Edith Piaf, dead now for nearlyfifty years, has become one of France’s great national monuments, aslucratively exportable a product as Maurice Chevalier, Claude Monet, and CrêpesSuzettes. Everyone here in America knows Piaf, or at least they know therecordings of her two greatest hits—LaVie en rose and Je ne regrette rien—deliveredin her yearning, metallic tones. Some even know the earlier numbers, chanson réaliste portraits, in the wordsof one pop culture critic, “of working-class life, gray with the soot offactory chimneys and abuzz with tunes picked up from bistrot radios.” Butnot many Americans were familiar with the singer’s tempestuous and dramaticlife until the recent Olivier Dahan film, LaMôme (La Vie en Rose in theUnited States) grabbed our attention, winning an Oscar for the lovely MarionCotillard and awakening a new modefor all things Piaf.
The publication, now, of No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf byveteran biographer Carolyn Burke reveals that far from having been a bit toomelodramatic (as I had thought La Vie enRose to be when it came out acouple of years ago), the film omitted plenty. It almost had to: if even halfof the singer’s myriad lovers had made it onto the screen, audiences would havereeled in disbelief. Self-destructive stars of course are not unfamiliar toAmericans, and we have become almost inured to their excesses: as I write,Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan are playing out very public meltdowns. But theepic mess of Piaf’s love life, as well as the scale of her talent, make thisstory something special, while her brutal Dickensian childhood virtuallyensured that she would spend her adult life in a doomed quest for perfect loveand security.
Burke has made a valiant effort tosift through the exaggerations of Piaf’s two memoirs, Au Bal de la Chance, (1958) and MaVie (1964), and the self-serving lies dished up by Simone Berteaut, Piaf’ssoul-sister and party-companion, in her own tell-all about the singer. Theunadorned truth is already bizarre enough, with no need of embellishment.
The singer was born EdithGiovanna Gassion, in 1915—and not on the city pavement, as she claimed, but inthe Tenon Hospital in Belleville, a working-class area in eastern Paris. (Burkeimparts the remarkable fact that at that time, less than a century ago, thenow-noisome quartier was stillperfumed by the scent of blooming lilac.) Her father, Louis Gassion, was anacrobat (just five feet tall, he passed on his diminutive form to hisdaughter); her mother, Annetta, was a would-be singer whose own mother presidedover a flea circus. As if this background wasn’t disreputable enough, thefeckless Annetta, an alcoholic and drug addict, abandoned the child when shewas still a baby and went on to pursue an independent singing career under thename of Line Marsa. As in the vast majority of such cases, Edith never got overthis primal rejection.
Louis Gassion was slightly moredependable. His own life was not stable enough to include a baby, so he tookEdith to live with his parents in the town of Bernay in Normandy. Hergrandmother, known as Maman Tine, was the manageress of what waseuphemistically known as a maison de tolérance,essentially a whorehouse with legal standing. Petted by the unmarried”filles” of the establishment, Edith had a strange childhood,but one that was not without love, Occasionallyher grandparents would take her to the Café de la Gare where they would standthe child on a table and let her sing to the assorted company. The power of hervoice was already notable.
When Edith reached the age ofseven her father thought her old enough to become a professional asset, and hereclaimed her from his parents to take her on the road: the child would sing asa part of his circus act, the two of them traveling with a series oflady-friends who attached themselves to Louis. “From her father,”writes Burke, “she learned an entertainer’s sense of timing, techniquesfor tugging on the audience’s heartstrings, and the sort of patter likely toproduce a good take.” Some time during Edith’s adolescence she returnedwith her father to Paris, where she began singing in cafes as well as in thestreets—and eventually in clubs as well, performing the chanson réaliste material that was being popularized at the time. Burke writes, “It was said of the bestinterpreters of this tradition—Fréhel, Damia, and soon Piaf herself—that theysang the way they lived, their songs came from the heart. (The extent to whichthey consciously sustained this perception went unnoticed.)”
The teenaged Edith kept louchecompany in Pigalle, where she now settled—if indeed “settled” can besaid to be the right word. There she took up with Simone Berteaut, “Momone”:a wayward fourteen-year-old girl whom Edith dubbed “ma mauvause génie,” “my evil spirit.” Over thedecades Momone would be banished by countless men who tried to reform Piaf,only to be called back by the singer whenever she once again found herselfalone. And almost inevitably the teenaged Edith got mixed up with le milieu, the mafia that ran much ofParis’s club and cabaret scene. During these years she usually had one oranother “protector,” some thug who made sure she was alwaysincriminated in his felonies and helped himself to her meager wages. As Burkepoints out, “her life with her father had predisposed her to having a bosswho took her earnings and dictated her behavior.” At the age of seventeenshe had given birth to a baby girl, Marcelle, known as Cécelle. For a while thebaby lived in digs with Edith and Momone, but soon the father came and took heraway, saying that if she wanted the child she must come home. In a hauntingreenactment of her own childhood tragedy she refused to do so, though she paidfor the baby’s care. Not long afterwards, the two-year-old was dead ofmeningitis; Edith, so the story goes, slept with a man to earn the money forthe burial. The loss continued to haunt Piaf; she was never to have anotherchild.
At the age of nineteen Edith was “discovered”by Louis Leplée, proprietor of the club Le Gerny—a swank establishment by Edith’sstandards. It was Leplée who picked out the simple black dress that wouldbecome her uniform for the remainder of her career, dubbed her “Piaf”—sparrow—andselected a réaliste repertoire ofsongs about the “dangerous” classes from which she sprang, works thatwould come to define her. Other earlymentors were the author Jacques Bourgeat, who urged her to educate herself, andthe lyricist Raymond Asso, who became her lover, some say her Svengali. Piafherself credited Asso with saving her life. “It took him three years tocure me. Three years of patient affection to teach me that there was anotherworld beyond that of prostitutes and pimps. Three years to cure me of Pigalle,of my chaotic childhood…to become a woman and a star instead of a phenomenonwith a voice that people listened to as if being shown a rare animal at a fair.”Asso also introduced her to the composer Marguerite Monnot, the woman who wouldbecome a close friend and her most important collaborator: Monnot’s talent, shesaid, was “what helped me to be Edith Piaf.”
Piaf’s ascent was rapid at thispoint. Her next lover, Paul Meurisse, brought her to live with him in the beaux quartiers near the Arc de Triompheand she never looked back: from then on, and as her fees reached stratosphericheights, she spent freely on high living in swell neighborhoods. Her entouragecontinued to expand: there were a few true friends among the crowd, butincreasingly it was, in the words of one observer, “abject beings, peoplewho amused her, pilferers, spongers, those who took her money—a concept thatsimply didn’t matter to her.”
As for her many amours, there is probably no way theycould be counted up, and Burke doesn’t even make the attempt. Among the moresignificant were the composer Norbert Glanzburg, the very young Yves Montand,whose career Piaf actively promoted, movie star John Garfield, performer EddieConstantine, bicycle champion André Pousse, singer Jacques Pills (a genialfellow to whom she was briefly married), lyricist Jo Moustaki (author, withMonnot, of Piaf’s great song “Milord“),and the gorgeous Théophanos Lamboukas, gay and twenty years Piaf’s junior, whomshe married at a moment when “her romanticism won out over her sense ofthe ridiculous.” The great love of her life, in her own opinion, was theboxing champion Marcel Cerdan, who died tragically in a plane crash in 1949 at the height of their romance. But consideringPiaf’s track record, Momone’s cynical comment on the subject might not havebeen too far off: “If it had gone on another year,” opined Piaf’s mauvaise génie, “she might havedismissed him, like all the others.” For Piaf made impossible demands onher lovers, many of whom (including Cerdan) were already married, andeventually either they burned out or she did. Her desire for love was insatiable,impossible; she simply asked too much of it.
Of course it was this yearningthat permeated her voice and immortalized it. As one collaborator, the lyricistHenri Contet, put it, “Words and music are her beloved slaves. Miraculouslythey submit because of her passion. She loves them as much as the earth lovesrain….She sleeps with her songs, she warms them, she clasps them to her….Theypossess her.” During the triumphant years of her apotheosis she tore theheart out of her listeners: there are still people who remember the bliss ofhearing her at the Versailles Club in New York just after World War II, whenshe seemed to embody a resurgent France. In later years, after Cerdan’s death,she battled countless health issues and drug dependencies, but managed, rightup to the end, to gear herself up to go on stage. Her great concert at theOlympia in Paris in 1960, at which Je neregrette rien was introduced along with other songs by her new favoritesongwriter, Charles Dumont, was a triumph of the will; only months before shehad seemed on the brink of death.
Piaf’s untimely death, in 1963 whenshe was only forty-eight, occurred at a seminal moment in the history ofpopular music. Only a few months earlier the Beatles had leapt to internationalattention. In France, rock music was quickly elbowing aside the chanson tradition, though that traditionshowed significant staying power: the new girl on the block was Juliette Gréco,with her existentialist chic, and Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel were drawingcrowds in Paris clubs. Piaf may not now seem to have been a progenitor of rock,but French rockers have claimed her as their own, and Johnny Hallyday, now the eminence grise of French rock, haseagerly acknowledged her influence on his generation, “the young Frenchsingers who absorbed her powerful emotional style even when it seemed at oddswith rhythms inspired by American rock, jazz, and blues.” It is thatpowerful emotional style that grabbed listeners all over the world—for in theend, as Burke concludes, Piaf’s greatest love affair was with her audience.