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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 50’s 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 50’s 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 50’s 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.”
– Famous Works
La vie en rose (1946)
Les trois cloches (1946)
Hymne à l’amour (1950)
Padam… Padam… (1951)
Johnny, tu n’es pas an ange (1953)
Sous le ciel de Paris (1954)
Les amants d’un jour (1956)
Mon manège a moi (Tu me fais tourner la tête) (1956)
Non, je ne regrette rien (1960)