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The tragic truths behind the myths of Edith Piaf

Edith Piaf holding her hands to her head while performing - Credit: The LIFE Picture Collection via

They made a curious trio, sitting around a table in the Chez Carrere nightclub just off the Champs Elysées sipping champagne and making smalltalk. There was the young woman, barely a month after her 22nd birthday, in a blue evening dress, white pearl necklace and white fur cape alongside her husband of six months, a red carnation in the buttonhole of his dinner jacket. Both were leaning forward eagerly, their body language betraying their admiration for the slight woman sitting opposite them, just 4’8” tall in the simple black dress with the bird’s nest of hair on her head, speaking earnestly as she regarded the couple through dark eyes, a cigarette dangling from her fingers, smudges of red lipstick around the filter.

It was a quarter past one in the morning of Monday May 17, 1948, and Édith Piaf had just performed in front of Princess Elizabeth of the United Kingdom and her husband Prince Philip. It had been a long day: the couple had been to church that morning, lunched with the Canadian ambassador, spent the afternoon at Longchamp races and dined with dignitaries at the Tour d’Argent restaurant before the princess ditched her tiara and made for Chez Carrere, watching rapt as Piaf stood at the microphone, hands by her sides, pouring her very being into a selection of songs of love and loss before inviting her to her table. Visiting a nightclub on a Sunday would raise stern questions from religious groups when she returned to England, but the chance to see Piaf perform was too much to resist. Feted by the heir to a European throne, the 32-year-old chanteuse had come a long way since growing up in a brothel and singing for tips in the streets.

What appealed to the future Queen Elizabeth II was the same thing that appealed to everyone who admired Édith Piaf: the combination of vulnerability and authenticity she brought to every performance channelled through a voice whose resonance and power belied the tiny frame from which it came. The songs Piaf sang took listeners to the farthest reaches of human emotion. As Charles Dumont, the songwriter who composed her biggest hit Je ne regrette rien, put it, “She sang the truth. Her songs were her testament. She was a witness. For me, Piaf was redemption”.

Sought after by royalty she may have been but Piaf never lost the sense of where and who she came from. When she died and lay in her apartment on Boulevard Lannes in an open coffin close to the piano where she practised, its lid still raised, the doors were thrown open and an estimated 80,000 Parisians from all walks of life passed quietly through her home to pay their respects. How Piaf had suffered: poverty, abuse, bereavement, addiction and rejection to name just a few, but when she poured the sum of her life into her songs it almost all seemed worthwhile somehow, and every one of the people shuffling past her corpse had shared her pain. Her former protégé Charles Aznavour said that Piaf’s funeral was the first time the centre of Paris had been brought to a complete standstill since its liberation.

Sometimes it was hard to separate the reality of her life from the mythology, the latter something she was often happy to encourage. She wasn’t born on a policeman’s cape in a Parisian doorway, for example, and it’s unlikely that she was really completely blind between the ages of three and seven and cured by a religious pilgrimage as she claimed. But none of that mattered. When Piaf stood on the stage the audience knew that these songs were coming from the very depths of a battered soul, and she was singing the truth.

Even if she was born in a hospital rather than the doorway of 72 Rue de Belleville – a doorway over which a rather earnest plaque commemorates the non-event – Édith Giovanna Gasson arrived straight into hardship. The daughter of Louis, a street acrobat, and Annetta, a circus performer and singer who struggled with drug addiction, her mother abandoned her soon after she was born and when her father enlisted in the French army in 1916 he sent young Édith to stay with her grandmother, the madam at a Normandy bordello.

She remained there until her early teens when she returned to Paris to accompany her father’s street contortions with song, eventually striking out alone singing on street corners for coins, gargling coffee every morning to loosen her vocal cords. In 1933, at the age of 18, she secured a regular spot at Lulu’s, a favourite haunt of prostitutes, pimps and gangsters in the Pigalle district. It was there that she began to hone her repertoire of chansons réalistes, songs that told stories of the desperate and downtrodden and where in 1935 she was spotted shortly after the death of her daughter Marcelle from meningitis at the age of two by nightclub owner Louis Leplée, who saw something in the scrap of a woman with a voice piped straight from the heart.

Straightaway he called her La Môme Piaf, Parisian slang for ‘the little sparrow’, put her into the simple black dress that would become her trademark and booked her into his club, the famous Le Gerny’s just off the Champs Elysées. On her first night as Édith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier was in the audience and Django Reinhardt was the bandleader. The Italian-born singer Rina Ketty recalled, “Her songs expressed all she had suffered in childhood. At the end of her life she had more technique, more métier, but she couldn’t have given any more of herself than she did that night”.

Leplée became her mentor but the relationship didn’t last long: one night in April 1936 four men burst into his apartment and murdered him in his bed. Piaf spent the whole of the next day being questioned by police under suspicion of being an accessory to murder: the chief suspect was a former accompanist of hers with mob connections and a grudge.

By the late 1930s Piaf was one of the biggest stars of the Parisian circuit, appearing in films and releasing records. During the war she continued performing in Parisian clubs and bordellos for audiences that included high-ranking Nazis leading to whispers of collaboration, but not only was she cleared of suspicion after the liberation, in an ingenious move she visited internment camps and insisted on posing for plenty of photographs with the inmates, pictures that were later used to create false identity papers and aid escapes from occupied territory.

In the immediate post-war years Piaf was unstoppable, visiting the US and South America and performing across Europe. After 1948, however, when she was the darling of Paris and visiting royalty, things began to fall apart in a way that suggested fate itself was nursing some kind of grievance. She’d fallen deeply in love with the boxer Marcel Cerdan after meeting him at a post-fight celebration in Paris in 1946 and, although he was married, the pair conducted a passionate relationship. In October 1949 he was due to join Piaf in the US ahead of a bout against Jake LaMotta, crossing the Atlantic by sea. Impatient to see him Piaf had told him on the telephone, “I can’t wait another minute to see you. Please hurry”. Cerdan cancelled his voyage and booked a flight instead. The aircraft smashed into a mountain in the Azores, killing everyone on board.

Piaf was devastated and never truly recovered. In 1951 she was seriously injured in a car crash, in the aftermath of which she developed an addiction to morphine on top of an increasing reliance on alcohol. There would be two more car accidents that, combined with her increasingly severe addictions, took an increasing physical toll on the singer.

But still she kept performing, kept giving everything, channelling all her physical and emotional pain through the microphone. Occasionally she would give so much she would collapse on stage; there were regular hospital stays and at least three stints in rehab.

Piaf underwent major surgery for a bleeding stomach ulcer in 1959 and by 1962 she weighted barely four-and-a-half stone. In September that year she performed at the Olympia Theatre in Paris, her first concert in many months, and received a five-minute ovation before she even sang a note.

“Every song was an effort for her and left her panting for breath,” said a review in the New York Times, “but each time she finished a number the audience reacted with an outpouring of love.”

She was dead within a year from a ruptured aneurysm caused by liver failure, dying just a few hours before her old friend Jean Cocteau (one version of the story has it that Cocteau’s last words were, ”Ah, la Piaf est morte. Je peux mourir aussi”). It had been six months since her last concert and she had told doctors, “if I can’t sing, I’ll die”.

Her last words were translated into English as, “Every damn thing you do in this life you have to pay for”. Not quite as snappy as “Je ne regrette rien”, but certainly the gritty truth for which Édith Piaf became a conduit.

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