When one thinks of Edith Piaf, one thinks of love, sorrow and music. One did not breathe without the other two. Born in Paris practically on the streets on December 19, 1915, she struggled from day one, the daughter of street performers. The mother, a singer, eventually abandoned both Edith and her father for a solo career. Piaf spent her youth entertaining passers-by, receiving little formal education in the process. She often accompanied her father’s acrobat street act with her singing and at various times was forced to live with various relatives, in alleys or in cheap hotels. An aborted love affair left her with a baby girl at age 17, but little Marcelle died of meningitis at 2 years old. Devastated, Piaf returned to the streets she knew, now performing solo.
Her fortunes finally changed when an impresario, Louis Leplee, mesmerized by what he heard, offered the starving but talented urchin a contract. He alone was responsible for taking her off the streets at age 20 and changing her name from Edith Gassion to “La Mome Piaf” (or “Kid Sparrow”). Piaf grew in status entertaining in elegant cafés and cabarets and became a singing sensation amid the chic French society with her throbbing vocals and raw, emotional power. From 1936 Piaf recorded many albums and eventually became one of the highest paid stars in the world. She was first embroiled in scandal when her mentor, Leplee, was murdered and she was held for questioning. She managed to survive the messy affair and carry on while her ever-growing society circle now began to include such elite members as writer/director Jean Cocteau. Piaf also took to writing and composing around this time; one of the over 80 songs she wrote included her signature standard, “La vie en rose.” Although she appeared sporadically in films, it was live audiences that sustained her.
Piaf later toured the United States to branch out internationally. America was slow to accept the melodramatic Piaf but she persevered and eventually won legions of fans. She also continued a series of affairs with the likes of actor Paul Meurisse, composer Henry Contet and, most notably, boxing champion Marcel Cerdan. The latter’s death in a 1949 plane crash left Piaf devastated and many claim this was the beginning of her downfall. Piaf had a life-long habit of involving herself heart and soul in the launching of her lovers’ careers. Over the years this would include Yves Montand’ and ‘Eddie Constantine. Two serious car accidents suffered in 1951 led to a morphine and alcohol addiction that left Piaf’s life skidding out of control despite a potentially happy marriage in 1952 to actor Jacques Pills. Though slowly crippled by severe arthritis, a series of spectacular comebacks in concert and recordings would follow over the years but her health would slowly waste her away. Her last appearance was at the Paris Olympia, racked and hunched over with pain and barely able to stand. Her last recorded song was “L’homme de Berlin” in 1963, the year of her death. She died in poverty on the same day as her friend Cocteau and at the age of 47, the same age as her equally tortured American counterpart, Judy Garland. Piaf left many debts for her second husband (and protégé) Theo Sarapo, who was twenty years younger (he died in 1970, at age 34). Piaf’s funeral was massive yet, because of her lifestyle, was forbidden a Mass. It was the only time since WWII that Parisian traffic was completely stopped. A museum was dedicated in her honor. Piaf remains the epitome of the French singer in heart, soul, style and passion; for many Piaf IS France.