The comedian has been married to Camille for 51 years
Credit: Kevin Wolf/AP Images

As Bill Cosby’s accusers continue to come forward with allegations of sexual assault, it’s difficult to ask questions about the comedian’s past without wondering how the controversy affects the woman who stood by his side for more than 50 years.

Camille Cosby, 70, was recently seen sitting quietly next to her husband while a reporter for the Associated Press asked questions about the allegations. The original intent of the interview was to address how the couple lent their own art to a Smithsonian exhibit, but Camille fell silent as her husband implored the reporter to “scuttle” the line of questioning.

Other than comments from Cosby’s nephew Braxton Cosby – who recently told that his uncle was “innocent” – neither Camille nor any of Cosby’s children have reacted publicly to the barrage of allegations that were blasted by Cosby’s lawyer as "unsubstantiated [and] fantastical."

But one family friend tells PEOPLE that Camille, who married Cosby 51 years ago when she was only 19, remains a huge source of support “on every level.”

“She’s behind him,” the source says. “I think that their half-century of marriage and love and accomplishment, that outweighs things like this.”

Though the recent 545-page biography, Cosby: His Life and Times, has been criticized for ignoring the sexual abuse accusations that led to a civil lawsuit in 2006, it provides a rich narrative of how he first met the woman who would become his wife.

Described as resembling a young Lena Horne, Camille Hanks was the daughter of a research chemist father and a Howard University graduate mom. She grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and attended Catholic schools. The couple’s hope was that Camille would become a musician, the book says, but she decided to study psychology by the time she enrolled at the University of Maryland.

Their mutual interest in the study of human behavior was what first attracted Camille to Bill Cosby, according to the book.

After an introduction by way of friend Ron Crockett, Camille and Bill had their first meeting in a bowling alley near the University of Maryland campus. By the next week, Cosby had proposed marriage, but the conservative Camille wanted to see if their romance could survive long-distance. She was still in college while he was working in New York City. And there was an issue with her parents, who weren’t so keen on their prim daughter dating a nightclub comedian who was seven years older.

By 1963, Cosby had made multiple appearances on TV, including The Tonight Show, so he hoped his newfound celebrity status would make him a “respectable catch” to Camille’s parents. And apparently, it did: After buying her a $250 ring in Greenwich Village, he proposed to Camille under the stipulation that they attend pre-marriage classes with the family priest.

On Jan. 25, 1964, the wedding took place on a converted basketball court in Olney, Maryland, because the Hanks’ family church was under construction. Oddly, the book notes, no one from Cosby’s family was there, including his mother, Anna. The biographer questioned whether it was because she never forgave Camille’s parents for disapproving of her talented son.

It didn’t take long before Camille began asserting her influence over the content of her husband’s standup, the family friend says.

“One of Camille’s favorite words is ‘integrity,’ and she’s got a very high moral compass,” the family friend tells PEOPLE. “When they first got together – she was 19 and he was 26 when they married … he was still doing some black humor, as in black race humor, and she said, ‘You don’t need to do that. Just be yourself.’ She’s always been his number-one fan and number-one critic. He trusts her to the ends of the earth and beyond. She’s always had input. She’s also his muse, really, when you think about it.”

Another longtime friend echoes that sentiment. Rosemary O’Brien, who has known Bill Cosby nearly 25 years, starting in 1990 when she joined NBC and became the network’s publicist for The Cosby Show for its last three seasons, says it was evident how important Cosby’s wife and children – Erika, Erinn, Ennis, Ensa and Evin – are to him.

“I felt with him being a father with daughters and being married to an amazing woman, we were all treated in that way,” she says. “He would always reference ‘Mrs. Cosby’ so you always felt that there was respect.”

With reporting by ELIZABETH LEONARD

For much more about the Bill Cosby scandal, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

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