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 quoiJ'm'en fous pas mal …J'etais heureuse, et prête.(No matter what happensI couldn't care less … .I am happy, and ready)
Further Reading on Edith Piaf
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).
Additional Biography Sources
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.