07/24/2003 AT 10:20 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 Azúcar! (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 2001's La Negra Tiene Tumbao.