At this time of year when there is so much going on, and we seem to be living by our to-do lists, I thought you’d like to sit down with a coffee and think about something completely different. It’s Edith Piaf’s birthday today – a girl to remember!
from rags to riches: the édith piaf story
Today in 1915, Édith Piaf – one of France’s most iconic singers – was born Édith Giovanna Gassion in working-class Belleville, Paris to an acrobatic street performer father and a singer and circus performer mother.
Sadly, Piaf was abandoned by both, and her care fell to her grandmother who was the madam of a brothel in Bernay, Normandy. It was the upbringing by prostitutes that Piaf would later attribute her “weakness for men” to in life.
In 1929, when Édith was 14, her father returned and she joined his street performances as a singer and acrobat. It was around this time she met another young street singer, Simone “Mômone” Berteaut, who became her companion on tour and in life (it is widely speculated that the two may have actually been half sisters!). The girls toured all over France but most often could be found entertaining on the streets of Pigalle, Ménilmontant and the suburbs.
Mômone and Piaf lived together in Paris’ 18th Arrondissement until 1932, when Piaf fell in love with a man named Louis Dupont. A year later, she gave birth to their daughter, Marcelle. Unfortunately both her romance and motherhood was decidedly short-lived; like her mother before her, Piaf abandoned Marcelle for the streets, and the child passed away at the age of two.
In 1935, Piaf was “discovered” by Louis Leplée, the owner of a popular, mixed-class Parisian nightclub called Le Gerny. It is Leplée who is credited with moving her from the streets to the stage, as well as coining her first stage name – La Môme Piaf, or “The Little Sparrow” (Piaf stood at a height of only 142cm, or 4ft 8in). Thanks to Leplée’s training, guidance and marketing, she quickly landed two records.
The following year, in a dramatic turn of events, Leplée was murdered by mobsters from Piaf’s street days. Paif turned to French lyricist (and love interest) Raymond Asso to protect her image. To dissociate her from Leplée and his murder, Asso modified Piaf’s stage name to that which we refer to her today – simply Édith Piaf.
When the war ended, Piaf toured Europe, South American and the United States, gaining international fame and making prominent connections and friendships with influential people along the way. She received a stellar review in the New York Herald Tribune by popular critic Virgil Thomson and was a frequent guest on America’s The Ed Sullivan Show, as well as at Carnegie Hall. In 1945, Piaf penned “La Vie en rose,” her signature song which won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998, and in 1947 she released her famous “Mais qu’est-ce que j’ai ? (“What Can I Do?”), which has been said to have completely revolutionized the cabaret-genre.
A true rags to riches story, Piaf lived out rest of her wild life as Paris’ sweetheart, marrying twice and battling addiction before passing away at the age of 47. More than 40,000 admirers attended her funeral procession (fellow singer Charles Aznavour said it was “the only time since the war that he had seen the traffic in Paris come to a standstill.”) Piaf was laid to rest at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where you can still pay your respects to the singer “with a voice like black velvet” today.
For another famous French birthday, see our post of Marie-Antoinette.