updated 08/04/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 08/04/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Onstage Celia Cruz played the unabashed diva, strutting her stuff in multicolored wigs, flamboyant gowns and mile-high heels. Offstage the undisputed Queen of Salsa was as modest as her renowned cry of Azucar! (Sugar!) was joyous. "When people hear me sing, I want them to be happy, happy, happy," Cruz once said. "My message is always felicidad—happiness." In her waning months she refused to: let breast and brain cancer dampen her ebullience. During a visit to Cruz's home in May, Univision talk show host Cristina Saralegui remembers finding the grande dame in her living room, "sitting like a queen in the Celia outfit: the glasses with rhinestones, the wig, the lipstick. I think the only thing she gave up was the false eyelashes."
Cruz, 78, lost her yearlong battle with cancer July 16, at her Fort Lee, N.J., home. But even in death she teased smiles from the more than 150,000 mourners from Andalusia to Zihuatanejo who filed past her coffin, first in Miami, then in New York City, as she had requested. Laid out in a platinum-blonde wig, a sequined gown and flashy jewelry, her nails painted white, her lips hot pink, Cruz "to the very end handled her fans and everybody with a tremendous amount of love and humility," says singer Jon Secada. "What a legacy she left." As in life, Pedro Knight, 81, Cruz's beloved music director and husband of 41 years, stood protectively by her side. "I never knew two people more in love," says Saralegui. "They were two bodies, one soul."
A cross-cultural, cross-generational phenomenon, Cruz enjoyed a career that spanned six decades and produced some 70 albums. A tireless entertainer, she often spent 11 months a year touring, sometimes doing as many as six concerts a day. "She was an incredible, ageless performer," says Gloria Estefan. "Her age never crossed your mind when you saw her perform." Her many-awards included three Latin Grammys and two Grammys, the most recent for 200l's La Negra Tiene Tumbao.
By recording solely in Spanish, Cruz never found her way into the mainstream—but the mainstream found its way to her. Among her collaborators were Patti LaBelle, Wyclef Jean. Luciano Pavarotti and "Mambo King" Tito Puente. Cruz also appeared in several films, including 1992's The Mambo Kings. Two years later, President Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts.
Despite her infectious joy, the singer, who escaped poverty in her native Havana as a teen after winning a singing competition that launched her career, nursed psychic pain throughout her adult life. After defecting from Cuba in 1960 following Fidel Castro's takeover, the singer, who later became a U.S. citizen, was branded a traitor and not permitted to return, even for her mother's funeral in '62. "I keep thinking about Cuba," she told PEOPLE EN ESPANOL in January. "It always hurts me." Also, says Saralegui, "she was sad because she never got to have children" due to fertility problems. Perhaps as a result, Cruz was close to her three siblings' children and often took young people under her wing. "She was always looking after me," singer Marc Anthony said in March. "It's like having another mother."
On July 29 fans will receive one last gift: the release of Cruz's final album, Regalo del Alma (Gift from the Soul). A COPY of the CD was buried with Cruz, as was a jar of soil from her beloved Cuba. But "she left more than No. 1 hits," says producer Emilio Estefan. "She left a legacy of love."
Lydia Martin, Maria Morales and Linda Trischitta in Miami and Armando Correa, Rachel Felder, Bob Meadows and Joselly Castrodad-Sánchez in New York City