We’re all thinking about Whitney Houston this weekend. She died 10 years ago on Saturday, February 11th, 2012 in her hotel room just a couple of hours before the pre-Grammy gala downstairs at the Beverly Hilton.
I was staying in the Hilton on the fifth floor just one floor above Whitney’s room. In the afternoon I’d taken friends to watch Ray Davies of the Kinks rehearse for Clive Davis’s dinner in the ballroom. (He was great.) The next performer set for rehearsal was Tony Bennett. I decided to pass, it was a good moment for a jet lag nap before the dinner.
Not long after I’d gotten to my room I heard sirens outside the Hilton. I called downstairs and asked the manager what happened. He replied, “I’m sorry to tell you, but Whitney Houston has just died on the floor below you.”
What happened next was chaos. I jumped into the clothes I’d planned to wear to the dinner and ran downstairs. The police and fire departments were coming in the front door. So were the guests for the dinner. The head of security gave me an all access pass so I could follow him around, which I did. Everyone was in shock.
As the time ticked by and the ballroom was filling up, Whitney was still in the hotel. It took time to process the paperwork. Then Bobbi Kristina had a breakdown had to be removed on a gurney. I watched that. But I also watched as the vultures descended. In particular there was one hanger-on who later it turned out was more involved than anyone thought. He was the kind of Hollywood parasite who makes money off of tragedy. I’ll leave it at that.
This whole debacle could have been avoided. But by February 11, 2012 she was surrounded by these vultures, all of whom were living off of her. Some of them still are even though she’s long gone. The only person who stood up for Whitney was Clive Davis, but even he had limited power to protect her from the villains she allowed to run her world while she was vulnerable. Everyone else depended on Whitney for their livelihood, and they would not say no to her.
I saw this way back in June 1990 when I went out to Whitney’s modern mansion in Mendham, New Jersey to do an interview. Her own driver picked me up in a stretch Mercedes. When I arrived in this bucolic setting, the place will filled with guests, visitors, family and so on. There was no peace. The parents, the brothers, the sisters-in-law, staff were all bustling about. And this was a Saturday.
A lot of people wonder about Robyn Crawford. She was there, too, dressed in a basketball uniform and bouncing a ball. It was clear that Cissy and John Houston, Whitney’s parents, were uncomfortable with her presence. I’d never met her before, but Robyn was open and pleasant. Whitney was more relaxed with her around. I remember she and Whitney taking me on a tour of the house, looking at a recording studio and an awards case.
During lunch we sat around and watched a rerun of Kim Wayans hilariously imitating Oprah on “In Living Color.” I talked to John and Cissy about their days on the road with Aretha Franklin. John told me about not being able to stay in hotels in the south, and getting hassled by the police, and so on. It was on the surface a very benign experience.
Privately, though, it was very different. During our alone time, Whitney– who was so young, 27 –told me that an affair her father had had when she was 16 had rocked her world. She was still not over it. We took a walk around her Olympic sized pool — which had an enormous W painted on its floor. She told me she’d had a romance “with the brother of a big star”– meaning Jermaine Jackson.
When it was time to go, Whitney walked me out to my limo ride home. There had been a lot of laughter all day. All of a sudden, I thought of a final question. I said, and I can remember this like it was yesterday, I said, “You don’t play any instruments, do you?” She shook her head and said, with a laugh, I remember her head going back because she was cracking herself up: “I’m thinking of taking up the drums. If they thought I was gay before, what will they say now?”
I reciprocated her laugh, but I was gobsmacked. We had not addressed this rumor all day. Robyn’s presence raised questions, but there was no way I could ask them in that setting. And yet, there it was. When this exchange appeared in my story, it raised a ruckus, of course. It caused a temporary, but not permanent, chill between us.
We remained friendly on and off for two more decades. But with Bobby Brown on the scene, the situation had become impossible. At the 2000 Grammys I was backstage when Whitney had a meltdown and was refusing to go on stage. She was set to perform, but she and Bobby were having a massive row. Eventually she did go on. After the show we all headed to Mel’s Diner on the Sunset strip. Whitney, who was calmer now, urged me to talk to Bobby. He was completely out of control, standing on the tables, barking out declarations.
Whitney was soon to sign a $100 million deal with Arista Records thanks to L.A. Reid. Bobby brought me in close and announced, “L.A. Reid is signing me to a one hundred and twenty five million deal!” The point was, it was bigger than Whitney’s deal. He was high as a kite. About a year and a half later, I gasped when Whitney appeared on stage at Michael Jackson’s 30th anniversary solo concert. She was skin and bones, nearly a skeleton. Her voice was shot. Life with Bobby was killing her.
It’s hard to believe that all of this continued through the 2000s. At one Grammy dinner, Whitney — seeing that Alicia Keys was the new “it” girl — hung around her hoping she’d get a song out of it. I was sitting with her. She eventually did, it was “Million Dollar Bill,” a flicker of a hit that might have brought her back. But by then, 2009, the damage was done. Even with Bobby out of the way, the damage was done.
What a shame. The girl I remember from the 1980s, from that afternoon in Mendham and those early years was as bright and shiny and alive as she could be. She had The Voice, it was like crystal with just enough of a tinge of soul to make her the biggest star anywhere. But no one around her cared enough about her as a human being, not a gravy train. And she knew it. The coup de grace, of course, was a picture of her lying in her coffin on the front of the National Enquirer, sold for a million dollars. It was not an accident.
So rest in peace, Whitney. You deserve it.
By the way, the picture accompanying this essay is a still I took from video at Clive Davis’s Grammy party in 2009. Whitney put on a show. She was in full voice, directed and focused. It was a miracle of a night.