From Brooke Allen's "READER'S DIARY" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Edith Piaf, dead now for nearly
fifty years, has become one of France's great national monuments, as
lucratively exportable a product as Maurice Chevalier, Claude Monet, and Crêpes
Suzettes. Everyone here in America knows Piaf, or at least they know the
recordings of her two greatest hits -- La
Vie en rose and Je ne regrette rien -- delivered
in her yearning, metallic tones. Some even know the earlier numbers, chanson réaliste portraits, in the words
of one pop culture critic, "of working-class life, gray with the soot of
factory chimneys and abuzz with tunes picked up from bistrot radios." But
not many Americans were familiar with the singer's tempestuous and dramatic
life until the recent Olivier Dahan film, La
Môme (La Vie en Rose in the
United States) grabbed our attention, winning an Oscar for the lovely Marion
Cotillard and awakening a new mode
for all things Piaf.
The publication, now, of No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf by
veteran biographer Carolyn Burke reveals that far from having been a bit too
melodramatic (as I had thought La Vie en
Rose to be when it came out a
couple of years ago), the film omitted plenty. It almost had to: if even half
of the singer's myriad lovers had made it onto the screen, audiences would have
reeled in disbelief. Self-destructive stars of course are not unfamiliar to
Americans, and we have become almost inured to their excesses: as I write,
Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan are playing out very public meltdowns. But the
epic mess of Piaf's love life, as well as the scale of her talent, make this
story something special, while her brutal Dickensian childhood virtually
ensured that she would spend her adult life in a doomed quest for perfect love
Burke has made a valiant effort to
sift through the exaggerations of Piaf's two memoirs, Au Bal de la Chance, (1958) and Ma
Vie (1964), and the self-serving lies dished up by Simone Berteaut, Piaf's
soul-sister and party-companion, in her own tell-all about the singer. The
unadorned truth is already bizarre enough, with no need of embellishment.
The singer was born Edith
Giovanna Gassion, in 1915 -- and not on the city pavement, as she claimed, but in
the Tenon Hospital in Belleville, a working-class area in eastern Paris. (Burke
imparts the remarkable fact that at that time, less than a century ago, the
now-noisome quartier was still
perfumed by the scent of blooming lilac.) Her father, Louis Gassion, was an
acrobat (just five feet tall, he passed on his diminutive form to his
daughter); her mother, Annetta, was a would-be singer whose own mother presided
over a flea circus. As if this background wasn't disreputable enough, the
feckless Annetta, an alcoholic and drug addict, abandoned the child when she
was still a baby and went on to pursue an independent singing career under the
name of Line Marsa. As in the vast majority of such cases, Edith never got over
this primal rejection.
Louis Gassion was slightly more
dependable. His own life was not stable enough to include a baby, so he took
Edith to live with his parents in the town of Bernay in Normandy. Her
grandmother, known as Maman Tine, was the manageress of what was
euphemistically 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, Occasionally
her grandparents would take her to the Café de la Gare where they would stand
the child on a table and let her sing to the assorted company. The power of her
voice was already notable.
When Edith reached the age of
seven her father thought her old enough to become a professional asset, and he
reclaimed her from his parents to take her on the road: the child would sing as
a part of his circus act, the two of them traveling with a series of
lady-friends who attached themselves to Louis. "From her father,"
writes Burke, "she learned an entertainer's sense of timing, techniques
for tugging on the audience's heartstrings, and the sort of patter likely to
produce a good take." Some time during Edith's adolescence she returned
with her father to Paris, where she began singing in cafes as well as in the
streets -- 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 best
interpreters of this tradition -- Fréhel, Damia, and soon Piaf herself -- that they
sang the way they lived, their songs came from the heart. (The extent to which
they consciously sustained this perception went unnoticed.)"
The teenaged Edith kept louche
company in Pigalle, where she now settled -- if indeed "settled" can be
said 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 the
decades 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 herself
alone. And almost inevitably the teenaged Edith got mixed up with le milieu, the mafia that ran much of
Paris's club and cabaret scene. During these years she usually had one or
another "protector," some thug who made sure she was always
incriminated in his felonies and helped himself to her meager wages. As Burke
points out, "her life with her father had predisposed her to having a boss
who took her earnings and dictated her behavior." At the age of seventeen
she had given birth to a baby girl, Marcelle, known as Cécelle. For a while the
baby lived in digs with Edith and Momone, but soon the father came and took her
away, saying that if she wanted the child she must come home. In a haunting
reenactment of her own childhood tragedy she refused to do so, though she paid
for the baby's care. Not long afterwards, the two-year-old was dead of
meningitis; Edith, so the story goes, slept with a man to earn the money for
the burial. The loss continued to haunt Piaf; she was never to have another
At the age of nineteen Edith was "discovered"
by Louis Leplée, proprietor of the club Le Gerny -- a swank establishment by Edith's
standards. It was Leplée who picked out the simple black dress that would
become her uniform for the remainder of her career, dubbed her "Piaf" -- sparrow -- and
selected a réaliste repertoire of
songs about the "dangerous" classes from which she sprang, works that
would come to define her. Other early
mentors were the author Jacques Bourgeat, who urged her to educate herself, and
the lyricist Raymond Asso, who became her lover, some say her Svengali. Piaf
herself credited Asso with saving her life. "It took him three years to
cure me. Three years of patient affection to teach me that there was another
world 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 phenomenon
with 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 would
become a close friend and her most important collaborator: Monnot's talent, she
said, was "what helped me to be Edith Piaf."
Piaf's ascent was rapid at this
point. Her next lover, Paul Meurisse, brought her to live with him in the beaux quartiers near the Arc de Triomphe
and she never looked back: from then on, and as her fees reached stratospheric
heights, she spent freely on high living in swell neighborhoods. Her entourage
continued to expand: there were a few true friends among the crowd, but
increasingly it was, in the words of one observer, "abject beings, people
who amused her, pilferers, spongers, those who took her money -- a concept that
simply didn't matter to her."
As for her many amours, there is probably no way they
could be counted up, and Burke doesn't even make the attempt. Among the more
significant were the composer Norbert Glanzburg, the very young Yves Montand,
whose career Piaf actively promoted, movie star John Garfield, performer Eddie
Constantine, bicycle champion André Pousse, singer Jacques Pills (a genial
fellow to whom she was briefly married), lyricist Jo Moustaki (author, with
Monnot, of Piaf's great song "Milord"),
and the gorgeous Théophanos Lamboukas, gay and twenty years Piaf's junior, whom
she married at a moment when "her romanticism won out over her sense of
the ridiculous." The great love of her life, in her own opinion, was the
boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, who died tragically in a plane crash in 1949 at the height of their romance. But considering
Piaf's track record, Momone's cynical comment on the subject might not have
been too far off: "If it had gone on another year," opined Piaf's mauvaise génie, "she might have
dismissed him, like all the others." For Piaf made impossible demands on
her lovers, many of whom (including Cerdan) were already married, and
eventually 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 yearning
that permeated her voice and immortalized it. As one collaborator, the lyricist
Henri Contet, put it, "Words and music are her beloved slaves. Miraculously
they submit because of her passion. She loves them as much as the earth loves
rain….She sleeps with her songs, she warms them, she clasps them to her….They
possess her." During the triumphant years of her apotheosis she tore the
heart out of her listeners: there are still people who remember the bliss of
hearing her at the Versailles Club in New York just after World War II, when
she seemed to embody a resurgent France. In later years, after Cerdan's death,
she battled countless health issues and drug dependencies, but managed, right
up to the end, to gear herself up to go on stage. Her great concert at the
Olympia in Paris in 1960, at which Je ne
regrette rien was introduced along with other songs by her new favorite
songwriter, Charles Dumont, was a triumph of the will; only months before she
had seemed on the brink of death.
Piaf's untimely death, in 1963 when
she was only forty-eight, occurred at a seminal moment in the history of
popular music. Only a few months earlier the Beatles had leapt to international
attention. In France, rock music was quickly elbowing aside the chanson tradition, though that tradition
showed significant staying power: the new girl on the block was Juliette Gréco,
with her existentialist chic, and Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel were drawing
crowds 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, has
eagerly acknowledged her influence on his generation, "the young French
singers who absorbed her powerful emotional style even when it seemed at odds
with rhythms inspired by American rock, jazz, and blues." It is that
powerful emotional style that grabbed listeners all over the world -- for in the
end, as Burke concludes, Piaf's greatest love affair was with her audience.
Read an Excerpt
Edith Piaf's life began like a latter-day version of Les Misérables. A poor girl from the Paris slums, she grew up among the downtrodden souls who later populated her lyrics and, through their mythic resonance, shaped the scenarios of twentieth-century French culture. Her story is the stuff of working-class legend, its joys and sorrows the materials for her heart-stopping songs. From these impoverished beginnings, she kept her cheeky street sense and gaiety of spirit while reinventing herself as the chanteuse who reached across social, linguistic, and national divides to voice the emotions of ordinary people.
Though mythic, Piaf's childhood was no fairy tale. Because the few known facts about her inauspicious beginnings are entwined with the legends that she and others cultivated once she became famous, it is often impossible to separate fact from fiction-an ambition that is probably beside the point, since her art and legend nourish each other, circling back to the streets where she got her start. Au bal de la chance (1958) and Ma vie (1964)-accounts of her life dictated to others-must be complemented by interviews with Piaf and her friends to help us grasp the contexts for the legends that grew up around her.
Edith Piaf was born during the second year of World War I in Belleville, a defiantly independent village in the eastern heights of Paris that remained, long after its annexation to the city in 1860, a bastion of revolutionary culture. Unlike Montmartre, the city's other hilltop slum, Belleville did not possess a community of artists. With no Picasso to celebrate the area and no bourgeois visitors in search of bohemia, the village was left to its plebeian ways. Maurice Chevalier, who grew up nearby in Menilmontant, called Belleville "the capital of the outskirts of Paris." Though the population was working- class, he wrote, it embraced all sorts: "A good honest fellow will live next door to the lowest pimp and respectable housewives line up behind streetwalkers at the baker's."
A similar taint of promiscuity colors the tale of Piaf's infancy. "My mother nearly gave birth to me on the street," she supposedly told a journalist, who would later remove the word "nearly" to create the well-known tale of her entrance into the world shielded only by the woolen cape spread on the pavement by a quick-thinking policeman. Later in life, when asked whether she had really been born in the street, Piaf neither confirmed nor denied the story, letting people believe what they liked. "She didn't know very much about her childhood," the composer Henri Contet said, and she liked to entertain the accounts the press reflected back to her-as if by studying them she might glean enough to fill in the sketchy tale of her beginnings.
A document registered at the Mairie (or City Hall) of the twentieth arrondissement, the administrative center for Belleville, gives a somewhat more reliable account-that of the little girl's birth in the nearby Tenon Hospital. "On the 19th of December, 1915," it begins, "the delivery of Edith Giovanna, daughter of Louis Gassion, 'artiste acrobate,' 34, and his wife, Annetta Giovanna Maillard, 'artiste lyrique,' 20, took place at 5 a.m. in the rue de la Chine" (the address of the hospital). The document, signed by the nurse who assisted at the birth and two hospital employees-"in the absence of the father"-gives the couple's address as 72 rue de Belleville, the unimpressive building on whose steps her mother may or may not have gone into labor. Here the bare facts-the names, ages, and professions of the parents, their address, the time and place of birth-form the frame on which her story may be embroidered a stitch at a time.
Let us begin with the absent father, here identified as an "acrobatic artist." Louis Gassion, a handsome man with a fine figure, was just under five feet tall. A foot soldier in the trenches of eastern France when Edith was born, he would be away during most of her infancy. After the war, his repeated absences would be explained by his life as an itinerant entertainer and his love of gros rouge (cheap red wine): "It was the rotgut that kept him going," Piaf often said of her progenitor, whose diminutive stature she inherited (as an adult she measured four feet ten inches).
Louis Gassion had practiced his trade since childhood, having learned its tricks in the 1890s-when performers like Valentin le Désossé (the Moulin Rouge contortionist memorialized by Toulouse-Lautrec) entertained the masses. Piaf's father billed himself as a contortionist but never achieved Le Désossé's celebrity. Before the war he toured France with the Gassion family circus, which was based in Normandy under the direction of his father, Victor Gassion, an equestrian who also enlisted four of Louis's young sisters as trapeze artists. His mother, Louise-Léontine Descamps Gassion, presided over their large tribe. If any photographs of Louis's parents and their fourteen children were taken, none survive. Perhaps they were not sufficiently prosperous to record their lives in the manner of bourgeois families.
Louis's flirtatious manner more than made up for his size. Just before the start of war in 1914, he met Annetta at a fair outside of Paris where she sold sweets and occasionally sang while her mother, a Moroccan Berber sideshow artist known as Aîcha, presided over her own attraction-a menagerie of trained fleas that she carried about in a matchbox. Annetta's official papers listed her father, an itinerant animal-trainer named Auguste Maillard, as deceased, and her mother (unlike the fleas) as having no known residence. Like other circus people, the Maillards had no place in the social order. Annetta may have sensed a kindred spirit in Louis, since her maternal grandparents had also been acrobats.
Annetta's marriage to Louis was one of many unions consummated hastily in wartime. The groom was stationed in Sens, south of Paris and beyond the reach of the enemy troops that decimated Senlis (a widely condemned act of German barbarity) two days after their wedding on September 4, 1914. Edith's December 1915 birth shows that the newlyweds had managed to be together the previous March. About this time they set up house in the rue de Belleville, around the corner from the sordid rue de Rébeval apartment where Annetta's mother, Aîcha, lived.
The effect of the war on daily life was inescapable. The most impoverished Bellevillois lined up for the soupe populaire (soup kitchen), which was for some their only nourishment. Annetta called her baby Edith in homage to the war heroine Edith Cavell, an English nurse executed by a German firing squad that October for having organized an escape route through Belgium for wounded soldiers. Though Piaf appreciated being named for a much-publicized symbol of resistance, she disliked her second name, Giovanna-her mother's gesture at passing on her lineage by giving her daughter her own middle name.
Of her maternal heritage, Piaf later wrote, "I've always thought that Fate led me to the very career that my mother dreamed of but could never manage, not through any lack of talent but because luck wasn't on her side." Annetta had had no choice but to follow in her parents' footsteps, Piaf believed. She sang in the streets while Aîcha looked after the baby, and soon took the stage name Line Marsa, an exotic sobriquet inspired by the Tunisian seaside resort La Marsa. Line's sultry manner suited her repertoire of drinking songs and torchy ballads-the kind of song called la chanson réaliste, which would make her daughter's name some years later.
Line would have found appreciative audiences in Belleville. Since the 1900s, the neighborhood had absorbed several waves of immigrants: first the Auvergnats, from the center of France, who delivered coal and cleaned chimneys; then Russian and Polish Jews fleeing pogroms (Belleville had the largest concentration of Jews in Paris); and, when Edith was a baby, Armenians and Greeks escaping the upheavals in their homelands. This mixed population of mechanics and craftsmen toiled in Belleville's many small workshops, turning out toys, tools, leather goods, shoes, mattresses, comforters, and any number of household items.
Successive generations of foreign artisans absorbed the locals' proud spirit. In revolutionary fashion they tutoied each other rather than use the vous of polite society, and expressed their solidarity in Belleville slang, a coded language reflected in the songs that Line and other goualeuses bawled out in the streets, the Café de la Liberté, the Vielleuse, and the other social centers specializing in gros rouge.
Differing accounts of Edith's childhood all emphasize the importance of gros rouge in both her paternal and maternal lineages. Though we cannot know for certain whether Aîcha dosed Edith's bottle with wine to make her sleep, it is likely that a fair amount of it was consumed in their household. Both men and women tippled to get through the day, especially during the war years, when food was scarce and heating almost unavailable. It is easy to imagine Line's choice to keep warm in the cafés while earning whatever their patrons could spare, rather than stay at home with her infant daughter. At twenty, she was more interested in becoming a singer than in being a mother.
Opportunities for enjoyment were not lacking in wartime Belleville. Tales of life there may be colored by nostalgia, but the area in those days is still recalled as a "miniature nation . . . whose insignia could have been the red paving stones, a giant bottle of gros rouge, a vegetable seller's cart, and an accordion." The shared experience of grinding poverty made residents all the more likely to live for the moment. All looked forward to the event that brought relief from the workweek, the rue de Belleville's Sunday fair, animated by vendors' cries in praise of their vegetables, smells of fresh bread and cuts of meat in the baker's oven, the tang of pastis emanating from café tables, and the scent of lilacs perfuming the hillsides in spring. Singers like Line plied their trade as customers made their way up the steep cobblestone street and, in a burst of generosity, granted their favorites some change.
The record does not say whether Louis came home from the war on leave, only that by the time he returned from the front in 1918, Annetta had left him and turned Edith over to Aîcha (later in life, Piaf would say that her mother left when she was two months old). Louis found their little girl sickly and malnourished. Aîcha, who made ends meet by cleaning apartments, had been spending her wages in the cafés and leaving Edith alone at home. In the different accounts of her removal from Aîcha's care, Louis, his younger sister Zaza (one of the retired acrobats), or both of them together rescued Edith and took her to Bernay, the conservative Normandy town where her Gassion grandparents had recently settled after turning the page on their lives as itinerant showmen.
The Gassions were not always wanderers. The family had lived in the Calvados region of Normandy since the seventeenth century, most often in Falaise, the birthplace of William the Conqueror. In the years just before Edith's birth, her grandparents had forsaken the circus for a more sedentary life in Caen, where they sold groceries, coal, and hardware. But their life as shopkeepers did not erase their notoriety. The neighbors gossiped; the taint of the circus followed them when they moved again to Bernay, where Léontine Gassion found employment as the manager of a maison close-a position on the fringes of a provincial society that deplored the brothel's existence while taking advantage of its services.
Edith's grandmother, known as Maman Tine, took the sickly child into this unusual household but never gave her the affection she craved. Perhaps she was too busy overseeing the arrivals and departures of the town notables who were her clients. Edith's health soon improved, except for an eye problem that impaired her vision, a state of affairs that made it possible to believe that she was unaware of what was going on.
Brothels like Edith's new home were called maisons de tolérance, their activities "tolerated" by the officials who regulated them and sometimes returned when off-duty. Its services were advertised by the lantern and the larger-than-normal street number that graced the façade of this three-story residence on the road to Rouen. The building's layout ensured visitors' privacy while also providing separate quarters for Maman Tine, Victor Gassion, and Edith. Clients came through the front door into a vestibule that led to the salon, where each night a player piano cranked out popular songs, and those who wanted to relax sipped absinthe or smoked their pipes.
Visits to les filles took place discreetly, in the small bedrooms on the second and third floors. Everyone behaved as if, apart from their nightly duties, "the girls" were boarders at a strange sort of finishing school, with Maman Tine as their headmistress. Taking up work as a fille soumise, or registered prostitute, subjected one to a high degree of discipline. It also meant taking a new name, usually from a list repeated from one maison to another-literary and operatic pseudonyms like Violette, Manon, and Carmen, or youthful-sounding diminutives ending in "-ette" (Yvette, Odette, Blondinette) that nourished clients' fantasies about the girls' willing "submission."
The inmates of such houses rose late, devoted what remained of the morning to their grooming, and spent the afternoon playing cards, gossiping, and smoking. A child would have been a welcome diversion, particularly for the women whose own children had been taken from them. One can imagine Edith's surrogate mothers fussing over her, especially once they realized that she could barely see. "I got used to walking with my hands out in front to protect myself," she said. "My fingers and hands were sensitive; I recognized fabrics by touching them, people's skin the same way. I would say, 'That's Carmen, that's Rose.' . . . I lived in a world of sounds."
One wonders how Edith interpreted what she heard at night or what she made of her new friends' working clothes, their scanty chemises and silk stockings. Although her eyelids opened only partway, she no doubt witnessed scenes in the salon, where the residents sat demurely until a client chose one of them and took her upstairs. "I always thought that if a man held out his hand to a woman, she had to accept and go with him," Piaf said years later.