Friday, December 19, 2014

Edith Piaf: A Chanteuse of Love and Sorrow

Music to accompany article: Edith Piaf "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"

Despite great biographical interest, much of Edith Piaf's life remains shrouded in mystery. Legend has it that she was born on the pavement of Rue de Belleville 72 on 19 December 1915, but her birth certificate cites the Hôpital Tenon. Either way, she would have celebrated her 99th birthday today! She was named Edith Giovanna Gassion, her first name in honour of Edith Cavell, a British nurse who was executed for helping French soldiers escape from German captivity during World War I.

   Piaf came from a family of acrobats, actors and brothel keepers, and with French, Italian and Berber blood running through her veins, she was well placed to become one of the century's great show-women. Abandoned by her mother at birth, she lived for a while with her maternal grandmother, Emma (Aïcha) and then with her paternal grandmother, who ran a brothel in Normandy. Thus prostitutes became her carers as well as her role-models. Edith believed that her weakness for men originated from that background. "I thought that when a boy called a girl, the girl would never refuse", she would say later. As a child, Piaf was allegedly blind as a result of keratitis, but apparently recovered her sight after a pilgrimage (funded by prostitutes) honouring Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

   In 1932, she met and fell in love with Louis Dupont who took upon himself to take her off the streets by trying to find her a job. She resisted his suggestions, until she became pregnant and worked for a short while making wreaths in a factory. When her daughter Marcelle was born, the 17-year-old Edith, like her mother, found it difficult to cope with the demands of motherhood and she returned to busking. Marcelle died of meningitis at age two and rumour has it that Edith slept with a man to pay for her funeral. Later, she had numerous liaisons, with famous or infamous men.

   In 1935, Piaf was discovered in the Pigalle area of Paris by Louis Leplée, whose club Le Gerny was frequented by people of all classes. He persuaded her to sing despite her extreme nervousness, which, combined with her height of only 142 centimetres, inspired him to give her the nickname La Môme Piaf (Paris slang meaning "The Little Sparrow"). Leplée taught her the basics of stage presence and told her to wear a black dress. He ran an intense publicity campaign that attracted the presence of many celebrities, including actor Maurice Chevalier. She released her first two records that same year, one of them penned by Marguerite Monnot, a collaborator throughout Piaf's life and one of her favourite composers.

   In 1936, Leplée was murdered by mobsters who had had ties to Piaf; she was questioned and accused as being an accomplice. Her name was cleared but negative media attention threatened her career. Raymond Asso, with whom she would later become intimately involved, took upon himself to rehabilitate her image. He changed her stage name to "Edith Piaf", barred her undesirable acquaintances and commissioned Monnot to write songs that reflected her previous life on the streets.

   In 1940, Edith co-starred in Jean Cocteau's successful one-act play Le Bel Indifférent. During the German occupation of Paris, Piaf's career thrived and she formed friendships with prominent people, including Chevalier and poet Jacques Borgeat. She wrote the lyrics of many of her songs and collaborated with composers to create the final pieces. In the spring of 1944, she collaborated with Yves Montand at the Moulin Rouge and this evolved into a love affair.

   During the war, Piaf performed in various nightclubs and brothels. In 1942, she was able to afford a luxury apartment and lived above L’Étoile de Kléber, a famous nightclub and bordello close to the Paris Gestapo headquarters. She was invited to take part in a concert tour to Berlin, sponsored by the German officials. Piaf was later accused of treason, but her secretary Andrée Bigard, a member of the Résistance, spoke in her favour after the liberation and her name was cleared. In fact, she was hailed as a rescuer of French soldiers (not unlike her namesake Edith Cavell) in their escape attempts from POW camps. Piaf quickly returned to the stage, and in December 1944 she sang for the allied forces together with Montand in Marseille. She was certainly a surviver!

After the war, Piaf toured Europe, the United States, and South America. She helped launch the career of Charles Aznavour in the early 1950s, taking him on tour with her in France and the United States. She also recorded some of his songs. Initially she was looked upon as downcast, but after a glowing review by a prominent New York critic, she made it to The Ed Sullivan Show and also Carnegie Hall. Piaf's signature song, "La vie en rose", originally written in 1945, was voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. It was, however, at Bruno Coquatrix's famous Paris Olympia music hall where she achieved lasting fame. In 1961, she performed several concerts there in an effort to save the venue from bankruptcy. There she debuted her song "Non, je ne regrette rien".

   Piaf died of liver cancer aged 47 at her villa in Plascassier (Grasse), on the French Riviera, on 10 October 1963, the day before the death of filmmaker and friend Jean Cocteau. Her last words were "Every damn fool thing you do in this life, you pay for." She is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris next to her daughter Marcelle. In the same grave are her father, Louis Alphonse Gassion, and Théo Sarapo, a Greek hairdresser-turned-singer and actor who was 20 years her junior. The couple sang together in some of her last engagements.

                                          The family tomb of Gassion-Piaf at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

   Although Piaf was denied a funeral mass by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris, her funeral procession drew tens of thousands of mourners onto the streets of Paris, and the ceremony at the cemetery was attended by more than 100,000 fans. According to Charles Aznavour, her funeral procession was the only time since the end of World War II that saw Parisian traffic come to a complete standstill. When I visited Père Lachaise Cemetery for the first time in December 1976, it was a misty day and, after paying tribute to Chopin, I ventured to find Piaf's grave. I had some difficulty in locating it, but suddenly I heard a group of school children chanting "Edith! Notre Edith!". I then saw them running to her grave; they suddenly stopped and broke into song.

   If there ever was an incarnation of St. Magdalene, it was Piaf. Whatever the Little Sparrow’s morality, her song lives on.

(source: Wikipedia)