la vie en rose by Edith Piaf (1946)

Note: This woman has the most fascinating biography I’ve ever read, hence this post is very long.

Edith Piaf, born Edith Giovanna Gassion on December 19, 1915, is widely regarded as France’s national popular singer and is one of France’s greatest international stars.

Despite numerous biographies, her life is shrouded in mystery. She was named after the World War I British nurse Edith Cavell, executed for helping French soldiers escape German captivity. Her father was a street acrobat performer from Normandy, her mother a cafe singer.

Her parents abandoned her and young Edith went to live with her maternal grandmother. When her father enlisted in the French Army in 1916 to fight in World War I, he left her in the care of his mother, who ran a brothel in Normandy.

As a result of keratitis, Edith was legally blind from ages 3 to 7. One of her biographies stated that she recovered her sight after some of her grandmother’s prostitutes pooled their money to send her on a pilgrimage to honor Saint Therese of Lisicux.

In 1929, at age 14, she joined her father in his street performances and this was the first time she sang in public. She then separated from him and went out on her own and soon met up with her musical partner Simone Berteaut. At 16, she fell in love with Louis Dupont, a delivery boy. At 17, she gave birth to her only child, Marcelle who died of meningitis at age 2. (Like Edith’s own mother, Edith found it difficult to care for her daughter while earning a living singing on the streets, so Marcelle was mostly in her father’s care.)

Edith was discovered in 1935 at a nightclub by Louis Leplee in the Pigalle area of Paris. He persuaded her to sing despite her nervousness and small stature; he also dubbed her La Mome Piaf (the Waif Sparrow). He gave her her stage presence and suggested she wear a black dress (which became her trademark). Leplee ran a publicity campaign attracting celebrities to hear her sing.

On April 6, 1936, Leplee was murdered. Piaf was questioned and accused as an accessory, but acquitted. Leplee had been killed by mobsters with previous ties to Piaf. Negative media attention ensued. To reignite a positive image, she recruited Raymond Asso and changed her stage name to Edith Piaf and barred undesirable acquaintances from contacting her.

In 1940, she co-starred in Le Bel Indifferent and began forming friendships with prominent people. In 1944, she discovered Yves Montand and became a mentor until his popularity was on level with hers. At this time, she was much in demand and popular herself. After the war, she became internationally known throughout Europe, the U.S., and South America due to some touring. She eventually appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show eight times and performed at Carnegie Hall twice.

Her signature song, la vie en rose was written in 1945 and was voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998.

Back in Paris, at the Paris Olympia, the most famous venue in Paris, she gave a series of concerts between January 1955 and October 1962. Excerpts from five of these concerts (1955, 1956, 1958, 1961 and 1962) have never been out of print on record and CD. The 1961 concerts (which saved the venue from bankruptcy) debuted her song non, je ne regrette rien. In April 1963, she recorded her final song l’homme de Berlin.

Piaf was married three times (her maid of honor in her first wedding was Marlene Dietrich). In 1951, she was severely injured in a car crash, in which she broke her arm, two ribs and consequently developed serious addictions to morphine and alcohol. Two more near fatal car crashes didn’t help her situation.

In October 1963, Piaf died of liver cancer at age 47. She had been drifting in and out of consciousness for several months. Her final words were said to have been, “Every damn fool thing you do in this life, you pay for.”