As the world awaits an update on the health of music icon Aretha Franklin, the superstar’s penchant for extreme privacy has never been more apparent.
News first broke early Monday morning that the legendary Queen of Soul was ailing, with sources later confirming to PEOPLE that Franklin, 76, is “gravely ill,” and another sharing that her death would be “imminent.”
While her rep has shared that family members and friends — including Stevie Wonder and the Reverend Jesse Jackson — have been at Franklin’s Detroit bedside, little else is known about the star’s specific illness or prognosis. Some reports have claimed that she’s near the end of a long battle with cancer, but Franklin herself has refused to address the assertion, previously telling JET, “I am not going to even deal with that.”
It’s the type of extreme privacy she’s always worked hard to protect, biographer David Ritz tells PEOPLE. Ritz spent two years working with Franklin on her 1999 memoir From These Roots before later penning his own biography of her life, 2015’s Respect. The latter set off a public rift between the two, with Ritz claiming his take was the unflinching true story of Franklin’s world-renowned career and tumultuous personal life, and Franklin declaring his account (that among other things alleged she’d long-battled alcohol addiction) was “full of lies.”
In the wake of her most recent health scare, Ritz shares with PEOPLE why he feels Franklin’s need for privacy has always been paramount.
“She had a tough childhood,” says Ritz who wrote in his book of Franklin’s mother leaving the family when she was very young. “And early on in her career she was hit by the tabloids.” Then with first husband and one-time manager Ted White, “there were stories of her being a victim of domestic violence and she didn’t like that. She didn’t like the image of her being a beaten woman. She loved the blues but she didn’t want to be seen as a tragic blues figure.”
Adds Ritz, “She put out a picture of her having a happy home and happy children and everything was rosy and any stories to the contrary really got her mad.” Franklin and White divorced in 1969 before she married actor Glynn Turman, whom she divorced in 1984.
While immense talent cemented her status as the voice of a generation, Franklin also became known for fiercely guarding her personal life. The mother of four welcomed her first two sons when she was a teen, and famously never revealed or confirmed the identity of their fathers.
Through countless bouts with her health in recent years, the star has chosen not to reveal details of her illnesses, telling PEOPLE back in 2016, “I’m doing very well. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be around like Perry Como, somewhere on a couch laying down with a microphone, still singing.”
By his summation, Ritz says optimism is just how Franklin has coped through it all. “She’s not atypical in her privacy, she’s just extreme. I think her strategy for emotional survival was idealization of her life in general. When you tend to idealize things, you don’t have to deal with a lot of the tough realities.”
Now, as millions pray for her recovery, Ritz says above all else, “She’s tough.”
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