No music instrument can reproduce the kind of music that raises emotions and melts our hearts like the human voice. No instrument of music that is either stronger or more ancient than the singing human voice and nothing can stir us like a great singing voice. Edith Piaf, a singer from France, is the owner of one such strong and soulful human voice of all time.
One can say with confidence that Edith Piaf is the best example of a status where the singing voice becomes more important than the composition and the lyrics. Hers was the voice which frontline composers and lyricists waited for. In her time, the ultimate dream of every French lyricist was that Edith Piaf should render his or her poem in her soulful voice. Edith Piaf was the cultural emblem of France and personification of music in Paris, where she lived.
Piaf is a name that stands for the little sparrow. She was small made, standing to a height of barely four feet and eight inches. But no pop singer in France has ever reached half her height and stature. The most famous of all music artistes that France had ever created, the name of Edith Piaf has been even given to a planet in the Milky Way! 3772 PIAF.
When the French film La Vie en Rose (Life in the Red) was released in 2007 portraying the life and music of Edith Piaf who was born in 1915 and died in 1963, her life again became the most talked about all over the world. Marion Cotillard who played Edith Piaf in the film won the Oscar Award for the Best Actor-Female. ‘La Vie en Rose’ was the title of Edith Piaf’s very famous 1946 music album.
Her famous songs like ‘Sous le ciel de Paris’(1954), ‘Mon Legionnaire’ (1936), ‘Tu es partout’ (1943), ‘Le Fanion de la Legion’ (1936), ‘Hymne de l’amour’ (1949), ‘Les Amants d’un jour’ (1956), ‘La Foule’ (1957), ‘Les neiges de Finlande’ (1958) and ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ (1960) will always dominate the French minds leaving a deep impress for all times to come.
The way Edith Piaf stole the hearts of American fans through her French songs is another testimony to the contention that language is no barrier to music. She acted in about ten French musical films. She appeared in a large number of French musical plays as well. All these were highly respected for their artistic merits and they were also huge commercial successes. Many films and documentaries have been made on her life. Her autobiography ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ was released in 1958 and sold a million copies setting a record. 46 years after her death various accounts of her life are still being avidly read.
Edith Piaf was born in Paris on 19th December of 1915. When she was born, her mother Anetta Giovanna Maillard was not quite yet seventeen. She was a street singer. Now and then she also indulged in the oldest profession of women. The father of the child, Louis Gassion, was roaming as a street acrobat. Annetta did not have the money to go to a hospital to deliver the child. Finally in a Paris street, under the biting cold of a frosty December, beneath a lamp post, she delivered that child with two ogling policemen for company.
Annetta was a drunkard. She spent her life in aimless wandering. She travelled with circus men. She would go roaming from carnival to carnival. She used to get her customers in wine halls. She left her child with her parents who were too addicted to drinks. Two years later, when at last the father of the child was found, she practically threw the diseased, dirty but tender bundle of girl at the acrobat and walked away. Her father had neither the money nor the time to bring up the child. So he left her with his mother who was running a brothel in Normandy. Edith was brought up in her childhood by the women of the brothel.
Edith lost her eye sight affected by an undiagnosed eye disease at the age of three and remained blind till she was seven years old. Titine, one of the women in the brothel, looked after Edith like her own daughter. It is said that the inmates of the brothel spent a great deal of their earnings for treatment to get Edith her sight back. There is also the story of the inmates of brothel taking Edith on a pilgrimage to the Monastery of St.Theresa and Edith miraculously getting her sight back even as they prayed there! Edith was the darling of all the women in the brothel and they bestowed their love on the little wisp of a girl. Later in her life, Edith Piaf had reflected that her life with the women of the brothel was the golden phase of her life, cocooned in happiness.
Edith’s father returned when she had completed ten years of age. He needed assistance in his profession of performing and begging on the streets. In spite of the stiff resistance put up by Edith’s grandmother and other women, her father forcibly took her away with him. The entire brothel wept for her. Titine fainted. Edith herself wept inconsolably on parting with Titine who was like a mother to her. Later Edith had the mortification of having to live in the company of her father on streets. After every show of acrobatics she had to go around hat in hand to beg from the onlookers. She had to sleep in smelly lodgings.
On one occasion when she was going around with hat in hand one of the onlookers asked her to demonstrate her acrobatic skills for him. But she did not have any acrobatic skill. Her father joined in insisting that she perform something for the onlookers. On being forced by her father, with great reluctance she sang the only song she knew. It was the National anthem of France, La Marseillaise! She sang the lines of the song which begins with ‘Oh children of the Fatherland’ with all the emotions welling up from her mind. Her sad voice reflected her mind brimming with sorrows, loneliness and disappointments. Heart-warmed, the normally stingy crowd of onlookers showered money. Thus Edith Piaf’s very first music show, unintentional though it was, was a huge success!
Sensing that her songs had more fans than her father’s stale acrobatics, Edith became a street singer. Before she knew it, she followed in the footsteps of her mother. At the age of 15 she left her father and started living on the streets of Paris, singing and begging, in the company of another girl she had befriended. Though Edith was pathetic to look at, her voice quickly gained fame on the streets. Her beautiful, highly emotional voice drew even the most inattentive passerby to her.
At sixteen, Edith fell in love with a seventeen year old street boy and gave birth to a child. She named the child Marcelle. Living in a dingy, dirty room with an infant but without any money was a big challenge. In spite of it all Edith made valiant effort to be good mother. When the child died of malnutrition before it was two years old, Edith was heart-broken. But the challenges of living in the street did not allow her to dwell on her sorrows and soon she was back to singing on the streets.
Around this time she fell into the clutches of a cruel pimp called Albert. She had to accept his domineering companionship in spite of knowing how mercilessly he exploited the prostitutes under his control. Edith wanted the protection of a male against the vagaries of her street life. But he forced her into prostitution and kept all her earnings to himself.
Customers were not attracted to her small, below average physique. Edith somehow escaped from the pain of prostitution by convincing Albert that she could earn more by singing on the streets and that he could keep her earnings. She finally was truly rid of him when police started chasing him for killing one of his prostitutes.
One wintry evening with cold winds blowing, Edith was singing in the darkened corner of a street. At that time Louis Leplee, the owner of a Café-cum-Cabaret was walking by. Noticing the attractive potential of her voice, Louis Leplee, then and there, gave her the chance to sing in his Café. It was he who named her Piaf, meaning the small sparrow. It was said the name was apt for her small physique. Edith was very nervous during her first performance. She was shivering inside the black shirt that Leplee gave her for a bright look.
The love ballads that Edith Piaf rendered so emotionally soon became the big talk of the city of Paris. Music fans began talking about the gypsy girl who had a voice that squeezed the hearts of all. Edith Piaf became the singer of that night club. That black shirt also became her permanent signature dress. Famous men like actor Maurice Chevalier and poet Jacques Bourget became her friends there. Raymond Asso, a very rich man with knowledge of music, became her friend, too. Though a married man, he was physically attracted to her.
Louis Leplee took her to a recording studio and recorded her first song ‘Les Momes de la cloche’. It was the moment when her life as a musician was suddenly unfolding! But that same week Louis Leplee was found murdered in his house. The shadow of suspicion fell on Edith Piaf also. Her past presented her in a very bad light to police. Left no alternative, she sought protection from Raymond Asso whose advances she had spurned once. Asso used the influence of his wealth to rescue Edith Piaf. That set them on the path of love.
Asso was fiercely in love with Edith Piaf. He dedicated his wealth and efforts to advance her career in music. He turned her identity from that of a street girl into one of a cultured woman, much in the fashion of the drama ‘Pygmalion’ by George Bernard Shaw. It was Asso who in association with poetess and composer, Marguerite Monnet, who brought out the records of the early hit songs of Edith Piaf. Edith became a star, riding those early songs to fame and wealth. Asso also played the role of her Manager.
But this relationship did not last long. Asso was a very strict and extremely dominating type of person. Therefore, Edith Piaf left him and took as her lover singer-actor Paul Maurice who had the power to take her into the portals of who-is-who of Paris, living its high life and culture. It was Paul Maurice who taught her to speak chaste French and to conduct herself in the social mores of the sophisticated class. In the process she wiped out from her life all that represented her life in the streets. She became the most desired person among the top citizens of Paris.
Quickly Edith Piaf became the most successful entertainer in Paris. She became a close friend of the most famous French dramatist and film director Jean Cocteau. He wrote a drama especially for Edith Piaf. It had the intention of bringing out all her acting talent on stage. Following its massive success, Edith acted as the female lead opposite the popular French actor Louis Perrault. She left Paul Maurice for the company of lyricist Henri Contet. He was the lyricist who wrote a good portion of the songs Edith Piaf was to sing later in her career.
Many men came into the life of Edith Piaf and went. There were lovers in hundreds and three husbands. Edith Piaf did not stay faithful to any man she married or lived with. She had admitted that her thoughts on sexual life were formed by her upbringing in a brothel as a child and being into prostitution at a very young age. She tells us in her autobiography: “I had no emotional involvement in human relationships because of the way I was brought up. I thought if a boy calls a girl she cannot say no to him.” She had admitted that she was a veteran of sexual relations with many males before she had completed fifteen. She had developed the habit of having spontaneously emotional sex of a teen girl with every man she met.
Second World War was a very controversial phase in the life of Edith Piaf. She worked with Nazis and sang for them when Germany occupied Paris. It was only after the war that it became known that she had helped many French Army men who were held prisoners by Nazis to escape.
During the time of war both her father and mother came back into her life. Edith Piaf was only too happy about the return of her father. She supported him till death. But she had to repeatedly visit the police stations to get her mother released. Edith Piaf is on record that when she was dining at a high class restaurant with her friends when her mother had come and held her hand out to beg! Edith Piaf said: “I tried my utmost to reform my pitiable mother. But she would escape to continue her old life begging on the streets.” Soon her mother died in a cheap lodge from an overdose of drugs.
After the war Edith Piaf came to be known internationally. She travelled over Europe, America and South America. At first she only received a lukewarm welcome in America. There she was stamped as the singer of sad, teary songs. But as she received rave notices of music critics of ‘New Yorker’ she gradually rose to big fame there also.
She appeared eight times on TV in the Ed Sullivan Show which was at that time a very famous television show in America. Edith Piaf was the first Pop singer to sing in New York’s Carnegie Hall and Salle Pleyel of Paris, both reserved exclusively for classical music. Olympia Music Hall, a famous Music venue in Paris hosted many shows of Edith Piaf. Later it was an Edith Piaf music event which saved it from bankruptcy.
When Edith Piaf toured New York for her music program she fell in love with the then World Boxing champion in middle weight category, Marcel Cerdan. Cerdan was already married with children from the marriage. Yet it was the only real love of Edith’s life. Later Edith Piaf married him. After the bitterness of her many relationships, she discovered true love in this relationship. But ‘Misfortune’ was Edith Piaf’s middle name. Cerdan died in a bad plane crash over Azores Island on his way to meet Edith. Edith Piaf, now deeply depressed, did not recover from this loss.
Edith Piaf herself was a survivor from three car accidents. But in a particularly bad accident in 1951, she broke one arm and many ribs. Doctors prescribed morphine as a pain-killer. Edith Piaf soon got addicted to it. She wrote in her autobiography: “Nothing else remained then in my life save for the moment of comfort that I reached slowly after the drug was injected into my body.” After that she became accustomed to an injection of drug before her stage shows.
Edith Piaf loved her champagne from a very young age. She began drinking a lot of it just to forget the pain of her body. She earned the displeasure of her fans as she staggered around in stage often forgetting her lines. This was an unfortunate phase of her life where she wandered from one wine hall to another accosting and collaring strangers to give her company. Once again her life was becoming a sad extension of her mother’s terrible life. Edith remembers this period in these words: “At that point in life I had this uncontrolled fury within me to destroy myself. Nothing could stop me! It would last four to five months. When everyone feels that I have plumbed the depths of hell and there is no chance of retrieving me, I would slowly begin to claw back up the incline.”
Even after falling down on the stage many times because of her ill health, Edith Piaf could not think of a life without music. Edith refused to give up her music platforms in spite of repeated advices from friends and doctors. Around this time a young lyricist named Charles Dumont waited around, days at a stretch, with a poem just to meet her. When finally Edith got around to seeing him and heard his song, she was emotionally very moved and disturbed. The song was ‘No, I regret nothing’ (Non, Je ne regrette rien). The song was like a statement on the personal life of Edith Piaf. This became by far her best and most famous song.
In 1962 she was just 47 years old, but she had the look of a 70 year old woman. She was suffering from lung cancer, acutely feeling its rigours. Drugs and drinks on top of that made things only worse. She was falling off at every step she took, but she also intensely desired to marry one more time. She married a Greek youngster named Theo Saparo, younger to her by twenty years.
In spite of being the highest paid singing star in the world of her times, she did not die rich. She was generous in giving freely to whoever sought her help. She was also indiscriminate in spending whether needed or not. The only thing she knew well was to please all with her music. And she did that in full and marvelous measure. Her life, alas, was as sad and serious as her music.
In 1963, even as she was on her death bed, Edith Piaf recorded her last song ‘L’homme de Berlin’ (The Man from Berlin). Many of her old friends like Asso came to see her as word spread in Paris that she was on her death bed. Edith asked Asso to pray to St.Rita. St.Rita was the saint of things ‘totally lost’. That was how Edith looked at herself, completely lost! Edith Piaf passed away in Cannes on 10th October of 1963.
Roman Catholic Church refused to conduct a memorial service for Edith Piaf. It pronounced that Edith Piaf led a life strewn with sin alone. Edith was to be later named as a National Symbol of France! Hundreds of thousands of her fans filled the streets of Paris to pay their last respects to their beloved songstress born on streets. That was the only time ever that traffic in Paris came to a grinding halt. Edith still sings ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’……...
I regret nothing
Not the good that I have done
Nor the bad!
All are same
I have no worries
All are paid for
All are swept away
As I keep going forward
All my memories
Serve to kindle the light
Elations or sorrows
Look back on them I do not
My old lovers
All are gone
Blown away like dust!
I regret nothing
As my life and pleasure
Now spring anew
As I start again with you!