David Ritz wrote one of the best celebrity memoirs out there – Ray Charles’ book Brother Ray. Read it and you’ll feel like you’re having a conversation with Ray himself. Brother Ray spawned other works as well: both the Ray Charles biopic that won Jamie Foxx his Oscar and a less well-known show by one of my favorite cabaret singers.
Ritz is justifiably proud of his Ray Charles book; he was less satisfied with one he ghosted for Aretha Franklin in 1999. The critics weren’t thrilled with it either, as it glossed over or omitted key events in Franklin’s life. As one Amazon.com reviewer noted, “Unlike the soul-baring performances that have drawn listeners to her for four decades, Aretha Franklin is a bit cagey when it comes to discussing her personal life in her autobiography…”
Apparently that wasn’t David Ritz’s fault. He had all the gory details in his interview notes, but Franklin (or her people) sanitized the manuscript. Now, 15 years later, he has corrected the record, publishing an unauthorized biography. Kirkus Reviews calls it “An honest and genuinely respectful portrait of a true diva by a writer who feels the power of her art.” Aretha Franklin calls it “a very trashy, trashy book . . . It’s lies, lies, lies and then more lies.”
Ritz titled his new book Respect, playing off the name of one of Franklin’s greatest hits. That’s ironic because in publishing material Franklin wanted to keep private, he has proven that he respects neither his erstwhile client nor the ethics of his profession.
Now, I’m sure Respect is a juicy read (I haven’t read it and probably won’t). But it’s not Ritz’s story to tell; it’s Franklin’s. He signed on to be a ghostwriter. The notes he took of their interviews should be her property, not his. It’s the literary equivalent of a hacker publishing a naked selfie of a starlet. We can debate the starlet’s wisdom in snapping those naked photos – and Franklin’s in sharing stories she would not want to see in print – but by deleting these stories from Ritz’s original manuscript, Franklin drew clear personal boundaries. Ritz’s new book apparently bulldozes through all of them.
Unfortunately, David Ritz is not the first person to profit from a lack of ethics, nor will he be the last. But shame on him for doing it.