Edith Piaf* (19 December 1915-10 October 1963**), the ‘little sparrow’ with the cavernous throat, sang herself from the streets of Paris to world stardom.
Always waiflike, by the time she died aged just 47, she seemed even smaller than her 4ft 10inch frame. At the time of her final filmed concert at Nimegue in Holland in December 1962 her famous hands, which had fluttered about on stage like moths, were stiff with arthritis, her liver was destroyed, her hair had thinned to the point that her scalp was visible. The mask-like face beneath the pencilled eyebrows was swollen, drawn and yellowed with drugs. For 30 years Piaf had represented France to the French. At her funeral, less than one year later, 40,000 mourners joined the funeral procession.
Abandoned by her young mother, Piaf’s childhood was one of destitution and hardship. Her father encouraged her to belt out ballads on street corners, where she was discovered one day in 1935 by a night club owner, Louis Leplee, who gave her her first break. A later mentor, Raymond Asso, refined her stage technique and brought her global stardom.
She was perhaps the greatest ever exponent of the chanson realiste. She sang spare, tragic tales delivered with a stark, feral quality in an almost trance-like state; the singer becoming the song.
In her personal life, Piaf was desperate to love and be loved; she began and ended relationships with terrifying velocity. Her great love was world middleweight boxing champion, Marcel Cerdan who was killed in an aeroplane crash in 1949. She was married twice, but neither marriage was happy.
‘Song is my life’, said Piaf, who would eventually sing herself to death. During her ‘suicide’ tour of 1959 she would frequently collapse on stage, but singing, she insisted, would always bring her back to life.
One of the songs most closely associated with her ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, presented to her in 1960, is credited with giving her three
extra years of life. The song’s debut performance at the Olympia Theatre in Paris, brought her 22 curtain calls. ‘I think it’s working’ she said backstage.
*Piaf was christened Edith Giovanna Gassion. The stage name given to her by theatre impresario Louis Leplee was La Mome Piaf, Sparrow Kid; piaf is the Parisian slang word for sparrow. Following the murder of Louis Leplee, her next mentor Raymond Asso, renamed her simply, Edith Piaf. She is buried at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris under her married name Madame Lamboukas (dite Edith Piaf).
**Piaf died on 10 October at Plascassier in the south of France. Her body was then taken by her husband and a nurse, in an ambulance to Paris. A doctor agreed to sign a certificate giving the date of her demise as 11 October and the location as Boulevard Lannes, Paris. Someone who had always represented France to the French could only die in Paris.
Carolyn Burke’s No Regrets: the Life of Edith Piaf.