Aretha Franklin biographer David Ritz opens up about why the Queen of Soul has always been so guarded about her personal life

By Janine Rubenstein
August 16, 2018 12:45 PM
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As the world mourns the death 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, was “gravely ill,” and another sharing that her death would be “imminent.” She died of advance pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type on Thursday morning, her publicist confirmed.

While her rep previously shared that family members and friends — including Stevie Wonder and the Reverend Jesse Jackson — had been at Franklin’s Detroit bedside, little else was known about the star’s specific illness or prognosis prior to her death. Reports had claimed that she was near the end of a long battle with cancer, but Franklin herself had 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 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.”

Shortly before she died, Ritz shares with PEOPLE why he feels Franklin’s need for privacy had always been paramount.

Aretha Franklin in 1961.
| Credit: Metronome/Getty

“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.

Aretha Franklin and Ted White, early ’60s.
| Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

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 12 and 14, respectively, and famously never revealed or confirmed the identity of their fathers.

Through countless bouts with her health in recent years, the star chose 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.”

Aretha Franklin performing in November 2017.
| Credit: Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

By his summation, Ritz says optimism is just how Franklin 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.”

This week, as millions prayed for the Queen of Soul, Ritz says above all else, “She’s tough.”