Inside the Turmoil of Whitney Houston’s Shocking Death
When Golden Globes host Jerrod Carmichael referred to the Beverly Hilton as “the hotel that killed Whitney Houston,” attendees were still rustling around to get to their seats. Many in the room may have missed it in the moment, even though it resonated loud and clear on TV.
So the fallout occurred outside the venue.
“The Whitney Houston Estate is disappointed in the joke,” a rep for the late singer’s sister-in-law Pat Houston told TMZ after the show, “and felt it was in poor taste.”
Because, even approaching 11 years since Whitney’s sudden death on Feb. 11, 2012, it’s still too soon for fans and protectors of the revered artist’s legacy to consider what happened that day anything other than heartbreaking.
On the final day of her life, Whitney seemed to be looking forward to Clive Davis‘ annual pre-Grammy gala that was to be held that night at the Beverly Hilton—where she was also staying, in Room 434, under her grandmother’s name, Elizabeth Collins.
“We talked about looks and what she was going to wear…and what we would do with that evening,” her longtime hairstylist Tiffanie Dixon told NBC News a month later. “She seemed very happy that day.”
Whitney’s assistant Mary Jones later told investigators she suggested the singer take a bath while she ran an errand at Neiman Marcus, and left the room at around 3 p.m. She returned at 3:35 p.m. and found the 48-year-old singer face-down in the tub, submerged in a foot of water.
Seconds later Whitney’s longtime bodyguard Ray Watson (one of Pat Houston’s brothers), who had been standing watch outside in the hall, ran in too.
“I got her out of the water and tried to revive her,” Watson recalled to London’s Mirror. “Then it was all crazy. It was the worst thing that has ever happened in my life. I never will forget it. Never.”
A 9-1-1 call was made by hotel security at 3:43 p.m., according to Beverly Hills Police, and the paramedics who responded minutes later were already in the building in light of all the activity taking place at the hotel that weekend.
Hairstylist Dixon said she was headed to Houston’s room to help her get ready when she heard something—she didn’t know what, exactly, yet—had happened.
“Everything just kind of happened so fast,” she told NBC News. “I was due to report to work…I was going in the direction where I needed to go, and I was instructed to call for help, and that’s what I did.”
Dixon described consoling and being consoled by Whitney’s then-18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, in the hallway. The teen “didn’t know what was going on,” the stylist explained, sharing that she’d glimpsed Whitney lying there and then moved to keep Bobbi Kristina out of the bathroom. (In one of the most tragic twists imaginable, Bobbi Kristina was found underwater and unconscious in the tub at her Atlanta-area home on Jan. 31, 2015. She spent the next six months in a coma before she died at the age of 22 on July 26.)
Word spread like wildfire among Whitney’s small entourage, including manager and sister-in-law Pat and Whitney’s brother Gary.
After attempts to resuscitate her failed, Houston was pronounced dead at 3:55 p.m., Beverly Hills Police Lt. Mark Rosen told reporters later that night, also noting that there seemed to be “no obvious signs of criminal intent” at the scene. At the time, Whitney’s body was still in the hotel.
The next day BHPD put a security hold on any autopsy findings until their investigation was complete, a not-uncommon move especially in high-profile cases, according to then-Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter. (The autopsy report from the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office released two months later stated that Whitney had probably been dead for about an hour before she was found.)
Whitney’s mother, Cissy Houston, recalled the phone ringing that night at her home in New Jersey. “When I picked it up, all I could hear was screaming,” she wrote in her 2013 book Remembering Whitney. “‘Oh, Mommy! It’s Nippy! It’s Nippy!’ It was my son Gary on the line and he was hysterical.”
When the Grammy-winning gospel singer asked what was wrong, he replied, “They found her!…They found her upstairs and I’m not going back up there.”
Cissy couldn’t get a clearer explanation from her son, she recalled, and finally she asked if her daughter was dead.
“I was told later that I screamed so loudly that the whole building must have heard me,” Cissy wrote, “but my mind was absolutely blank, except for one thought: My baby was gone.”
Back at the Beverly Hilton, investigators were combing Whitney’s suite, trying to get a handle on what, exactly, had happened. At the same time, an A-list crowd was trickling into the hotel for Davis’ party, unaware of what was transpiring upstairs.
The final coroner’s report released in April 2012 stated that a “spoon with a white crystal like substance in it” was found in the room, as was “a plethora of prescription medication bottles,” along with an open bottle of champagne, food and other personal items. A small mirror found in a drawer had “a white powdery substance” on it, the report also noted.
The autopsy determined Houston’s official cause of death to be accidental drowning, with atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use “just probably immediately prior” to drowning listed as contributing factors.
Toxicology tests turned up traces of Benadryl, Xanax, marijuana and Flexeril, a muscle relaxant, in her system, but none were considered factors in her death, per the report. Assistant Chief Coroner Winter had told L.A.’s ABC 7 that Houston’s prescriptions were “pretty normal” and quipped that he had more prescriptions than were found in her room.
The postmortem also detected mild emphysema (she had been rumored to be suffering from a lung ailment), pulmonary edema and benign tumors in her uterus, the report stated.
Whitney’s body remained at the Beverly Hilton until 1:35 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12, Winter later telling Vanity Fair, “The family maybe wanted to spend a few minutes with her before we loaded her off.”
Bobby Brown was on tour with New Edition when he got the news of his ex-wife’s death—”Just say a prayer for my daughter, say a prayer for her mother, and if you find the time please say a prayer for me because I am going to need it,” he said onstage in Mississippi—and flew out to L.A. to be with his grief-stricken daughter Bobbi Kristina, who was briefly hospitalized twice in 24 hours after Whitney died.
Brown told Extra, “Obviously the death of her mother is affecting her; however, we will get through this tragedy as a family.”
Just two days prior, E! News crossed paths with Houston while interviewing Davis, Brandy and Monica during a rehearsal ahead of the music mogul’s gala.
Brandy told E! that Whitney had advised her to “sing from the heart,” and she was happy to be reunited with her Cinderella co-star. “That’s my mentor. She’s everything to me. She’s taught me so much about singing and just being myself. And I love her so much.”
Davis, who signed Houston to his Arista Records when she was 19, shared that the “How Will I Know” singer was excited to attend his party.
The sit-down was wrapping up when Whitney walked up to Davis (“my dad” she called him) for a hug and kisses, after which Bobbi Kristina followed suit, greeting her godfather.
“Did you hear your name?” Davis asked Whitney. “I’ve been paying tribute.”
Later that night, on Feb. 9, Houston unexpectedly took the stage with Kelly Price, who was hosting a pre-Grammys event at Tru nightclub.
“I wasn’t expecting her to sing, I wasn’t going to ask her to do that,” she told Ryan Seacrest for E! News on the Grammys red carpet Feb 12. “I just simply acknowledged that she was in the building and told everyone about our relationship, our friendship, how she’s encouraged me down through the years as far as my career goes, and she just walked up on the stage. We embraced each other and she said, ‘Give me the mic.’”
Houston started to sing “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” and Price joined her, telling Seacrest it was “an honor” to duet with her longtime friend.
That surprise performance must have been heartening for anyone hoping to hear more from Whitney, whose last album was 2009’s I Look to You. At the time, she had also recently wrapped her first movie in 15 years, Sparkle, with Jordin Sparks, and recorded the single “Celebrate” for the film.
But personal drama had for years been overshadowing the countless triumphs from her storied career, and her once-almighty voice wasn’t what it was when she brought the stadium down belting out the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. Or when she fueled the sale of 45 million copies of The Bodyguard soundtrack.
“Nobody makes me do anything I don’t want to do,” Houston had told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer in her infamous “crack is whack” interview in 2002, in which she acknowledged using cocaine and other drugs. “The biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy.” But, she also said, “I am not self-destructive. I’m a person who has life, and wants to live.”
Houston, who divorced Brown in 2007 after 15 years of marriage, had most recently been in outpatient rehab in 2011, her third known stint in treatment. But basically everyone who was around her in what turned out to be her final days saw a woman in good spirits who looked happy to be doing what she loved.
Price recalled Houston standing for three hours by the stage cheering for her and everyone else who performed at her Feb. 9 party, telling Seacrest, “She came out, she hung out, we partied, we celebrated, we danced.”
Sometime on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012, Whitney called her mother, as Cissy recounted in her book.
She hadn’t seen her daughter since Christmas, but they’d talked a few times and Whitney had vowed to come visit after the Grammys, she wrote. Cissy shared that the last thing Whitney said to her was, “I’ll be home soon, Mommy. I promise.”
Barely 24 hours later, Whitney was gone.
Davis’ party went on that Saturday night, a celebration that turned into a memorial concert as artists including Alicia Keys and Tony Bennett paid tribute to the fallen star. By nighttime, a makeshift shrine of flowers, candles, cards and mementos had piled up outside the hotel entrance.
In a statement, Davis said he was “personally devastated by the loss of somebody who meant so much to me. Whitney was so full of life. She was so looking forward to tonight…she loved music. She loved this night. Let’s celebrate music. She graced this stage with her regal presence so many times.”
Calling her “a beautiful person” with “a talent beyond compare,” he noted, “Whitney would have wanted the music to go on and her family asked us to carry on.”
More than 40 million people watched the Grammys on Feb. 12 and, considering the precipitous 30 percent drop in the ratings the following year, a big portion of viewers tuned in to see how the ceremony dubbed “music’s biggest night” handled the tragedy.
They may have been devastated, but they were not disappointed, as host L.L. Cool J. acknowledged “the death in our family” and led off with a prayer, Jennifer Hudson just managed to hold off her tears singing “I Will Always Love You” as if she’d been rehearsing for days, not hours (everyone bustling around backstage got quiet and crowded around the monitors to watch), and the many Houston admirers in the house let it be known what she meant to them.
And, for the record, there was no in memoriam montage snafu that night, Houston’s incomparable voice at its melismatic peak stealing the show.
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