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16 February 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 4:01am

“Whitney’s death bath”: a morbid curiosity

Long may such freedom of speech continue.

By Steven Baxter

Billy Bob Thornton’s latest directorial outing, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, arrives at a suitable time. While we are morbidly fascinated with the death of Whitney Houston in a bathtub in Los Angeles at the weekend, it’s worth remembering that this is nothing new: ghoulish interest in the very private death of a very public figure has always been around.

The morbid curiosity the Sun has with “WHITNEY’S DEATH BATH”, to the extent of showing a photo of the bath on its front cover, is not a whole world away from the story of the Buick in which Mansfield was scalped and killed in 1967. “SEE JAYNE MANSFIELD’S DEATH CAR”, urged the signs at fairgrounds across middle America. The bloodstains and brain matter had been cleared away, and the vehicle had been restored from the wreck it became that fateful night, but people still paid a dollar or so to go and see the car that claimed three lives, including a Hollywood icon.

I doubt the bathtub at room 434 at the Beverley Hills Hilton hotel will tour the world, attracting morbid onlookers the way the Mansfield wreck did. But the scramble to get a photo of the bath where Whitney drowned says something about how we can’t let go of celebrities, even when they’re dead; especially when they’re dead.

Almost before the price of Whitney’s back catalogue was quietly marked up in anticipation of the post-mortem spike in sales, the public wanted pictures. Sadly, this time there were no photos available of a naked Houston receiving CPR or a lifeless arm dangling out from under a blanket, so we had to make do with photos of a bathtub. Not a very interesting or exceptional bathtub, but a bathtub where someone famous died, and so a bathtub which has instantly become the most famous in the world.

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The image of the bathtub, which appeared first in the Sun in this country and which has of course been shared around the world, is a curious thing in itself. It’s a badly taken photo, blurred and badly framed, maybe snatched with a camera phone by someone who was there at the time, or who managed to squeeze their way into the suite on the night the singer died. It’s just an overhead view of a bathtub with some water in it and a hairbrush sitting by the side: a meaningless, empty image of nothing.

There’s a part of me that hopes this is all some colossal stunt, that it’s just a photo of an ordinary bath and someone has somehow convinced the world’s press that it’s the particular bath where Whitney died. Imagine that, if an ordinary bath could appear on the front page of a newspaper, or be pored over by millions of people around the world, and that we’re all just peering at some non-entity’s hairbrush and bathwater, as opposed to that of a now-dead and now-very-much-more-marketable celebrity.

It’s a time when our tabloid newspapers are trying to convince us that they are vital, that they are the lifeblood of our free speech, the cornerstone of our democracy, a set of people who should be placed above the law for the way in which they challenge authority and enlighten us about what’s really going on — and they’re fighting each other to get photos of a dead woman’s bathtub, to speculate about what it was that killed her, to gleefully announce in giant letters that someone is “on suicide watch” as a result of the tragedy.

I don’t see much democracy, or authority being challenged: I just see a pack of jackals tearing over the corpse of a dead woman. And fine, that’s free speech, and long may it continue: long may we have the right to want to read about dead people, be they Jayne Mansfield or Whitney Houston, seeing as it’s what we appear to prefer to real political debate. And maybe tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, we will see dozens and dozens of public-interest exclusives falling down like rain, proving me wrong.

In the meantime, who wants to buy a ticket to see Whitney Houston’s death bath?