May 22, 2011
If it was Sunday night, I wanted to see Señor Wences. I did not want to see Edith Piaf, who turned up from time to time on Ed Sullivan’s TV show, “Toast of the Town.” It was all a part of being young and ignorant. I later learned to appreciate what an astounding singer Piaf was, but I knew nothing of her background before reading Carolyn Burke’s recent biography.
Piaf had a rough life in many respects. She was born in 1915 in a poor part of Paris to nearly indigent parents – her father an acrobat named Louis Gassion and her mother a drug-addicted street singer whose professional name, as it were, was Line Marsa. Louis and Line separated and Line played almost no part in Edith’s life except to occasionally surface and ask for money — which Edith usually provided. Louis took responsibility for his daughter, although that meant, for a time, that he left her to live in a brothel that was managed by his mother. He later reclaimed the girl and took her “on the road” with him — first while he performed with a circus and then when he returned to the streets. Edith had to work, keeping house, passing the hat when Louis performed on the street, and eventually singing for coins herself.
When she was 16, Edith convinced her father to let her live on her own, but she maintained a close relationship with him for the rest of his life, which eventually meant supporting him. As a result of one of the first of a very long string of romantic and/or sexual relationships, she bore a child, a girl, who died at the age of two — an experience that affected Edith for the rest of her life. She gradually developed as a singer on the street and in Paris dives, but her career took off after she was discovered by a shady character named Louis Léplee, who booked her in his cabaret and taught her some things about performing before the public. He also dubbed her “piaf” — “sparrow” — because of her stature (4’10″) and her bird-like gestures.
Edith Piaf specialized in chasons réaliste, songs of realism that expressed the sorrows of the lower class — including the prostitutes, beggars, and love-starved sailors who were among the singer’s earliest acquaintances. Frustrated love was a constant theme in these songs and in Edith Piaf’s life.
In addition to having a powerful and expressive voice, Edith Piaf was a prolific songwriter, creating the lyrics for many of the songs she introduced. Many of her love affairs were with men in whom she also had an artistic interest, and she played the mentor to them, demanding almost excruciatingly hard work but, almost without exception, helping them to solidify their careers. Edith herself became a star in several media in both hemispheres — night clubs, movies, records, radio, and television.
Edith Piaf lived in France during the World War II period, and was criticized in her own time by people who thought she was too accommodating to the German occupation. But Burke reports that the singer was instrumental in helping Jewish friends hide from the Nazis and that she irritated the Nazis, perhaps deliberately, by singing the work of a Jewish songwriter. But Edith was even bolder than that, by Burke’s account. She agreed to visit French soldiers who were being held in prisons in Germany, and she made a point of being photographed with them. Then she returned, as part of a plot by the French Resistance, and slipped some of those soldiers false identification that included their faces cropped from those photos. Some 188 of those men escaped, using those fake credentials.
It’s an understatement to say that Edith Piaf didn’t take care of herself. She worked very hard, both in rehearsals and in a hectic schedule of bookings, partly because of the cost of maintaining not only her own lifestyle but also a coterie of friends, hangers-on, and just plain cheats, whom she deliberately cultivated as a sort of salon. She drank heavily and she became dependent on a complex of pain killers — for debilitating arthritis — sleeping pills, and uppers. This regimen apparently contributed to the ruin of her liver which in turn caused her death in 1963.
The poet Jean Cocteau — a close friend of the singer — described Edith Piaf as a genius and called her “this astonishing little person.” “A voice rises up from deep within,” he wrote, “a voice that inhabits her from head to toe, unfolding like a wave of warm black velvet to submerge us, piercing through us, getting right inside us. The illusion is complete. Edith Piaf, like an invisible nightingale on her branch, herself becomes invisible. There is just her gaze, her pale hands, her waxen forehead catching the light, and the voice that swells, mounts up, and gradually replaces her.”
For a good example of that voice, click HERE.