For me, singing is a way of escaping. It is another world. I’m no longer on Earth. – Édith Piaf
Édith Giovanna Gassion was born in Paris on December 19, 1915 to Anita Maillard, an alcoholic French/Italian/Moroccan street singer and part-time prostitute whose stage name was Line Marsa. Legend has it that the future French cultural icon was born on the pavement in front of 72 Rue de Belleville, but her birth certificate names the Hôpital Tenon; this was practically the most conventional aspect of her short, tempestuous life. Maillard appears to have been entirely lacking in maternal instinct, and when the child’s father (Louis-Alphonse Gassion, a Norman street acrobat) was drafted two months after Édith’s birth, she left the baby with her own mother, Aïcha Saïd ben Mohammed. The grandmother badly neglected the child, and at some later point (sources vary as to the child’s exact age at the time) either her father or his sister (a tightrope walker named Zaza) took the child to her paternal grandmother, who owned a brothel in Bernay. Here at last she had a real home; the whores doted on the tiny girl, and when she lost her sight to an attack of conjunctivitis (at an age somewhere between 3 and 7) they pooled their money to send her to the shrine of Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, where she was supposed to have been miraculously cured. As Édith later said, “Miracle or not, I am forever grateful.”
Sometime between 1922 and 1925, her father reclaimed her and took her on the road with him through the rest of the decade; he performed on street corners and in circuses and nightclubs, and employed Édith to pass the hat among onlookers, counting on her forlorn appearance to elicit sympathy. She also began to actively contribute by singing, and even at the tender age of ten could draw a crowd. Her father had various girlfriends during this time, but about 1929 he settled down in Paris with a sweet young thing named Yéyette, who bore him a child in March of 1931; 15-year-old Édith apparently decided the house was becoming too crowded, and so set off with her friend Simone “Mômone” Berteaut to live on the street. Édith sang and Mômone passed the hat, and when that didn’t raise enough money for a squalid room, meager food and cheap liquor they begged, turned tricks or just slept in parks or alleys. In 1932 she fell in love with a delivery boy named Louis Dupont and moved in with him, bearing him a child named Marcelle in February of 1933. Dupont had tried to domesticate Édith, insisting she take “normal” (i.e. menial and low-paying like his) jobs, and the baby was the last straw; she left Dupont for a soldier, abandoning Marcelle as her own mother had abandoned her, and returned to street life in Montmarte and Pigalle. She did stay in contact with Dupont, however, and when Marcelle died of meningitis at the age of two Édith prostituted herself to pay for the funeral. In the process she became involved with a pimp named Albert, who took a cut from her earnings whether they were from singing or hooking. She seemed unconcerned with Albert’s usual modus operandi of beating and robbing streetwalkers, but when he started slapping her around and held a gun to her head she left him.
Given the chaos of her life, it is virtually certain she would have soon met a violent death at the hands of some other pimp or criminal had she not been discovered in Pigalle in October of 1935 by Louis Leplée, a former drag queen who now owned one of the most fashionable nightclubs in Paris. Leplée knew talent when he heard it and offered the dirty, unkempt waif a job; he put her in a simple black dress, selected ten songs for her and billed her as La Môme Piaf (Parisian slang for “Kid Sparrow”) because of her diminutive size (147 cm/4’10”) and sorrowful appearance. Leplée advertised her debut heavily and many celebrities attended her opening night; among them was Maurice Chevalier, who shouted “She has got what it takes!” during the applause. In January she cut her first records on the Polydor label, “Les Momes de la Cloche” and “L’Étranger“; the latter was written by Marguerite Monnot, who regularly wrote songs for her thereafter. But this overnight success was not to last; on the night of April 6th, 1936, Leplée was murdered by gangsters and the tabloids declared his star protégé with the seedy background was a suspect. And though the police soon decided that she was not involved, Parisian audiences had grown so hostile Édith relocated to Nice and toured Belgium.
After a year she returned to Paris and asked songwriter Raymond Asso to help her stage a comeback; he changed her stage name to “Édith Piaf”, kept her away from bad influences and asked Monnot to help him write songs drawing on her street background (including her first hit, “Mon Legionnaire”). Asso became Piaf’s lover and manager and groomed her to become a star, teaching her everything from stage presence to proper table manners. But when he was drafted in the autumn of 1939, she left him for a successful singer named Paul Meurisse; though this gave her a way into upper-class Parisian life, they were not good for one another and their friend Jean Cocteau based his play Le Belle Indifferent on their relationship (Piaf even starred in the first production of the play). After the Nazis occupied France in May of 1940 she and Meurisse toured the unoccupied south, but this proved the last straw and upon her return to Paris Piaf moved into a flat above an expensive brothel with her old friend Mômone.
This particular bordello was now reserved for the Gestapo; Piaf befriended a number of their officers and even invited them to parties in her flat. She also performed for their events and banquets and was therefore accused of collaboration after the war, but she escaped the fate of many other women by claiming to have been a member of the Resistance and pointing to a number of facts that supported the statement: She dated the Jewish pianist Norbert Glanzberg and helped another Jew, the composer Michael Emer, to escape France; she co-wrote (with Monmot) a subtle protest song named “Où Sont-Ils Mes Petits Copains?” and defied a Nazi request to remove it from her concert repertoire; and it is claimed that during a concert at Stalag 3 she posed for publicity photographs with prisoners that were then used to construct fake papers which allowed them to escape the camp after she smuggled them back in during a second concert. In her memoirs, Piaf says very little about the war years; being the narcissistic diva that she was, she seems to have considered the Occupation more of a nuisance than anything else.
Sometime during the War her parents both re-established contact with her; she was happy to see her father and supported him until he died in 1944, but her contact with her “poor lamentable mother” was limited to calls from police whenever the woman was arrested for public drunkenness (she died of a morphine overdose in August of 1945). Meanwhile, Édith had taken up with the promising young singer Yves Montand in 1944, grooming him as Asso had groomed her; however, she dumped him when his popularity started to rival hers. She recorded her signature song, “La vie en rose“, in 1946 and went on to international acclaim, touring Europe and the Americas. At first she was not popular with U.S. audiences (who considered her depressing), but that changed after glowing reviews and she eventually appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show eight times and at Carnegie Hall twice. While in New York in 1947 she began an affair with Marcel Cerdan, the middleweight boxing champion; he was the great love of her life, and his death in a plane crash in October 1949 started her in a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol which was exacerbated by morphine first prescribed after she was seriously injured in a 1951 auto accident.
Her declining health and mental state did not affect her popularity (both as a singer and an actress), which continued to climb; she married songwriter Jacques Pills in 1952 (with Marlene Dietrich as matron of honor) and divorced him in 1956, then in 1962 she married 27-year-old Théo Sarapo, a Greek hairdresser and would-be singer. She died of liver cancer on October 11th, 1963, and though the archbishop of Paris denied her a funeral mass because of her “sinful” life, the ceremony was attended by more than 100,000 people. She is still considered France’s greatest singer of all time, a national treasure whose gift was considered by many to embody the French soul.
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