paris street scene

No Regrets:
The Life of Edith Piaf

Carolyn Burke

Edith Piaf — No Regrets: Legacy of a French Songbird

Edith Piaf, born Edith Gassion in 1915, accumulated a lot of myths around her life

By Mark Shenton, Express (UK)
April 24, 2011

Like many stars, Edith Piaf, born Edith Gassion in 1915, accumulated a lot of myths around her life even as she made musical magic, and they collided in the stage name with which she became known.

Piaf was French slang for sparrow, and as the diminutive singer adopted the name, she remarked, "I was baptised for life."

However, while great artists are invariably born, not made, the peripatetic circumstances of her early life, brought up first by her maternal grandparents in the town brothel that they ran, then by her itinerant circus entertainer father, fuelled the insecurity that, coupled with the desertion of her mother, led to what she once reflected was "a desperate, almost morbid, need to be loved."

Those early chapters of her life are etched in pain, and her eventful life was characterised by tragedy, including giving birth, aged 17, to a daughter who would die of meningitis two years later, and the death of the love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan, in a plane crash in 1949.

Like Judy Garland, Piaf also died at the age of 47, and there is "something both tumultuous and sad in the way each lived; their legacy will endure far longer than the years they spent on earth."

Piaf's life has been the subject of previous stage and film treatments, including Pam Gems's play, Piaf, with two separate West End productions, and the film La Vie En Rose. However, fuller justice is now done to both the person and her phenomenal career in Carolyn Burke's frequently frank, always fascinating and revealing biography.

The author indulges a penchant for generalisations, comparing her to Billie Holiday and Garland, for instance, and adds: "Piaf's legend appears to fit the template for successful artists who pay the price in their descent into suffering caused by drink, drugs, and, in the case of women, promiscuity."

Of the latter phenomenon, she notes that "it has, at times, been a dizzying task to keep track of her many lovers."

The book does at least pay Piaf the respect of seeing how that turbulent lifestyle and the myths around it also fuelled her art.

"It is often impossible to separate fact from fiction," Burke writes, and adds it is
"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."

It was on the streets that Piaf's raw passion as a singer was first exposed. As an early advocate of hers on French radio put it, she had a voice "that came from the heart rather than her head."

This book pays Piaf the supreme compliment of coming from both the heart and head of its author. You can feel a palpable love for her subject, and there's also clear-headed analysis of what made Piaf tick which helps to make this book tick, too.