Edith Piaf marked French popular culture with her immense work, thanks to immortal hits such as “La vie en rose” or “L’hymne à amaour”. An unforgettable voice, a tragic destiny. Only one other woman contends for the emblem of French heroine: Joan of Arc. Let’s take a look at her life on the anniversary of her death.
Edith Piaf’s first difficult years
Coming from a family of street artists, Edith Giovanna Gassion was born in Paris in the Belleville district on December 19, 1915. Above the entrance to the building located at 72 Rue de Belleville, a plaque commemorates the event:
On the Steps of this house on December 19, 1915, EDITH PIAF was born in the greatest poverty whose voice then shocked the world.
Her father was a contortionist in a traveling circus. Her mother is a singer. Edith does not know the trivial existence of a child and she leads an unstructured life. She faces loneliness and her first disappointments when her mother abandons her to earn a living. Her father, worried about the welfare of her daughter, decides to protect her and entrust her to her paternal grandmother, owner of a brothel in Normandy, before leaving for the front.
At the age of eight, Edith develops an eye disease called keratitis. She goes blind, but miraculously recovers. At the end of the war, Edith and her father return to the streets, where they both lead a bohemian life. It was by accompanying him during his street performances that the teenager discovered a talent for song. She has a unique voice that will allow her to reach the firmament of the stars. At 15, tired of this itinerant life, Edith leaves to live her life. She meets her first love Louis Dupont, whom she affectionately nicknames “P’tit Louis”. In 1933, little Marcelle was born from their meeting. However, happiness is short-lived. At the age of two Marcelle dies of meningitis.
Edith Piaf becomes “La Môme”
Edith returns to depraved Paris to drown her sorrows. She is often accompanied by her best friend, Simone, known as “Momone”. The two friends are inseparable. Alongside this life of debauchery, Edith sings in the streets of Pigalle and Belleville where she has begun, thanks to her gift, to earn a living.
It was the greatest of coincidences that put Louis Leplée in her way. Director of Le Gerny’s cabaret on the Champs Élysées, he was the first man Piaf trusts. He involves her in her cabaret and renames her “La Môme Piaf”. Like the bird, Edith, despite her small size (1m47) exudes a strength of unrivaled character and an extraordinary voice. She was immediately noticed by the artistic Paris of the time. Jacques Canetti, one of the most influential producers of the moment, is immediately impressed. He makes her sign a contract with his label Polydor, where she records her first album “Les mômes de la cloche”.
However, her fate reaches her once again when Louis Leplée is murdered. This news, broadcast in the press of the time, tarnished Edith’s career for a time. She emerges deeply bruised from this episode, but she gets up anyway. Her meeting with Raymond Ace gives her new hope. Piaf’s in love with him, the latter insists on having her listen to “Mon legionnaire” to music by Marguerite Monnot, who will be Edith’s friend until the end of her life. He becomes her official author, her lover and her vocal coach. In January 1937 Edith recorded “Mon legionnaire”. “La Môme” is no more, these are Edith Piaf’s first beginnings.
First songs and success
At just 23, Edith Piaf finds success. Under the advice of Raymond Asso, she trained for months to become a great artist. She takes her first steps on the ABC stage where she knows her first triumph. Very quickly, she was the headliner of the Bobino theater. Edith becomes a star and turns to new horizons without giving up singing. She meets actor Paul Meurisse who will be her lover for two years.
In 1944 Piaf is an established artist. Her meeting with Yves Montand is a new step in her career. She takes him under her wing and makes him an artist. At the same time, she forms a romantic relationship with him. On the screen, the couple can be seen in the film “Etoile sans lumière”. Throughout her life, the singer will not stop mixing her bonds with her artistic life, helping her lovers to gain fame. Edith also reveals a talent for writing. At the end of 1945 you wrote one of your most famous international hits, “La vie en rose”.
It is with Paul Meurisse that Edith Piaf made her debut at the theater, then at the cinema in “Montmartre on stage”. In the latter she meets Henri Contet whom she takes as a new pygmalion and who will be one of the greatest authors of her career. Her talent for drama will earn her a dozen films.
During the German occupation, Piaf continues to sing as she performs an act of resistance in the lyrics with hidden messages. After the war, Edith Piaf continued to appear on the big screen, in several films in which she played herself, most notably in Pierre Montazel’s “Paris always sings” in 1952 or Maurice’s “Boum sur Paris”by Canonge, in 1954.
Marcel Cerdan, Edith Piaf’s greatest love
However, Edith Piaf is not full of luck. She is already considering extending her career to conquer new territories. In 1947 she launched the career of the Compagnons de la chanson. Together, they sing “The Three Bells” and embark for the United States where they are relatively successful. However, she settles down in a posh cabaret in Manhattan. She gradually conquers the hearts of Americans. It is also in the United States that Piaf will cross paths with Marlene Dietrich, who will remain one of her most faithful friends, and Marcel Cerdan, the love of her life.
The French boxer is married, but the passion he lives with Edith is unmatched. This couple will remain one of the most magical and tragic of the 20th century. Marcel Cerdan died in a plane crash on October 27, 1949, when he was about to join Edith in New York. The woman will never recover from this new blow of fate. She passes the test the next day by taking the stage and offering a touching interpretation of “L’hymne à l’amour”, which she dedicates to her lost love. But she is a woman broken by the pain that is born that night and her desperation, turned into chronic depression, will never leave her again.
Edith Piaf: La Foule
From 1950 Piaf resurfaced and sang at the Salle Pleyel. Soon she also meets Charles Aznavour. He is her driver, her secretary, but also her confidant. He wrote some titles for her, including the French adaptation of “Jezebel” and “More blue than your eyes”. Piaf is once again at the origin of a promising career. In 1951, a new ordeal awaited the singer. She suffers two road accidents and comes out weakened. She is forced to soothe her pain with morphine, which she mixes with alcohol. This consumption becomes an addiction that will physically destroy her.
The end of Edith Piaf’s life is a reflection of her fate, between professional successes and sentimental despair. Edith pursues her princess dream by marrying Jacques Pills, a French singer, but the wedding, celebrated in New York, will be short-lived. In 1953, Edith Piaf began to regain control and underwent her first drug treatment. The entourage hides the state of the artist from the press. The singer also stays months without leaving the house.
It is thanks to her profession that Edith comes back to life, especially when she meets her public at Olympia in 1955. She leaves for the United States, at the legendary Carnegie Hall in New York, where she is warmly welcomed. In 1957, she had one last detox treatment in New York that freed her of her old demons. The same year, Edith Piaf produced one of her biggest hits, “La Foule”, inspired by “Que nadie sepa mi sufrir”, a piece by Enrique Dizeo that she met during her tour in Argentina.
The birth of “Milord”
Until the end of her life, Piaf will be professionally satisfied. She will live for her audience even if it means exhausting herself on stage. From now on, she will be more discreet. It was then that Georges Moustaki entered Edith Piaf’s life. He plays her some of her compositions but, troubled, plays miserably. Piaf perseveres and the two will be lovers for more than a year and will live a tumultuous passion. The lyricist will write for her several titles from her repertoire, including the famous “Milord”, published in 1959, to music by Marguerite Monnot. However, he left Piaf shortly after a car accident they had together in 1958, which had weakened and aggravated the singer’s health problems and her addiction to morphine.
In 1963, Edith Piaf dies
However, in 1961 Piaf returned to the stage to save the famous Parisian hall, the Olympia, from bankruptcy. She delivers her last will “Non, je ne regrette rien” and, exhausted, she collapses on stage many times. In the summer of 1961 she met the last man of her life, Théo Sarapo, a 26-year-old Greek singer. She married him the following year Edith Piaf died in her residence on October 10, 1963. She is only 47 years old, but the excesses and sufferings of life give her 20 more years.
Almost half of France participates in her funeral, and traffic is blocked for hours and hours.
Throughout her life Piaf lived for others, for her audience, for her lovers. A life full of tragedies, for a name that will remain forever imprinted in French music and beyond.
We leave you with a sentence from her, which sums up well what her music and her voice did for people:
I want to make people cry even when they don’t understand my words