paris street scene

No Regrets:
The Life of Edith Piaf

Carolyn Burke

Born to sing for France

By Anne Haverty, Irish Times
April 16, 2011

France's glory, musicwise, could never be said to be pop, except in one genre, peculiarly French. This is the chanson réaliste, the realist song, the ballad of the street and the dodgy bar, which expressed truthfully, if melodramatically, the poignant but resilient lives of the poor and marginalised. The most famous and loved performer of the chanson réaliste was Edith Piaf. She hasn't been bettered, not just because she was so good but also because the tradition, overtaken by new musical styles and by prosperity, died along with her in the 1960s.

cover of "No Regrets"Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty
Edith Piaf, whose career blossomed in the rackety world of Pigalle hookers' clubs, in 1936.

Extraordinary voice aside, Piaf was born for the role. She came from people who hustled whatever wares and talents they could muster at fairs and markets. Her grandmother on her mother's side was a Berber called Aïcha, whose trick was the swarm of trained fleas she kept in a matchbox. Her mother, Annetta, sang and sold sweets. The Gassions, Edith's paternal family, were higher on the social scale. They had had their own circus, and Louis, her father, was a skilled acrobat with hopes of fame and fortune. But the first World War and his liking for cheap wine put paid to that.

When Edith was born Louis was in the trenches. Annetta gave the baby to Aïcha to raise while she worked the streets of Belleville as a singer under the name of Line Marsa. Annetta too had hopes, but, as Edith euphemistically wrote later, she had no luck. When Louis came home he took the child out of this unpromising milieu and brought her home to one that was in many ways more dubious. By now the Gassions had settled down in Bernay, in Normandy, where Louis's mother had found a job managing a brothel, the town's maison de tolérance.

It was an upbringing full of ambivalence. To the children where Edith went to school she was "the child from the devil's house," yet the prostitutes doted on her at home. She played in the salon where they met their clients, and learned that "when a man held out his hand to a woman she had to accept and go with him." On Tuesdays the girls walked demurely in file into town to shop and visit the hairdresser and the pharmacist. It was they who invoked the aid of St Theresa, the "little flower," for the eye complaint that made Edith more or less blind. When the household went on a pilgrimage to nearby Lisieux and Edith returned apparently able to see, the girls declared it a miracle. She was a miraculée. This event, bringing with it the conviction that she had been singled out for saintly intervention — and on the feast of St Louis — gave Edith her sense of destiny.

Louis took up his paternal duties again when she was seven, and took her to travel with him in the Caroli Circus. After that there were years of hotel rooms when they went solo as itinerant entertainers, the diminutive Louis laying out his mat in a town square to perform his acrobatics while his equally diminutive daughter busked in her heartbreaking grave manner.

At 16 Edith met a young chap from Belleville, also called Louis, and had a baby, Cecelle. But as her career was blossoming in the rackety world of the hookers' clubs of Pigalle, where she was becoming known as "the little sparrow," she soon did what her own mother had done and allowed the father to take the baby. Cecelle died of meningitis at the age of two. Edith's grief had a Beckettian flavour: "When you bring life into the world," she would say, "at that moment you also sign a death sentence."

Carolyn Burke describes expertly and sympathetically this picturesque world of Edith's early life. From here on the account gets just a little cursory. Success is rarely as interesting as getting there, at least to read about. Before long Edith was discovered singing on a street near the Arc de Triomphe by a silver-haired man called Louis — another Louis! — Leplée. He invited her to sing at his cabaret, Le Gerny's, on the Champs-Élysées, through which she was inducted into a milieu of respectable music halls, recordings, radio, film and glowing reviews. She was befriended by celebrities such as Maurice Chevalier, Yvonne Vallée, Jean Cocteau and the aviator Jean Mermoz.

It was Leplée who gave her the name Piaf, slang for "sparrow," improved her technique and dressed her in the little black couture dresses that became her trademark. He set out to transform her from sparrow to nightingale.

Leplée, who also had more than a foot in Pigalle, was the first of her several mentors. Deeply intelligent, she was avid for intellectual stimulation and read everybody from Camus to Teilhard de Chardin. As she grew ever more successful she became a mentor herself. Music was her life, her passion, and when ambitious young lyricists came to her with songs they would find themselves caught up in night-long rehearsal and rewriting sessions. She made their careers. These men almost invariably became her lovers, although her most constant collaborator and best friend was a woman, Marguerite Monnot.

Piaf was also avid for love. Burke confesses she found it hard to keep up with the list of her many lovers. Paul Meurisse, Yves Montand and the boxing champion Marcel Cerdan are among the better known. Cerdan was her great love, but as he was killed in a plane crash at the height of their affair her fickleness was never tested in his case. She did mourn him always, and regarded every subsequent man as a compromise. His death, says Burke, brought on Piaf's crippling arthritis.

Despite her tiny stature and vulnerability the Piaf she describes is sturdy and insouciant. During the second World War she risked the taint of collaboration by remaining in Paris and performing in prison camps in Germany. But in Germany she distributed fake passports and money she had smuggled into the camps, and nearly 150 prisoners were able to escape. She made millions, but most of her money went to her entourage of friends and proteges, to the families of lovers and ex-lovers, and to the maintenance of her gypsy lifestyle.

When she died, only in her 40s, the archbishop of Paris refused her a Mass because of her immoral ways. But she was more spiritual than many archbishops, and her liver was destroyed not by alcohol but by the medication that enabled her to go on stage. She was a national icon by then, and all Paris turned out for her funeral.

It may be a familiar story to devotees, but Burke's retelling of it is surely the best there can be.