Coming from Quebec as I do, I have always heard of Edith Piaf who could be called France’s number one diva. However, I never really knew much about her and figured it would be a good time to write about her now. Edith Piaf blends in well with my women’s issues column where I find as many women as I can to celebrate womanhood.
Edith Piaf lived from December 1915 – 10 October 1963; she was an international star. She sang personal songs; ballads about happiness and sorrow. I respect her even more as I research her.
She sang La Vie en Rose (1946) and Non, je ne regrette rien. – I don’t regret anything. La Vie en Rose is especially significant for me because my grandmother used to sing that song to me when she was rocking me to sleep when I was a little girl.
Her early life
Edith Piaf had a mysterious life still hidden to the public. There is a rumor that she was born on one of the streets of Paris while as her birth certificate does say she was born in Hôpital Tenon on December 19, 1915. This would place her in France during the second world war. Her real name was Édith Giovanna Gassion. She was named Edith in honor of a British nurse Edith Cavell who was executed by the Germans because she helped the English in the first world war. Piaf which she took as her professional name is french slang for sparrow.
Edith’s father was a street performer, and acrobat. Edith’s mother went by the name of Line Marsa and was a cafe singer. Edith’s mother abandoned her at birth and so Edith was sent to live with her maternal grandmother. When her father enlisted in World War 1. He brought his little girl to live with his mother who ran a bordello in Normandy. Edith was raised by prostitutes and as a child she thought that with any girl when a man came a calling the girl never refused. Edith was said to be blind from the age of three to seven years old and only recovered her sight after a pilgrimage honouring Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.
She became a street acrobat performer at the age of 14 and met her half sister there as well. The two of them took a room together and in 1929 she met and married Louis Dupont. The three of them lived together in the room but her husband was not happy with this arrangement. Louis didn’t like her working on the streets so she finally took a job in a factory making wreaths until her pregnancy.
After her pregnancy
After the child was born Edith was back on the streets again. However, she had no mother instincts as she never had a mother to care for her. She left Louis and he took custody of the little girl until she died at the age of two.
Edith started singing in a nightclub in 1935 and that was where she got her nickname little sparrow. The nickname suited her well for she was a short woman. She also wore black which was to become her signature. The nightclub owner was killed in 1936 by mobsters and Edith Piaf was implicated though she was acquitted. The negative media coverage remained though and she was always held suspect by the public.
The occupation of Paris
Edith Piaf still performed through the occupation of Paris in 1940. She made friends with celebrities such as the great Maurice Chevalier. She had an affair with the famous actor Yves Montand. She broke off the relationship once Yves was almost as big a celebrity as she was. Edith was very popular during the war and after the war she became an international singing star. She appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show eight times and at Carnegie Hall twice (1956).”
At one time she again was in trouble with the authorities. This time she was accused of being a traitor to her country and a collaborator for Germany. A member of the French resistance testified on her behalf and she was cleared of all charges. He said that her efforts were solely to free the french occupied soldiers.
After her car accident
Edith Piaf had a car crash in 1951 that left her so heavily medicated that she could not sing. Edith married in 1952 divorced in 1957 and married again in 1962.
The beautiful voice of this beautiful french singer was silenced for good. Edith Piaf died of liver cancer in 1963. She was 47 years old. She was denied a Roman Catholic burial because of her less than perfect lifestyle she had thousands of mourners at the funeral service. Her graveside is one of the most visited in France today.
Numerous songs by Edith Piaf are used in films and other media. Films such as Saving Private Ryan, Inception, Bull Durham, La Haine, The Dreamers the animated film, Madagascar 3 and the Egyptian movie The Yacoubian Building all have Piaf’s songs in them. Love Me If You Dare pays tribute to her song La Vie En Rose by including various versions of the song in its soundtrack.
Musicians have paid tribute to her by covering her songs, for instance Johnny, tu n’es pas un ange was covered by Vaya Con Dios on their debut album.
The little sparrow may have passed on but she is still greatly loved in France and Quebec.