Today is the birthday (1915) of Édith Piaf, famed French singer who became a national icon in France, and still has an ardent following worldwide (myself included). I decided to start the post with a recording of one her most famous songs, rather than the usual portrait or icon, so that you could see her in action right from the start, or listen along as you read, or, of course, you can just glide by it. In fact, throughout this post I am going to give you clips in place of images. This clip is a rare version of her filmed singing live. The rest are studio performances.
Most fans know the basics of Piaf’s life already, especially because there are several films about her life, most notably the 2007 “La Vie en Rose,” which was in large based on Piaf: A biography by Simone Berteaut. Berteaut and Piaf claimed to be half-sisters, but there is really no telling. Berteaut and Piaf met when Piaf was 15, and they remained close companions for many years thereafter. Her telling of the story of Piaf’s life is undoubtedly not wholly to be believed but she paints an extraordinary picture of her life and thoughts, especially concerning the years before she became famous. Worth a read. You’ll find it a bit odd at first until you catch on that often Berteaut is speaking as if she were Piaf.
Piaf was born Édith Giovanna Gassion in Belleville, Paris. Legend has it that she was born on the pavement of Rue de Belleville 72, but her birth certificate cites the Hôpital Tenon as her birthplace, the hospital for the 20th arrondissement, of which Belleville is part. Her father Louis-Alphonse Gassion (1881–1944), was a street acrobat performer from Normandy with a past in the theatre. He was the son of Victor Alphonse Gassion (1850–1928) and Léontine Louise Descamps (1860–1937), known as Maman Tine, who ran a brothel in Normandy.
Her mother, Annetta Giovanna Maillard (1895–1945), was of French descent on her father’s side and of Italian and Berber origin on her mother’s. She was a native of Livorno, a port city on the western edge of Tuscany. She worked as a café singer under the name Line Marsa. Édith’s mother abandoned her at birth, and she lived for a short time with her maternal grandmother, Emma (Aïcha). Before he enlisted with the French Army in 1916 to fight in World War I, her father took her to his mother, who ran a brothel in Normandy. There, prostitutes helped look after Piaf for several years.
In 1929, at 14, she joined her father in his acrobatic street performances all over France, where she first sang in public. A year later she met Simone “Mômone” Berteaut, and together they toured the streets singing and earning money for themselves for the first time. With the additional money earned with Mômone, and as part of an acrobatic trio with her father, Edith and Mômone were able to rent their own living space. She separated from her father and took a room at Grand Hôtel de Clermont (18 rue Veron, Paris 18ème), working with Mômone as a street singer in Pigalle, Ménilmontant, and the Paris suburbs (inspiration of the song “Elle fréquentait la Rue Pigalle”).
In 1932 she met and fell in love with Louis Dupont. Within a very short time he moved into their small room, where the three lived despite Louis and Mômone’s dislike for each other. Louis was never happy with the idea of Edith’s roaming the streets, and continually persuaded her to take jobs he found for her. She resisted his persuasions whenever possible, until she became pregnant and worked for a short while making wreaths in a factory.
In February 1933, when Edith was 17 years old she gave birth to her daughter, Marcelle. Like her own mother, Piaf found it difficult to care for a child while living a life on the streets; she had little maternal instinct, parenting knowledge, or domestic skills. She rapidly returned to street singing, until the summer of 1933, when she opened at Juan-les-Pins, Rue Pigalle. Marcelle’s father, Louis, whom Edith never married, was incensed. They quarreled and Edith left, taking Mômone and Marcelle. The three of them stayed at the Hôtel Au Clair de Lune, Rue André-Antoine. Marcelle was often left alone in the room while Edith and Mômone were out on the streets or at the club singing, and died of meningitis at age two.
In 1935 Piaf was discovered in the Pigalle area by nightclub owner Louis Leplée, whose club Le Gerny off the Champs-Élysées was frequented by the upper and lower classes alike. He persuaded her to sing despite her extreme nervousness, which, combined with her height of only 142 cm (4 ft 8 in), inspired him to give her the nickname that would stay with her for the rest of her life and serve as her stage name, La Môme Piaf (Paris slang meaning “The Waif Sparrow”). Leplée taught her the basics of stage presence and told her to wear a black dress, which became her trademark apparel. Later, she would always appear in black. Leplée ran an intense publicity campaign leading up to her opening night, attracting the presence of many celebrities, including actor Maurice Chevalier. Her nightclub gigs led to her first two records produced that same year, with one of them penned by Marguerite Monnot, a collaborator throughout Piaf’s life and one of her favorite writers.
On 6 April 1936, Leplée was murdered. Piaf was questioned and accused as an accessory, but acquitted. Leplée had been killed by gangsters with previous ties to Piaf. A barrage of negative media attention now threatened her career. To rehabilitate her image, she recruited Raymond Asso, with whom she would become romantically involved. He changed her stage name to “Édith Piaf,” barred shady acquaintances from seeing her, and commissioned Monnot to write songs that reflected or alluded to Piaf’s previous life on the streets.
In 1940, Édith co-starred in Jean Cocteau’s successful one-act play Le Bel Indifférent. She began forming friendships with prominent people, including Chevalier and poet Jacques Borgeat. She wrote the lyrics of many of her songs and collaborated with composers on the tunes. In 1944, she discovered Yves Montand in Paris, made him part of her act, and became his mentor and lover. Within a year, he became one of the most famous singers in France.
After the war, she became known internationally, touring Europe, the United States, and South America. In Paris, she gave Atahualpa Yupanqui (Héctor Roberto Chavero) – prominent Argentine folk musician – the opportunity to share her stage, making his debut in July 1950. She helped launch the career of Charles Aznavour in the early 1950s, taking him on tour with her in France and the United States and recording some of his songs. At first she met with little success with U.S. audiences, who regarded her as downcast. After a glowing review by a prominent New York critic, however, her popularity grew, to the point where she eventually appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show eight times and at Carnegie Hall twice. In modern terms, she was a superstar. And so it goes . . .
Piaf’s personal life – her addictions, her love affairs – are the stuff of tabloids, and if you want to know about them, go and read somewhere else.
Piaf died of liver cancer at age 47 at her villa in Plascassier (Grasse), on the French Riviera, on 10 October 1963. She had been drifting in and out of consciousness for several months. Her last words were reported as: “Every damn fool thing you do in this life, you pay for.” Although she was denied a funeral mass by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris because of her lifestyle, her funeral procession drew tens of thousands of mourners on to the streets of Paris and the ceremony at the cemetery was attended by more than 100,000 fans. Charles Aznavour recalled that Piaf’s funeral procession was the only time since the end of World War II that he saw Parisian traffic come to a complete stop.
Piaf is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris next to her daughter Marcelle, where her grave is among the most visited. Buried in the same grave are her father, Louis-Alphonse Gassion, and Thèo (Lamboukas) Sarapo. The name inscribed at the foot of the tombstone is ‘Famille Gassion-Piaf.’ Her name is engraved on the side as ‘Madame Lamboukas dite Edith Piaf.’
I fell in love with Piaf in 1966 at the age of 15 – sadly, just a little too late. I used my meager pocket money to buy all her records I could find. I suppose I’ve always been a bit of an odd one (I was in love with Marlene Dietrich at the same time). This was the great heyday of British rock; for my friends Piaf was old news, if they had even heard of her. It’s not that I didn’t like The Who or The Animals, I did. But Piaf’s singing drove right into my heart.
My last offering is “Autumn Leaves,” symptom of an eternal love affair of my own.
To honor Piaf I have chosen a well known French dish, quail with white grapes. Quail are not as small as sparrows, but they are certainly diminutive in the poultry world. This recipe is taken from Robert Carrier’s Great Dishes of the World, 1963 edition (year of Piaf’s death). It was my first cookbook and my constant kitchen companion for decades. Carrier’s recipes are a bit terse by contemporary standards, but you’ll get the gist. I’ve kept the exact wording, just altered the format a little.
QUAIL WITH WHITE GRAPES
salt and white pepper
2 tbsps flour
4 tbsps butter
¼ pint dry white wine
2 tbsps lemon juice
3 ozs seedless grapes
2 tbsps blanched almonds, sliced
Clean quail, rub with a mixture of salt, pepper and flour.
Melt the butter in a thick-bottomed casserole and sauté the birds in it until they are golden on all sides.
Add wine and lemon juice; cover and cook over a low heat for 15 to 20 minutes.
Add seedless grapes and sliced blanched almonds and cook for 5 to 10 minutes more, or until the birds are tender.