Biography of Edith Piaf, French Singer

Edith Piaf

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Edith Piaf (born Edith Giovanna Gassion; December 19, 1915–October 10, 1963) was a French singer, songwriter, and actress. She became famous for her tragic, brooding ballads, including songs such as "La Vie en Rose" and "Hymne à l'amour." At less than five feet tall, Piaf was known as "La Mome Piaf," or "The Little Sparrow"; she is now celebrated as one of France's greatest performers.

Fast Facts: Edith Piaf

  • Known For: Piaf was a French singer known for her dark ballads and tragic life.
  • Also Known As: Edith Giovanna Gassion
  • Born: December 19, 1915 in Paris, France
  • Parents: Louis Alphonse Gassion and Annetta Giovanna Maillard
  • Died: October 10, 1963 in Grasse, France
  • Spouse(s): René Ducos (m. 1952-1957), Théo Sarapo (m. 1962-1963)
  • Children: Marcelle
  • Notable Quote: "I want to make people cry even when they don't understand my words."

Early Life

Legend has it that Edith Piaf was born on the streets of Paris—the working-class Belleville neighborhood, to be more exact—on the cold winter night of December 19, 1915. Her 17-year-old mother was a café singer and her father was a street acrobat. Piaf's mother soon abandoned her, and she was sent to live with her paternal grandmother, who was the madam of a brothel. It's said that she was completely blind from ages three to seven, and she claimed to have been miraculously cured when the prostitutes prayed for her on a religious pilgrimage.

In 1929, when she was a teenager, Piaf left the brothel and joined her father as a street performer, singing throughout Paris and surrounding cities. At the age of 16, she fell in love with a young man named Louis Dupont and bore his child. Sadly, their daughter, named Marcelle, died before the age of two of meningitis. Dupont and Piaf argued over her employment—he did not like that she was a street performer—and the two eventually separated.

Music Career

Louis Leplee, the owner of a popular Paris nightclub, discovered Piaf in 1935 and invited her to perform in his club. It was Leplee who bestowed her the nickname "La Môme Piaf" (the Little Sparrow). She adopted this as her stage name. Leplee instructed Piaf in the art of performance; at her opening night, she was joined on stage by the famous jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. That same year, Piaf recorded her first two records. One of them was written by the composer Marguerite Monnot, with whom Piaf would go on to have an extended collaboration.

Years of touring only brought her moderate financial success, but she achieved great popularity as a nightclub act. However, she was visited by trouble again in 1936, when Leplee was murdered by mobsters. The killing brought negative attention to Piaf, and for a time she struggled to regain her reputation.

During the World War II German occupation of Paris, Piaf was part of the French resistance. She cleverly won the hearts of the high-ranking Nazis, thus giving her access to French prisoners of war, some of whom she helped escape. During this time, Piaf also became involved in the French cabaret scene. She collaborated with artists such as Jean Cocteau and Yves Montand.

In 1945, Piaf wrote "La Vie en Rose," which became her signature song and one of her bestselling records. The song was later recorded by Bing Crosby, Victor Young, Louis Armstrong, and Grace Jones.

After World War II ended, Piaf began to tour the world, achieving international fame and popularity. She twice performed at Carnegie Hall and appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show"—one of the most popular programs in America—eight times. After this tour, she returned to France and performed multiple times at the Paris Olympia, one of the city's most legendary theaters, cementing her legacy as one of France's greatest performers.

In 1951, Piaf was in a car accident with the French singer Charles Aznavour, and her injuries resulted in a lifelong addiction to morphine and struggle with alcohol. She entered rehab several times, without much success. Piaf's addictions made it difficult for her to perform and write new songs; from this point on, her career began to suffer.

Personal Life

Edith Piaf's true love was boxer Marcel Cerdan, though they were never married. Cerdan died in 1949. Piaf subsequently married singer Jacques Pills in 1952. They divorced in 1956. In 1962, Piaf married singer and actor Theo Sarapo, who was 20 years her junior. They remained married until Piaf's death. Along the way, she had many other lovers.

Death

Piaf's drug and alcohol addictions continued to worsen as she got older, especially after she was in two more car accidents. In 1959, she had stomach surgery, and several years later she began to experience liver problems. Piaf died of liver cancer in 1963, near Cannes. The date is disputed; it is said that she actually passed on October 10, but the official date of death is October 11. Her husband, Theo Sarapo, was with her at the time. Piaf was buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Tens of thousands of fans followed her funeral procession to the cemetery.

Legacy

Piaf is France's most famous chanteuse. Her most popular songs include "La Vie en Rose" (also the title of an Academy Award-winning biopic of the star), "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," and "Hymne A L'Amour." Piaf remains a beloved figure in France and abroad; her life is the subject of several films and television specials. She influenced countless singers, from classic stars such as Francoise Hardy and Jane Birkin to modern performers such as Little Annie and Laetitia Sadier (of Stereolab).

Sources

  • Bret, David. "Find Me a New Way to Die: Edith Piaf's Untold Story." Oberon, 2015.
  • Burke, Carolyn. "No Regrets: the Life of Edith Piaf." Paragon, 2012.
  • Holman, Stacy Jones. "Torch Singing: Performing Resistance and Desire from Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf." AltaMira Press, 2007.
  • Looseley, David. "Édith Piaf: a Cultural History." Liverpool University Press, 2016.