By ROB HOERBURGER
Aretha Franklin sat alone with a Coke. It was the night of her 69th birthday, and all around, guests were filing into the Park Room at the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South, bobbing to live music from the vibraphonist Roy Ayers or the mambo prince Tito Puente Jr. Franklin has given herself big birthday parties before, but this one had a certain urgency.
A few months earlier, in December, she announced she had undergone an unnamed surgical “procedure,” and word spread that she had pancreatic cancer (which she denied); other reports speculated that she’d had gastric-bypass surgery to get control of a weight problem that appeared to have pushed her over 250 pounds (which she denied).
The organizers of the Grammy Awards quickly put together a tribute for her, and the sudden and shocking weight loss displayed in a taped thank-you played during the ceremony in February only kept advance-obituary writers scrambling for whatever superlatives were left to describe a career that has included 18 Grammys, upward of 75 million records sold, being the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But now there she sat at a front table, in a flowing cream-colored silk Naeem Khan gown, with the kind of resurrection glow you see on stained-glass windows in churches. Open and accessible to all, Franklin seemed to be saying, Come, poke your fingers into the airspace where a third of me used to be. “I almost walked by her in the hall,” said a friend who has known her for more than 15 years, “that’s how much I didn’t recognize her.”