Some words of appreciation today for the great French singer and national symbol Edith Piaf (Édith Giovanna Gassion, 1915-1963).
“Piaf” was a stage name — it is French for “Sparrow”. The woman stood only 4’8″ in adulthood, a factor which only added to the power of her presence, which seemed to combine elements of vulnerability and strength, regret and sadness, but also resilience and perseverance (like France itself, which had survived two devastating World Wars in the 20th century). In 2016, we were honored to have expat singer and friend Gay Marshall (a Paris based Piaf interpreter) sing Piaf’s best known song “La Vie en rose” (1946) at our wedding. (The previous year, Gay had sung at a Centennial celebration of Piaf at Town Hall, along with another friend Molly Pope, who starred in my show Horse Play at La Mama, also in 2015.) Contemporary Americans almost certainly also know Piaf’s 1960 hit “No, je ne regrette rien”, as it is frequently used in TV commercials. Like Colette, Piaf’s art summons romantic visions of the Bohemian ideal of Paris, of smoky cabarets, and attic art studios, and prostitutes, absinthe, and the night.
Like the animated singing triplets, Piaf was born in Belleville. On her mother’s side she was a fourth-generation variety entertainer, and part Berber as well as part Italian. Her great grandparents Saïd Ben Mohamed and Margherita Bracco were circus acrobats. Their daughter, Piaf’s maternal grandmother Emma Saïd Ben Mohamed, a singer and acrobat, married Auguste Eugène Maillard, also a circus performer. Their daughter (Piaf’s mother) was the singer, equestrienne and tightrope walker billed as Line Marsa (real name Annetta Giovanna Maillard). She married Piaf’s father, singer, acrobat and actor Louis Alphonse Gassion in 1914.
Edith was named after the heroic British nurse Edith Clavell, who’d recently been executed by the Germans for helping Allied prisoners escape in the early years of World War One. Louis served in the war as well, but Edith’s mother abandoned her, and left her with her mother. Learning that Edith was neglected by both women, Louis brought Edith to live with his own mother, who ran a brothel in Normandy. Edith was largely raised by the prostitutes through a large part of her childhood. When she reached her early teens, her father recruited her for a busking acrobatic act, and that was her entry into professional show business. This is where she began to sing. (By this time her father had divorced her mother, an alcoholic drug addict. ) At 17, Piaf gave birth to a child, who died two years later under circumstances of neglect not unlike the ones she herself had known.
In 1935 she was still singing in the streets when nightclub owner Louis Leplée booked her at Le Gerny’s and presented her with great fanfare, with the great Django Reinhardt as her accompanist. It was Leplée who named her “La Môme Piaf”, and costumed her in a simple black dress (which she always wore thereafter). Leplée was murdered by mobsters the following year. Piaf was implicated, but eventually rode out the negative publicity and police scrutiny. In 1936 she was in her first film La garçonne, and began recording in earnest.
From 1940 through 1944 the Nazis occupied Paris. After the liberation, Piaf was accused of having been a collaborator. She was popular with the Germans, had performed for them, and lived well during the occupation. But (like her namesake) she had also used her position to help others escape, and in the end, she survived this controversy. In the post-war years, her popularity exploded internationally. She toured the U.S. several times, and appeared on American TV variety programs like the All-Star Revue, and The Ed Sullivan Show (eight separate times). Unlike contemporaries such as Maurice Chevalier and Yves Montand (with whom she had an affair), she was not in many movies. She has a small supporting role in Jean Renoir’s French Can-Can (1955), the best known of her eight films. Her great popularity was due mostly to her mesmerizing recordings, so powerful that they transcended the barriers of language.
Like her mother, Piaf had booze and drug problems. She was only 47 when she died in October 1963, though she looked about 20 years older. Her passing definitely seems to mark the end of an era. It was now the time of the Nouvelle Vague, with May ’68 on the horizon. Now, Piaf would be about nostalgia.
Marion Cotillard got the plum role of Piaf in the popular 2007 bio-pic La Vie en rose. Also notable among the eight or so films about Piaf’s life is Claude Lelouch’s Édith et Marcel (1983), about her relationship with boxer Marcel Cerdan, the Moroccan Bomber, said to have been her one true love. Cerdan died in a plane crash in 1949.
To learn more about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous