessed the cellar itself remains unclear. After all, asking anyone for keys to unlock a secured door, if you’re a celebrity (or someone who works for a celebrity), is the kind of thing that might leak out. But entering through Whole Body carries its own obvious risks, too.
* * * UPDATE, 3/31/15 * * *
This is Illuminati Month on Black Bag, in which Gawker locks itself in the woodshed and breaks out the red yarn to explore its favorite conspiracy theories. Email or gchat the author: email@example.com · PGP key + fingerprint · GIF by Jim Cooke with photos by the author and Getty · Other photo credits: Adam Elquist (second photo), the author, Associated Press, and New York City’s Department of Buildings.