What happened to Michael Hutchence in Room 524

Hutch in 1981

Hutch in 1981

Special thanks to Annie, for putting all this together.

Hutchence was 37 when he died in what a coroner later ruled as suicide. From fronting a band on Sydney’s northern beaches to international stardom, Hutchence was the ultimate rock icon and sex symbol to millions of fans who grew up with him.

Watch this YouTube tribute with special book extract below

What happened that night

To refresh your memory we are also presenting an extract from a book by UK journalist and committed INXS fan Matthew Brace that traces the night Hutchence died.

“Hutchence was the first Aussie I met,” Brace said. “When he bounced down to the front of the stage at a concert in Britain in 1990 and briefly gripped my outstretched hand.”

From Hotel Heaven by Matthew Brace:

Ten years ago Room 524 in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the well-heeled Sydney suburb of Double Bay was booked in the name of Mr Murray River.

That booking and the events that took place in that room in the early hours of Saturday, November 22, 1997, proved that even the world’s most organised and luxurious hotels have moments they cannot control.

That night also proved that there’s nothing like a bit of global scandal to help put your hotel on the map and ensure everlasting fame.

Despite suffering the headaches, the press clamouring at the door, and the vice squad detectives in cheap suits camped out in the lobby for a week or two, almost every hotel that undergoes a big scandal becomes an overnight success.

Their names are on everybody’s lips, and their pictures and logos are everywhere.

The managers and staff at the Ritz-Carlton in Double Bay had more than your average cleaning job on their hands in Room 524 that day in November, 1997. They had a body to remove, and a very famous one at that.

Mr Murray River was none other than the rock god Michael Hutchence. The front man for INXS, Australia’s most successful band, was dead.

Battling his demons

Hutchence had been preparing for INXS’s 20th anniversary tour and that morning the rest of the band members were waiting for him in the rehearsal studios, for a final run-through of songs prior to the first concerts, when they learned the dreadful news.

He had also been battling a clinically diagnosed depression, which was being exasperated by a child custody row in London over his daughter Tiger Lily. He wanted her and her two sisters, Peaches and Fifi Trixabelle (whose father is Sir Bob Geldof) and their mother (Hutchence’s partner, the British TV personality Paula Yates) all with him in Australia for Christmas.

According to the inquest reports Hutchence had returned to his hotel at 10.30pm the previous night, after an evening out with his father, Kell, who later reported that Hutchence had been in a jovial mood despite worries over the court case, and had even danced his way through the entrance of the hotel when he dropped him off.

Inside Room 524

Hutchence continued a low-key party with his friend the actress Kym Wilson and her boyfriend. All three went to his top floor harbour-view room where he asked them to stay as emotional props as he was expecting a phonecall from London regarding the case.

They hit the mini-bar and Hutchence took some cocaine as it was found in his system during the post mortem, but this was not a boozing session – more a casual couple of drinks. The coroner’s report would later state that “all three persons consumed alcohol, including vodka, beer and champagne together with cocktails during this time”.

Oddly, rather than the large suite that you might expect a multi-millionaire rock star to stay in, Room 524 was just a room. It was certainly luxurious, as one would expect at a Ritz-Carlton, and had the best aspect, facing north offering a harbour view rather than the rooms on the south of the hotel which looked at the rooftops of cafes and clothes shops. But it was not excessive or extravagant and neither was the trio’s behaviour.

They talked about Hutchence’s plans for a career as a Hollywood actor (there had been interest from Miramax and others, and detectives later found a film script in the room) and they listened to his fears over the court case.

They stayed with Michael until the summer sun began rising out of the Pacific Ocean and climbing over the The Heads just before 5am. After they left, Hutchence was alone in his room with the depressive thoughts massing around him. A series of phonecalls was made to and from the room, at least one of them heard by Gail Coward, a guest staying in the room next to 524 who was awoken shortly after 5am by the rock god arguing loudly.

Final calls

This was the call from Yates in London and it was clearly not good news. The custody matter had not been finalised and was adjourned until December 17, so Yates would not be bringing the children to Australia. A few more phone calls followed before 6am – to Geldof and Yates – and then silence.

Almost six hours later, at 11.50am an unsuspecting chambermaid pushed her cleaning trolley down the hushed, carpeted corridor of the 5th floor and arrived outside 524 to make up the room. Her knocks on the door went unanswered. When she tried to open the door she found it jammed, and needed to push with all her might to move it. Hutchence was lying naked on the floor, dead. Clothes were scattered around the room and his bed was half-made.

The coroner’s report said he had been kneeling against the door with a leather belt nearby. In the room was a Becloforte ventolin inhaler, along with Nurofen painkillers, Zoviorax 200 tablets, Prozac capsules, and other pills.

Police said a leather belt was found inside the room but there were “no suspicious circumstances”, which is police-speak for suicide. Hutchence, stressed and depressed by the news from London and further affected by alcohol and drugs (both prescription and the other variety) had been pushed over the edge.

The report from the New South Wales Coroner, Derrick Hand, stated: “He had apparently hanged himself with his own belt and the buckle broke away and his body was found kneeling on the floor and facing the door.”

Rumours that an extravagant autoerotic stunt had gone horribly wrong were scotched, much to the annoyance of the tabloid press because it would have made a far juicier story.

The coroner’s report continued: “An analysis report of the deceased’s blood indicates the presence of alcohol, cocaine, Prozac and other prescription drugs.

“On consideration of the entirety of the evidence gathered I am satisfied that the deceased was in a severe depressed state on the morning of the 22nd November, 1997, due to a number of factors, including the relationship with Paula Yates and the pressure of the on-going dispute with Sir Robert Geldof, combined with the effects of the substances that he had ingested at that time.

“As indicated I am satisfied that the deceased intended and did take his own life,” said the coroner.

Drama unfolding

As the elderly blue-rinse matriarchs of Double Bay were packing their little dogs into handbags and making their stately way to the manicurist on this summer morning, a major international news story was unfolding behind the sandstone walls of the Ritz-Carlton on Cross Street.

Up until this point luxury hotel schools were not running seminars on ‘What To Do If You Find a Dead Rock Star Blocking the Door and Hindering Your Cleaning’ but they did after this.

The maid did the right thing securing the room and calling her manager, who called the police.

The news sped around the globe in minutes. Hutchence’s face, full of vigour but hiding trauma, was on the front pages of newspapers and magazines for days along with that of the grieving Yates. Adding to the tragedy was the news that the two were to be married in Bora Bora the following January.

The managers of the Ritz-Carlton went into emergency session, fielding calls from journalists around the world. The hotel had to get this right in the media to maintain their image as edgy – it had a strong reputation as Sydney’s rock ‘n’ roll celebrity hotel, having played host to Kylie Minogue, Kiss, Alice Cooper, Dionne Warwick, Engelbert Humperdinck and scores more. It had also served as a temporary Sydney address for Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton, Princess Diana and Bob Hawke but I doubt they had indulged in any in-room rock ‘n’ roll head banging.

The fear was, after Hutchence’s demise, the place would turn into a gawking shop for tourists (and travel writers) hell-bent on visiting the room where he died, and disturbing the other paying guests. Despite the fears of the owners and managers, Hutchence’s death did nothing but good for sales. The hotel continued to woo rock bands, some of whom might have chosen to stay there purely as a result of Hutchence’s death.

Inspiration

As I visit Shakespeare’s grave in England more than once a year for literary inspiration I can fully understand budding musos wanting to get a Hutchence vibe from Room 524 in this hotel.

The property changed hands in 2000 when the Singapore-based Stamford chain took over and the building was renamed the Stamford Plaza. But the stars kept coming. During the filming of Mission Impossible II at Sydney’s Fox Studios, the hotel was a temporary home for Tom Cruise. Add Madonna and Keanu Reeves to the mix (in separate rooms, thank you) and it is easy to see how the hotel’s celebrity reputation has survived.

The Stamford Plaza showed off its clientele with signed photographs and letters hanging in frames on the walls of the Winston bar. Tucked away in the cigar room, next to the humidor and its racks of Cubans, was a small gold frame containing a photograph of Hutchence on stage wearing a sleeveless denim jacket, and a little plaque as a mark of respect.

When I stayed last year I asked two staff members if this used to be the Ritz-Carlton where Michael Hutchence died. They politely smiled and confirmed it used to be a Ritz-Carlton but on the other matter: “I wouldn’t know about that Sir.”

Matthew Brace is a travel writer and foreign correspondent and the author of Hotel Heaven: Confessions of a Luxury Hotel Addict (Random House)