Edith Piaf, "The Little Sparrow", is, for many, especially in the English speaking world, the essence of French popular music in the middle of the 20th century. Even when she was singing in a language her audience didn't understand, the distinctive voice, laden with raw emotion, and the fragile figure, perpetually dressed in simple black, elicited a response at a visceral level, and made her an object of adoration across the world.
She was born Edith Giovanna Gassion, on a sidewalk in Paris on 19 December 1915. When her mother, Anetta Maillard, an Italian café singer, abandoned her at two months old, her father, a travelling acrobat, placed her in the care of her grandmother who was the madam in a low-class brothel in Normandy. She stayed there until she was seven, then began travelling from town to town with her father, singing as part of his show.
At the age of fifteen, she took a job as a servant, to free herself from her father's authority, but she quickly left to return to singing, initially as part of a duo with Simone Berteaut. The pair entertained on the streets and in military camps. There, the sixteen-year-old Edith met a young soldier, Louis Dupont. He fell for her, but his mother disapproved strongly.
Louis installed Edith in a hotel and in 1932, inevitably, a baby, Cécelle, came along. Louis was transferred before the baby was born and Edith, barely more than a child herself, wasn't a good mother. In 1935, Cécelle contracted meningitis, and died. Legend has it that Edith turned to prostitution to pay for the funeral. Once the child was buried she returned to Paris, where she sang in the streets for pennies.
While she was performing, she was spotted by impresario Louis Leplée, who booked her to sing at Gerny's club. He became her mentor and presented her as 'la môme Piaf' (Parisian slang for 'the kid sparrow') and in the plain black dress which was to become her trademark. Piaf she was from then on.
She proved a huge success - originally booked for a week, she stayed at Gerny's for seven months. Polydor signed her up, and by the end of 1935 she had recorded "L'Etranger" and "Les Momes de la Cloche" .
In early 1936, however, Leplée was murdered. It was a sordid affair, and the papers dragged Edith's name into it in an orgy of "cherchez la femme" sensationalism - not particularly appropriate as Leplée was homosexual. The accompanying infamy tainted her image, and threatened her career. However, some friends stood by her, Polydor kept her recording and in late spring she played engagements in the Bobino and the Européen. Provincial touring was essential, because at that point in time a beginner's recording contract and appearances on the Parisian stage didn't bring in enough to pay for bed and board.
Scandal followed her as she toured, and in the late summer, she returned to Paris where, in desperation, she contacted Raymond Asso, whose song "Mon légionnaire" she had earlier refused. He saw the potential of the relationship - he was a fashionable songwriter, she was infamous, but extremely talented. He took her affairs in hand and replaced Leplée as her mentor. Together with Marguerite Mannon, he wrote some superb songs for Edith . In the autumn she was booked at the Alhambra, and in January 1937 she recorded two Asso and Monnot songs, "Mon légionnaire", and "Le Fanion de la Légion". In spring 1938 she was back at the Bobino, much more successfully, but it still wasn't enough for her - what she wanted was to conquer the premier music hall in Paris --The ABC-- something she did, before that spring was out. From then on, her career was set. She triumphed on stage and on record, in Paris and the provinces.
As the war began, Edith was earning her living at the Night Club, but later reappeared on the bill of the Européen. A talented and charming young singer called Paul Meurisse caught her eye there, and she dived headlong into an affair with him. The pair moved in together - the first time Edith had lived in an apartment rather than a hotel room.
As 1940 drew to a close, Piaf and Meurisse appeared together at the Bobino, then played in the stage premiere of "Le Bel Indifférent", by Jean Cocteau. In the spring, they appeared at the Européen again, while filming in "Monmartre-sur-Seine" with Jean-Louis Barrault, Serge Reggiani and Georges Marchal. They featured in "La Revue de l'ABC", and in the spring of 1941 they returned to the Bobino. The affair was winding down by this time and it was the last time the couple worked together.
In 1942 Edith was working with Henry Contet, and having a short-lived affair with Norbert Glanzberg, a pianist -- and a Jew, which appealed to her wish to provoke the Nazis. In 1943 she toured the Stalags singing for prisoners and was instrumental in the escape of several prisoners. The men were photographed with Edith, and from the group shot, individual portraits were extracted, and used in the creation of false papers. She returned to the Stalag, for another performance, the papers were handed out and the prisoners left with her, passing as part of the orchestra.
In 1944, the end of the war in sight, Lou Barrier became her impresario, and he arranged an engagement at the Moulin Rouge. There she met Yves Montand, who was opening the show, at a time when she was ready to fall in love again. With Montand, she established the routine that was to become the pattern of her life - pick a man up, make him fashionable and successful, and then drop him.
In early 1945 Montand was opening act in Piaf's show at the Etoile, and she opened many doors for him, including getting him a part in the film "Etoile sans lumiére". As he became more successful - and more assertive- she discarded him.
As the war ended, Edith left Polydor for Pathé, and set off on a tour of Alsace. Touring with her was the group the Compagnons de la Chanson, who she had first met during the war. One of the group, Jean-Claude Jaubert, stepped into the role of lover and it was the Compagnons' turn to be brought to prominence.
The Compagnons also recorded with Pathé and the company decided to invest in promoting the group and give the Piaf career a nudge at the same time. In their company, Edith appeared in "Neuf Garcons, un Coeur" and recorded "Les Trois Cloches".
In autumn of 1946 Edith returned to the studios to record several new songs, among them "La Vie
en Rose", and then appeared at the Etoile with the Compagnons. Edith met boxer Marcel Cerdan in Paris, and when, in the winter, she made her first trip to America, singing at Washington's Constitution Hall, she sent a telegram encouraging Cerdan to come and fight there. He did so, and on 6 December 1946 beat George Abrams. He became a national hero.
She returned to the US a year later with the Compagnons. They appeared together at the Play House in New York, where the Compagnons were successful enough to set off on a tour of their own. Edith, however, impressed the New York public less - they weren't expecting a simple singer in austere black - she lacked sparkle and feathers. What's more, she sang in the wrong language.
Edith went to work. She learned English, and in front of the biggest celebrities of the day took New York by storm. She met up again with Marcel Cerdan, who was also back in the States, and the couple began a two year romance. They discovered the city together, delighting like children in the attractions of Coney Island, living for the moment -- and forgetting he was married. But the French public loved them both and were prepared to forgive them anything.
During 1949 Piaf travelled between France and America, and Cedan, fought in Europe. Alone in the States, Edith grew bored and asked Marcel to join her - as soon as possible. Rather than travel by boat he took a plane, which crashed, killing him. Edith, devastated, considered that she had killed him, and resorted to spiritualism and mysticism, and to ease her 'fault' installed his wife and children in a hotel. Nothing helped however, and eventually she took refuge in drugs and alcohol. Though she was to continue to work and enjoy success, she never recovered the equilibrium and happiness she had found with Marcel.
Edith kept working, becoming involved for a while with Eddie Constantine, while the pair worked together, and in 1952, she married singer-songwriter Jacques Pils who she had known since the 1930's. She continued to record, and to appear on film and stage. In 1953, on Pils' insistence she underwent a detox cure, and then returned to work touring in France and overseas.
In 1955 she divorced Pils and returned to America, touring Cuba and Mexico as well as the USA. She recorded song after song, appeared in show after show, receiving a seven minute standing ovation at Carnegie Hall at the end of 1956, and she also played in the film "Les Amants de Demain". In 1957 she became lovers with Felix Martin, during a three month run at the Olympia but left him as soon as his career was launched when she became involved with a 23 year old American artist, Douglas Davis, this affair which lasting as long as it took Davis to paint a single picture. After a close encounter with death in a car accident in 1958, she realised her mortality and set to living life with even more intensity than before, if this as possible. She worked flat out, her songs were covered in Europe and America, and she was persistently popular.
In the late spring of 1959 Edith recorded Georges Moustaki's "Milord", her first big success in the English charts and the song was also number one in Germany and Holland. At the end of the year she set off with Moustaki for New York, where she collapsed on-stage during a show at the Waldorf Astoria. Despite being pronounced clinically dead for a few moments, Edith survived, and returned to touring when she got home to France.
It wasn't until 1961, however, that she recorded the song that was to become the archetypal 'Piaf'. Charles Dumont, whose songs she had repeatedly turned down, brought her "Non, je ne regrette rien" and this time, she agreed to sing. The lyric is a defiant affirmation of love in the face of life, and it encapsulated everything that Edith represented. It was a hit all over the world.
By now, Edith was crippled with rheumatism, and completely exhausted. She met Greek Théo Sarapo in the winter of 1961, and he gave her the energy to go back to work, and together they recorded "A quoi ca sert l'Amour" and appeared at the Olympia shortly after. They married late in 1962, and continued to work together for a short while. As 1963 began however, Edith needed to be hospitalised. The couple travelled to the Riviera so that Edith could convalesce, but she had a relapse and died in hospital on 11 October 1963. She was buried three days later at the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where her funeral was attended by celebrities from all over the world.
A complete discography
can be found at http://pantheon.cis.yale.edu/~bodoin/epdis.html
Biography based on an article in Platine--le magazine de toute la chanson (June 1993), by Bruno Jacquot et Jean-Pierre Pasqualini with the collaboration of Ronan Leguen et de Jean-Louis Camet.
This article is available at http://pantheon.cis.yale.edu/~bodoin/epbio.html