“I'm drawn to write about women who have to be extremely plucky and inventive and determined in order to do what they feel they must do as creative artists…”
– Carolyn Burke
Nothing moved Carolyn Burke, the author of a new Edith Piaf biography, as much as seeing the photo of Piaf's daughter in the performer's handbag. The little girl died of meningitis aged two. "Piaf rarely spoke about her, and no one ever saw the photo, but she carried it around with her for the rest of her life," Burke says.
"Seeing that photo was devastating, as it was to look at the little black dresses with their prostheses, so that her broken arm, which never healed properly after the car accidents, didn't look crooked on stage," she says. (In 1951, Piaf was seriously injured in what would be the first of three near-fatal car crashes.)
Burke's book is fittingly called No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf after the star's famous song. In it, the Sydney-born author breaks Piaf out of the clichéd cage that has captured her legacy since her death in 1963.
Burke documents Piaf's self-destructive behaviour, the addictions and the lovers. But she reveals "the little sparrow" as a courageous woman in control of her own destiny, who was a consummate artist and a generous muse, who loved to laugh and had a strong spiritual side.
"I'm drawn to write about women who have to be extremely plucky and inventive and determined in order to do what they feel they must do as creative artists," says Burke, who will be talking about No Regrets and artists' lives at this month's Sydney Writers' Festival.
"With Piaf, I have a subject who is literally downtrodden, impoverished, at the beginning. I came to understand what it might be like to be a person who was entirely excluded from the whole social system, who wasn't even working-class, who was from a family of outcasts."
In writing her portrait of the diminutive French singer with the huge voice, Burke scored several coups. She was the first person outside France to read Piaf's correspondence with her mentor, the poet Jacques Bourgeat.
"This man gave her a reading list and they would go away for weekends in the country and read together," says Burke, who was totally surprised by Piaf reading Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Plato. "I got an intimate look at her development from street urchin to something entirely different. Bit by bit, he taught her a different way of thinking about herself and her life."
Despite her meteoric rise in the world and her self-education, Piaf never shed the inheritance of her upbringing. Abandoned by her parents, she grew up with grandparents who ran a licensed brothel, worked on the streets and mixed with the Pigalle hoodlums.
Burke also gained access to rare home movies and recordings and privately held letters. As she was writing, Christie's sent her details of the love letters Piaf wrote to the French bicycling champion Louis Gérardin, which were sold at auction in 2009.
Burke began working on No Regrets in late 2006 after her book Lee Miller: A Life was released earlier that year. "It was very scary to begin with," she says. "I didn't know if I had the guts to do it. I dithered for a while. There must be at least 35 books about Piaf in French and English and they are still coming out in France."
The turning point for her was an invitation to a memorial service held for Piaf at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris by a group called L'Association des Amis d'Edith Piaf.
"At first, I felt awkward and strange. I sat and listened to what people were saying and to her songs, 'Hymn to Love,' 'Mon Dieu,' all the songs about earthly love that can also be understood as being about divine love, love on a spiritual plane. Then something happened that allowed me to see this is a subject of great general appeal and one that transcends any worries and petty concerns I might have.
"We all walked to her grave together, and people put down their flowers and said a few words. Then, in good French fashion, we all went out and had lunch with lots of wine. By the end of this lunch, I thought, 'Maybe I can do it.'"
After her graveside epiphany, Burke found she could do a lot. She delved into the Bibliothèque Nationale's archives to pin down Piaf's wartime activities from news clippings and reports of postwar French purges.
"There were lots of rumours and innuendoes. In the end, I was able to see that she acted bravely during the war, defied the Nazis in a number of different ways and paid to shelter her Jewish friends and help them. The most remarkable thing, which was known but not properly documented, was she helped French prisoners of war to escape from German Stalags."
Burke is happy she has shed light on this lesser-known side of Piaf's life. Still, there was no avoiding "the endless cast of lovers," composers with whom Piaf collaborated, boxers and cyclists and, famously, her protégé Yves Montand.
"I had to to think, 'How did this one matter to her?' and 'What did this one do for her at this point of her life?' I didn't want to organise the book around the men in her life. Men are hugely important to her and to the rest of us. However, I wanted to write the story differently from the way it has been typically told in the past."
Burke's recasting of women's lives runs through her two other biographies, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (1996) and Lee Miller: A Life (2006). Is Burke in danger of becoming a serial biographer?
She laughs and says, "It is an odd choice of vocation, doing other people's lives. A lot of it has to do with the circumstances of my own life. I might not have chosen to do this had I lived elsewhere and in a larger city.
"These books allowed me to live in my imagination and in very interesting places and at interesting times. They allowed me to travel and enter artistic milieus that were very stimulating to me, a way for me to know the kind of people I wanted to know but didn't have in my daily life."
Burke lives in Santa Cruz in California, a town with a population of 50,000 and a campus of the University of California, where her husband has retired from teaching. She has been there for 35 years, though she was born in Sydney in 1940 and lived in the city until she was seven, when her mother divorced, remarried an American and moved to Philadelphia.
In 1959, aged 19, on her way to further her classics studies in London, Burke stopped off in Paris and fell madly in love with the city.
She wrangled a way to study French at the Sorbonne, giving English lessons to earn money. That was when she first heard Piaf's "throaty tremor," as the desperately unwell singer was on her "suicide tour," as the press called it. To improve her accent, Burke used to belt out Piaf's songs in the shower.
She returned to the US and completed a PhD in English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York, making trips to Paris when she could afford to do so. She regularly visits Sydney, where her mother now lives.
Burke doesn't deny for a second that writing about women in Paris is an excuse to hang out there.
"It was always one of my deepest wishes from the age of 19 when I first fell in love with the place. I've probably had some of the happiest times of my life living in Paris. I've been writing a novel off and on set in Paris before World War I. It seems to feed my imagination in a variety of ways and is the place I really love to be, in addition to Sydney."