paris street scene

No Regrets:
The Life of Edith Piaf

Carolyn Burke

Biography of Edith Piaf is thorough and definitive

By Susan Miron, Miami Herald
March 27, 2011

The life and loves of the great French chanteuse Edith Piaf are a biographer's dream, and Carolyn Burke, the twenty-ninth writer to delve into that turmoil and triumph, has produced a definitive, thoroughly researched biography.

Burke first heard Piaf's "throaty tremor, velvety vibrato" on the radio when she was a student living in Paris in 1959. In No Regrets, she recalls trying to learn French by singing along with Piaf, shortly before the end of the singer's life. She fell under the spell of her raw emotional power, which she conveys so well in this biography.

Burke deftly depicts the destiny of Piaf from her birth to her tragic death at age 47. Piaf's early years have engendered many legends and half-truths, and Burke uncovers facts starting with Piaf's birth. Piaf maintained that her mother "nearly gave birth to me on the street," later removing the "nearly." A document noting the baby Edith's birth in Tenon Hospital imparts a more ordinary story. Her father, Louis Gassion, who identified himself as an "acrobatic artist," was gone much of Edith's childhood. Edith lived in her grandmother's brothel, a maison de tolérance. Her eyesight failed her and, once it returned, Piaf's version — that St. Thérèse had performed a miracle for her — was more engaging than the more prosaic medical explanation.

Burke draws a vivid portrait of Piaf's impoverished and often difficult childhood, including her picaresque travels with her father, a time that Piaf recalled "blended aspects of Les Misérables with elements of fairy tales." Young Edith would sing at the end of each show, making twice the money her father had earned. Piaf usually claimed the first song she sang was "La Marseillaise," while later she told a journalist she had first sung "L'Internationale," the anthem of communist and socialist parties worldwide. Her father, an incorrigible womanizer, provided a slew of "mothers" for Edith while her own mother was away in Turkey.

Piaf's songs and her captivating delivery of them made her an overnight sensation; soon she became France's iconic singer and a living legend. Burke explores what inspired many of Piaf's songs and their lyrics, as well as who helped her compose them and where she first performed them. Piaf was famously demanding of herself and those who worked with her. A colleague observed, "She wanted to be the best, not from ambition but as her calling, a somewhat mystical sense that she couldn't do things by halves." Burke also deftly examines Piaf's innumerable love affairs and explains how or why each ended. "I had a desperate, almost morbid, need to be loved," she reflected toward the end of her life.

No Regrets is exhaustively comprehensive; Burke spoke with just about everyone who knew, admired or loved Piaf. However, nothing she writes captures Piaf as memorably as this quote from her friend Jean Cocteau: The audience watched "this astonishing little person . . . her Bonaparte-like forehead, her eyes like those of a blind person trying to see . . . a voice rises up from deep within, a voice that inhabits her from head to toe, unfolding like a wave of warm black velvet to submerge us, piercing through us, getting right inside us. The illusion is complete. There is just her gaze, her pale hands, her waxen forehead catching the light, and the voice that swells . . . and gradually replaces her."