Piaf, Edith (originally, Gassion, Edith Giovanna)

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Piaf, Edith (originally, Gassion, Edith Giovanna)

Piaf, Edith (originally, Gassion, Edith Giovanna), French singer, actress, and songwriter; b. Paris, Dec. 19,1915; d. Plascassier, France, Oct. 11,1963. An impassioned singer, Piaf was among the most popular performers in France from the 1930s to the 1960s and one of the few French musical artists to gain a significant following internationally. Famous for a troubled life, she sang dramatic songs of unhappy love, many of which contained her lyrics or were written especially for her. These included her best-known songs, “La Vie en Rose” and “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” Although she sang in French for the most part (with occasional forays into English), her highly personal approach to material influenced English-speaking singers such as Judy Garland as well as a generation of French cabaret performers.

Piaf’s parents were Louis-Alphonse Gassion, an acrobat, and Anetta Giovanna Maillard Gassion, who became a singer under the name Line Marsa. Her father was serving in the army when she was born, and her mother abandoned her to his care after he returned. When she was seven, he took her to live with her grandmother, a cook in a brothel in Normandy After a year he reclaimed her, and she accompanied him in his travels around the country, singing as part of his act. When she was about 15, her father acquired a commonlaw wife and the family settled in Paris, where Piaf worked in a factory and began to sing in the streets. She entered into a relationship with Louis Dupont, an errand-boy, and gave birth to a daughter in February 1933, but she left him soon after to return to singing, and the child died of meningitis.

Piaf began to find work singing in cafés and nightclubs but was still singing in the street in October 1935 when she was heard by Louis Leplée, owner of Gerny’s Club. He named her Piaf (Parisian slang for sparrow), picked songs for her, had her dress in black, and put her on at his cabaret. She rapidly became a success, earning a recording contract with Polydor before the end of the year. Leplée was robbed and murdered in the spring of 1936, which negatively affected her career. But she soon became the protégé of songwriter Raymond Asso. She made her film debut in La Garçonne and began making radio broadcasts in the fall. Asso wrote hit songs for her, including “Mon Légionnaire” (music by Marguerite Monnot, lyrics by Asso), and in March 1937 she debuted at the prestigious A.B.C, cabaret in Paris.

With the start of World War II in September 1939, Asso went into the army, and Piaf began living with singer Paul Meurisse. In May 1940 the two appeared in the one-act play Le Bel Indifférent, written for her by Jean Cocteau. She continued to perform and record after the Germans entered Paris on June 14, 1940. She had begun to write song lyrics, and she contributed four songs her next film appearance, in 1941 ’s Montmartre-Sur-Seine, her first onscreen acting part. She sang for French prisoners-of-war in Germany and helped them to escape. With the end of the war in 1945 she made another film, Etoile sans Lumière, and switched record companies to Pathé-Marconi (EMI in the U.K.), recording for that label for the rest of her life. She toured with nine-member male vocal group Les Compagnons de la Chanson, made a film with them, Neuf Garçons, un Coeur (1947), and took them with her for her U.S. debut in N.Y. in October 1947. She returned to the U.S. frequently thereafter.

Piaf began a relationship with middleweight boxer Marcel Cerdan in 1947, but he was killed in a plane crash in October 1949. In June 1950 the orchestras of Victor Young and Paul Weston reached the U.S. charts with instrumental treatments of Piafs 1946 French hit and signature song “La Vie en Rose” (music credited to R. S. Louiguy [real name Luis Guglielmi] though apparently composed by Piaf, lyrics by Piaf). Mack David wrote an English lyric, and Tony Martin scored a Top Ten hit with the song in August. Four other chart versions followed, including one by Piaf herself singing in English. In the wake of this success, other American performers recorded anglicized versions of her hits. Kay Starr peaked in the Top Ten in June 1954 with “If You Love Me (Really Love Me)” (music by Marguerite Monnot, English lyrics by Geoffrey Parsons), which Piaf had introduced in France in 1949 with her original lyrics as “Hymne à L’Amour.” Patti Page reached the Top 40 with “I’ll Remember Today” (music by Piaf, lyrics by William Engvick) in December 1957. And “C’Est l’Amour” (music by Marguerite Monnot, lyrics by Piaf) became “Just Come Home,” a Top 40 hit for Hugo and Luigi in January 1960.

Piaf had begun living with American actor Eddie Constantine in 1950, and she appeared with him in the musical comedy La P’tite Lili (Paris, March 3,1951), but the show closed after she was involved in an automobile accident in which she was severely injured, leading to an addiction to pain-killing drugs she never overcame. In June 1952 she married singer-songwriter Jacques Pills (real name Ducos); they divorced in 1957. She toured extensively during the 1950s, both in Europe and the U.S. After several minor appearances in films—Paris Chante Toujours (1951), Bourn sur Paris (1952), Si Versailles M’Était Conté (1953), French Cancan (1954)—she had a larger role in her final film, Les Amants de Demain (1959).

In January 1959, Piaf collapsed onstage in N.Y. and underwent a four-hour operation for stomach ulcers and internal hemorrhaging. Her health steadily deteriorated during the last several years of her life. Still, she scored an international hit in the early 1960s with “Milord” (music by Marguerite Monnot, lyrics by Georges Moustaki), which reached the British charts in May 1960 and the American charts in March 1961. She mounted a major performing comeback with a four-month stand at the Olympia Music-Hall in Paris starting on Dec. 26, 1960, performing songs by composer Charles Dumont, among them a new signature song, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (No, I Regret Nothing; lyrics by Michel Vaucaire). The resulting album, Live at the Olympia, reportedly sold a million copies in France.

Piaf married hairdresser-turned-singer Théo Sarapo (real name Theophanis Lamboukas) on Oct. 9,1962, and made her final public appearance with him at the Bobino Music-Hall in Paris on Feb. 21,1963. She died at 47 of an internal hemorrhage. After her death her recordings continued to sell consistently. A sensationalized biography by Simone Berteaut—who falsely claimed to be her half-sister—was a best-seller at the end of the 1960s and served as the basis for the 1974 film PiafThe Early Years. Pam Gems’s biographical play Piaf! (London, Jan. 15, 1980) was a more reasonable account; it was revived successfully in the West End in 1993, starring Elaine Paige. The Piaf-Cerdan relationship exerted a particular fascination, and Claude Lelouch focused on it in his 1983 film Edith et Marcel, with Marcel Cerdan Jr. playing his father.


Au Bal De La Chance (Geneva, 1958; Eng. tr. as The Wheel of Fortune, London, 1965); Ma Vie: Texte Recueilli par Jean Noi (Paris, 1964; 2nd ed., 1978).


M. Blistène, Au Revoir, E. (Paris, 1963); S. Berteaut, P (Paris, 1969; Eng. tr., N.Y., 1972); E. Bertin, E. P, Le Chant d’Amour (Paris, 1973); J. Noli, E. P: Trois Ans pour Mourir (1973); G. Costaz, E. P. (1974); D. Gassion (her half-sister), P. Ma Soeur (1977); M. Lange, Histoire de P (1979; Eng. tr. as P., N.Y., 1981); A. Le Breton, La Môme P. (1980); A. Fildier, ed., E. P., 1915–1963 (1981); C. Dureau, E. P. 20 Ans Après (1982); E. Boissonnade, P. et Cerdan, l’Amour Foudroyé (1983); D. Grimault and P. Mahé, P.-Cerdan, Un Hymne à l’Amour, 1946–1949 (1983); A. Lame, E. P.: L’Amour Toujours (1983); W. Laurent, E. P. (1983); J. Monserrat, E. P. et la Chanson (1983); P. Ribert, ed., Témoignages sur E. et Chansons de P (1984); M. Crosland, P. (N.Y., 1985); D. Bret, The P Legend (London, 1988).

—William Ruhlmann