“A thousand years from now,” wrote Monique Lange in Piaf, her biography of French songstress Edith Piaf, “Piafs voice will still be heard, and each time we hear it we will wonder anew at its strength, its violence, its lyrical magic.” Edith Piafs rise from street urchin to concert-hall chanteuse was more romantic than any novel. Her end in drug and alcohol dependency was sadder than any melodrama. Her voice expressed the agony of millions, and millions followed her love affairs and her divorces, knew her songs, and revelled in the triumphant comebacks she made time and again. She was adored everywhere, but she never stopped searching for love.
Edith Giovanna Gassion was born on December 19, 1915, into a less-than-glamorous life in a working-class neighborhood of Paris. Her father, Louis, was an itinerant acrobat who traveled from town to town, performing at streetside for tips. Edith’s mother, Anetta— who was many years her husband’s junior—worked at a carnival, sang on the street, and later sang in cafes.
Edith’s childhood was spent either on the road with her parents or shuttling between relatives. When she was still quite young, her father was drafted to fight in World War I. The poverty-stricken Anetta found it too difficult to care for a child on her own and abandoned Edith, leaving the youngster with her mother. Edith’s existence with her grandmother was not a happy one: she was rarely fed, washed even less often, and was given wine to put her to sleep whenever she cried.
Lived With Madame Grandmother
Edith’s father was appalled at the condition in which he found his daughter when he returned home on leave from the army. He took her to stay with his mother, who ran a whorehouse in Normandy. Life for the young Piaf in a brothel was better than one might expect. The ladies doted on Edith, and she was better fed than she had been thus far in her life. Unfortunately this arrangement did not last. When a local priest suggested that a brothel was not the best place to raise a child, Edith’s father took her on the road.
Edith toured through France and Belgium with her father, collecting money proffered by passersby while he performed his tricks. Sometimes he told her to play upon the sympathies of women and ask them to be her mother. Other times he sent her out to sing; even as a child she had the kind of voice that could draw a crowd.
When she was 15 Edith left her father and, with her friend Mamone, began making her own way on the streets of Paris. To support themselves Edith would
For the Record…
Born Edith Giovanna Gassion, December 19, 1915, in Paris, France; died October 10, 1963 in Placassier, France; daughter of Louis Alphonse (an acrobat and circus performer) and Anetta (a cafe singer; maiden name, Maillard) Gassion; married Jacques Pills (a singer), September, 1952 (divorced, c. 1953); married Theo Sarapo (a singer), October 9, 1962; children: (with Louis Dupont) Cecitie (died of meningitis c 1934).
Began singing on the streets, c. 1925; debuted professionally at Gurney’s, Paris, France, appearing for six months beginning in 1935; made first recording, “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger”), Polydor, 1936; made American debut in New York City, 1947; comeback appearance, Olympia Theater, Paris, 1960. Actress appearing in motion pictures, including La Garcon, 1936, Montmartre-sur-Seine, 1941, Etoile sans lumiere, 1946, Neuf Garcons, un coeur, 1947, Paris chante toujours, 1951, Boum sur Paris, 1952, Si Versailles m’etait conte, 1953, French Cancan, 1954, Les Amants de demain, 1958; and in plays, including Le Bel indifferent, 1941. Author of The Wheel of Fortune, Chilton Books, 1965.
sing and Mamone would collect money. Sometimes they made enough for a room; other times they spent their earnings in a saloon and slept in parks or alleyways.
It was during this period that Edith met Louis Dupont. He and Edith began living together, and in February of 1933 they had a daughter, Cecille. In an effort to assert his dominance, Dupont forced Edith to stop singing. They each took low-paying jobs—which Edith was rarely able to keep—and spent the rest of their time in a cramped apartment in a Paris slum. Edith could not tolerate the loss of freedom for long. She eventually returned to her former life on the streets, taking Cecille with her. Sadly, the child died of meningitis before reaching her second birthday.
“Piaf” Took Flight
Not long after Cecille’s death, yet another Louis came into Edith’s life. In her autobiography, The Wheel of Fortune, Edith described her first meeting with Louis Leplee: “I was pale and unkempt. I had no stockings and my coat was out at the elbows and hung down to my ankles. I was singing a song by Jean Lenoir…. When I had finished my song… a man approached me…. He came straight to the point: ‘Are you crazy? You are ruining your voice.’” Leplee, the owner of Gurney’s—a very popular Paris night spot at the time— knew talent when he heard it, even if it was ill-dressed and dirty. He offered Edith a job and gave her the name “La Morne Piaf” (“Kid Sparrow”). Within a week, the four-foot, ten-inch Piaf was appearing on stage in her trademark black attire. Within a few months she made her first recording, “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger”) on Polydor Records.
Piafs meteoric rise came to an abrupt halt six months later. On April 7, 1936, Louis Leplee was found murdered in his Paris apartment. Piaf was stricken by the news. The press went wild, splashing her picture all over the tabloids and calling her a suspect. Paris audiences grew so hostile that Piaf was forced to leave the city. She subsequently performed in the Paris suburbs, in Nice, and in Belgium.
When the scandal had died down and Piaf was able to return to Paris, in 1937, she began an important association with songwriter Raymond Asso. It was Asso, along with Marguerite Monnot, who wrote Piafs first hit, “Mon Legionnaire” (“My Legionaire”). This song, like so many others she sang, told the story of a woman abandoned.
Asso became much more than a songwriter to Piaf. For three years he guided her career, teaching her how to be a star, and was her lover. In Margaret Crosland’s Piaf, Asso stressed, “I trained her, I taught her everything, gestures, inflection, how to dress.” Piaf, for her part, though she owed much to Asso, took a new lover when the French Army called him in August of 1939.
The War Years
Oddly, the years during the war were some of the best of Piafs career. The cafes and theaters remained open during the German occupation of France, and she continued to sing. It was also during this time that her career expanded to include more roles on the stage and screen. In 1940 she appeared in Jean Cocteau’s play Le Bel indifferent, and she had a role in Georges Lacombe’s 1941 film Montmartre-sur-Seine, for which she also wrote several songs.
But while Piaf advanced her career, she also knew her role as a French citizen and did her part to help the war effort. She was a savior to the French prisoners of war at Stallag III, whom she entertained on two different occasions. After the first performance, she asked the Germans if she could have pictures taken with the prisoners for their families in France. When she returned to the camp for her second performance, she brought forged identity papers, which allowed many prisoners to escape.
After the war Piaf set out to make herself an international star. Her 1946 release of “La Vie en Rose” became a major American hit. She arrived in New York City in 1947 to begin a series of American engagements. The petite Piaf, with her simple black dress and songs of struggle and abandonment, was not the sexy, sophisticated Frenchwoman many Americans expected, and she initially met with little success. It was not until a performance at the Versailles—one of the most elegant supper clubs in New York—and several glowing reviews that Edith Piaf became the toast of Manhattan and later Hollywood society.
Love and Decline
While in New York, Piaf began an affair with Marcel Cerdan, the French boxer and newly crowned middleweight champion. Like all of her romances, the union was a torrid one. As a boxer, Cerdan traveled extensively, though Piaf wanted him to be with her. He was in the Azores when Piaf phoned and persuaded him to fly back to New York. Tragically, the plane on which he was returning crashed, killing everyone on board. Of Cerdan’s death, in October of 1949, Piaf biographer Monique Lange declared, “It marked the beginning of her decline, of the period when she fell completely apart.”
Throughout the 1950s Piaf appeared in films and had continued success as a performer and recording artist. But these successes were interspersed with periods of illness, drug use, and mental instability. In September of 1952 she married the singer Jacques Pills—an arrangement that soon ended in divorce. In the late 1950s a series of car accidents pushed her further into a dependence on morphine and other painkillers. In Piaf, Lange reported, “At the end of her life, when she was practically incapable of even getting up on stage, she had to have an injection in order to sing.”
Despite rumors that she had died, by the late 1950s Piafs career was once again on the upswing. Her 1959 recording “Milord” was one of her biggest hits, as was “Non je ne regrette,” released in 1960. On December 29, 1960, she made a triumphant appearance at Paris’s Olympia Theater, proving she still retained the adulation of France. She followed up these achievements by going on tour.
Unfortunately Piafs renewed success did not last. Though she fell in love with and married the young French singer Theo Sarapo, her health was still declining. She died on October 10, 1963, leaving the world feeling the loss of its “La Morne Piaf.”
At the Paris Olympia, EMI, 1990.
The Voice of the Sparrow: The Very Best of Edith Piaf, Capitol, 1991.
At Carnegie Hall, Capitol.
The Best of Edith Piaf, Capitol.
The Best of Edith Piaf, Volume 2, Capitol.
L’Integrale (Complete Recordings) 1936-1945, Polydor.
Master Series, Polydor.
Piaf: Her Complete Recordings, 1946-1963, Angel.
Crosland, Margaret, Piaf, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1985.
Lange, Monique, Piaf, Seaver Books, 1981.
Piaf, Edith, The Wheel of Fortune, Chilton Books, 1965.
Edith Giovanna Gassion, known as Edith Piaf (1915-1963), was a French music hall/cabaret singer whose specialty was the love ballad.
Edith Gassion was born in Belleville, a congested working-class neighborhood of Paris, on December 19, 1915. Her mother, Anetta Maillard (Gassion), was a café singer who went by the name Line Marsa. Of Algerian circus descent, she was a habitual drifter. Edith's father, Louis Alphonse Gassion, was from Normandy, a slim, five-foot-tall circus acrobat who worked in the Paris streets when he was not on tour in provincial France. He had three theatrical sisters, one of whom, Edith's Tante (Aunt) Zaza, performed in tightrope acts.
Louis was also a drifter, but he loved Edith and took care of her, in his own way, when he could. In contrast, Edith's mother casually abandoned the girl in infancy. This child, Edith Piaf, was to become an enormously popular singer of international fame, noted for her generosity. Later she looked after her father financially, but she could never bring herself to forgive her mother.
Edith was reared initially by her maternal grandmother, Ména (Emma Said ben Mohamed), who had managed a circus performing-flea show. Tante Zaza rescued lice-infested Edith from Ména's filthy hovel in Paris. Zaza took the child (aged about seven) to the care of her paternal grandmother, a cook in a local brothel (a maison closé) in Bernay, a village in Normandy.
An incident of "blindness" in Piaf's early childhood was apparently conjunctivitis; her "miraculous" cure at the shrine of St. Teresa at Lisieux was probably after the disease had vanished. The prayers of the young ladies of the Bernay brothel may have had nothing to do with the cure, but Piaf said: "Miracle or not, I am forever grateful."
Early in the 1920s (about 1923) Edith Gassion left Bernay and went on a life of circus travels in Belgium and northern France, living in a caravan with her father and his various amours, who acted as mothers. Acrobatics had not interested Edith, but she sang. As the decade closed, Louis managed to acquire a 22-year-old common-law wife, Yéyette. In March 1931 Yéyette had a child, Denise, in Belleville, Paris, where all three of them had gone to live. Edith resolved to leave. She met Simone Berteaut, who was a companion throughout many adventures and was an "evil presence" sometimes. In the early 1930s they went around together in the economically depressed city, working at odd jobs and begging. Edith frequently sang as a chanteur des rues (streetsinger). The French urban working class was fairly small, compared with Britain, Germany, or the United States; there was not much for penniless French women to do-dressmaking, hairdressing … or prostitution.
The Naming of Edith Piaf
In 1931 Edith fell in love with Louis Dupont, an errand boy whom she called "P'tit Louis." They lived in a room at the Hotel de l'Avenir, rue Orfila. In February 1933 Edith, who was barely 18, gave birth to a daughter, Marcelle. Soon after, she left P'tit Louis for a soldier of the French Foreign Legion. She sang at small bars and clubs in Montmartre and Pigalle (the famed entertainment district), meeting the demimonde of Paris and all sorts of people-talented crossdressers, lesbians and homosexuals, musicians, theatrical agents, poets, and composers. Singing at a bal musette in Pigalle early in 1935, she heard from P'tit Louis that her daughter had meningitis; Marcelle died in eight days later. To pay funeral costs, Edith, it was said, had to prostitute herself.
In October 1935 Edith met Louis Leplée, a former Montmartre drag artist who had opened a sophisticated dinner club, Gerny's, in the smarter Champs-Elysees area. Leplée heard Edith singing the popular song Comme un moineau ("like a sparrow") in the street. Leplée called her "La Môme Piaf" ("The Kid Sparrow"). Ten new songs were selected for her by Leplée; he made her wear a simple black skirt and pullover and no makeup, as he had first seen her singing in the streets. Amid long applause, Maurice Chevalier said "She has got what it takes!" The singer Edith Piaf was born.
Six months later local gangsters murdered Leplée. Piaf then met Raymond Asso, a writer who made her a "star" and went to live with Asso at the Hôtel Piccadilly in Pigalle. Piaf called him "mon poète." Asso trained her in everything-vocal instruction, gestures, how to spell and write, what she should read, even eating manners and hygiene. Piaf said "He taught me what a song really is." As a result, at the age of 20 she made her début at a large Paris vaudeville theater and was a hit.
Later other composers and writers amplified Piaf's repertoire with typical Piaf "blues" ballads. On stage Piaf had superb technical skills. Her songs had dramatic fire, tragedy, and anguish. She had much the same build as her father—two inches under five feet tall and some 90 pounds in weight. But she possessed the voice to bewitch audiences—throaty, throbbing yet tender. ("Who is that plain little woman, with a voice too big for her body?" asked Mistinguett, herself an aging star, slightly jealous.) Tossed auburn hair, big eyes, pale, mournful face, Piaf seemed a waif, a castaway on the stage of life, troubled by everything that she witnessed. There was a special Piaf stance, arms-outstretched, fingers turned inwards, calculated to have and hold the listener in a minor state of doomed love, nostalgia, and regret.
In March 1937 Raymond Asso managed to obtain for Piaf a contract at the Théâtre de I'ABC, complete with her little black dress and starched white collar. She was a complete success, with songs created by Asso. The next year, 1938, was a good year for Piaf's career. Asso installed her in the Hôtel Alcina on the Avenue Junot with a Chinese cook and a secretary. But Piaf and Asso were quarreling, Simone Berteaut was back, and Piaf was sleeping with other men. In September 1939 World War II broke out in Europe and Asso was called into the French Army. Piaf met another lover, actor Paul Meurisse.
Piaf had first sung on radio in 1936 and had a first hit record in 1937, Mon Légionnaire (words by Asso/music by Monnot), with a bugle-call flourish. She herself wrote some thirty songs and performed about two hundred others in her life. La vie en rose was famous all over the world. Jean Cocteau wrote a play for her, Le Bel Indifférent, which was staged in Paris in 1940 at Les Bouffes-Parisiens theater. Among films was Montmartre-sur-Seine (1941), made during World War II. During the war Piaf remained mainly in Paris, miserably, along with Jean Cocteau.
Becomes an International Star
In the postwar period of European reconstruction and economic boom after 1945, Piaf became an international star, with ten tours to the United States. She made her first trip to New York in October 1947, accompanied by a male nonet, Les Compagnons de la Chanson; they made a lighthearted film together, Neuf Garcons—Un Coeur (1947). The nine young Frenchmen were an example of Piaf's professional generosity—she always sought new talent, both as entertainers and/or as lovers. Eddie Constantine, Charles Aznavour, and Yves Montand are some singers she coached. Piaf said "You have to send the elevator back down, so that others may get to the top." Even though her standard fee (in the 1950s) was $1, 000 a night, her finances were always a problem. She gave as much as she took.
Piaf was much in love with the world middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan for two years; he was killed in an air crash in 1949. She was awaiting his plane in New York. Piaf had a bent toward mysticism all along, and Cerdan's death led her to talk to him on the "other side." Nevertheless, she married Jacques Pills (a singer) in 1952 and divorced him in 1957. At the end of her life (1962) she married a 27-year-old singer, Théo Sarapo.
Her death on October 11, 1963 at the age of 47 was due to a liver ailment and internal hemorrhage caused by a life of drink, drug dependency, accidents, and wear-and-tear. Jean Cocteau died seven hours after hearing of his friend's death, at age 74. Non, je ne regrette rien ("No, I do not regret anything"), her song of 1960, was a fitting tribute.
A year earlier at a comeback at Paris' Olympia Music Hall, Piaf had tottered on stage, barely able to walk, her hands twisted by arthritis; but she sold a million copies, in France alone, of a recording of that event-Live at the Olympia. Piaf was buried in the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery, along with Colette, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, and Balzac. Over 100, 000 people came to see her bier at her Paris flat, and 40, 000 went to the cemetery.
Piaf was the darling of the French people. She sang almost totally in the French language, very often in Parisian slang, in a voice that was somewhat metallic, loud, and direct. Her gestures were in pantomime, echoing the sufferings of daily existence, working-class scenes of factories, chimney blocks, and mean streets, trains slowly speeding up out of Paris railroad stations taking their passengers away from true love. "I have given my tears, paid so many tears for the right love, " she said.
Noel Coward, the English satirist and playwright, wrote in his 1956 diary "Piaf in her dusty black dress is still singing sad songs about bereft tarts longing for their lovers to come back … but I do wish she would pop in a couple of cheerful songs just for the hell of it." Like Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, and numerous other singers, Piaf was bent on self-destruction. She needed suffering. At the end of her life she faced death with equanimity. Piaf said in Ma Vie:
Peut m'arriver n'importe quoi
J'm'en fous pas mal …
J'etais heureuse, et prête.
(No matter what happens
I couldn't care less … .
I am happy, and ready)
Piaf's two autobiographies are full of feeling but sometimes factually inaccurate—Au Bal de la Chance (Paris, 1958), translated as The Wheel of Fortune, preface by Jean Cocteau (London, 1965); and, published after her death, Ma Vie ("My Life, " Paris, 1964). Biographies are uneven. Piaf (1969, 1972) by Simone Berteaut, who pretended to be Piaf's half-sister, was a compilation of half-truths. Euloge Boissonade, Piaf et Cerdan (Paris, 1983), tells of the ill-fated love story. Denis Gassion, Piaf, Ma Soeur (translated as Piaf, My Sister, Paris, 1977), is not as accurate as Margaret Crosland, Piaf (London, 1985). Obituaries include New Statesman (October 18, 1963), London Times (October 12, 1963), and the New York Times (October 12 and October 15, 1963).
Bret, David, The Piaf legend, New York: Parkwest, Robson Books, 1989.
Crosland, Margaret, Piaf, New York, N.Y.: Fromm International Pub. Corp., 1987, 1985.
Lange, Monique, Piaf, New York: Seaver Books, 1981.
Piaf, Edith, My life, London; Chester Springs, PA.: Peter Owen, 1990. □