Frank Sinatra refused when he was starting out to anglicize his name in order to broaden his appeal in what was still very much a white-bread culture, yet he went on to be universally recognized as “The Voice” of American popular music. By contrast the woman who was to become “The Voice” of French music simply did what she was told. Born Edith Giovanna Gassion in December 1915, she eventually found herself singing at the Paris cabaret owned by Louis Leplee, who determined at once that she needed a better name for the stage than the one she was born with:
“She wasn’t Russian, so Tania wouldn’t do, Leplee reflected; neither would Denise Jay or Huguette Helia. She must have a name to match what he felt as he watched her. A true Paris sparrow, she should be called La Mome Moineau, but that name was taken. Why not use the slang for sparrow, which was piaf? The singer remarked years later, ‘I was baptized for life.’ ”Indeed she was. Within only a few years her name had become the most famous in all of French music — this in the era, mind you, of Maurice Chevalier, Yves Montand and Juliet Greco — and remains so to this day. Amazon.com lists scores of albums by her, and the most popular of them enjoy sales rankings that many a young pop star would happily settle for. Her extraordinary voice remains as instantly recognizable now as it was at the peak of her career during the postwar years. Carolyn Burke, her latest biographer, reports that in France she remains “a living presence.” Since her death in 1963, “the French media have churned out magazine features, books, television specials, and films about the star, often coinciding with the anniversary of her death or the appearance of new interpreters of her repertoire. Ten years after her death, the Association of the Friends of Edith Piaf was formed and a museum of Piaf memorabilia opened; it continues to attract thousands of visitors each year.” As recently as 2007, Marion Cotilliard won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Piaf in “La Vie en Rose,” a film that of course added still more to Piaf’s legend. It is, like most legends, formidable and to a significant degree fictional. Burke acknowledges that “comparisons to Billie Holiday and Judy Garland have some merit,” inasmuch as “Piaf’s legend appears to fit the template for successful artists who pay the price in their descent into suffering caused by drink, drugs, and, in the case of women, promiscuity.” All three “died young after careers that were, to say the least, hectic.” But: “The cliche of Piaf as self-destructive waif is too rigid to allow for her complex humanity. Its morality-play version of her life neglects or completely ignores her courage in World War II, when she defied the Nazis by sheltering Jewish friends and aiding resistance efforts. In the same way, many accounts of her life say little about her mentoring of younger singers like Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour, preferring instead to shape her story by calling them ‘the men in my life’ — each of whom gets a chapter, as if her existence had been organized around theirs.” She was born in Belleville, “a defiantly independent village in the eastern heights of Paris that remained, long after its annexation to the city in 1860, a bastion of revolutionary culture.” Her father was a contortionist, and her mother, who essentially deserted the family when Edith was very young, sang in the streets, as many talented but impoverished Parisians did in those days. By the time she reached her late teens, Edith already had a baby of her own (the girl did not live long, leaving her mother permanently grief-stricken) and a growing reputation in the streets. One neighbor said: “She had a voice fit for a cathedral; it seemed to come from far away. . . . She just stood there, her feet planted on the pavement, and sang anything. . . . She just sang, as if inhabited by the music.” Never formally trained, she learned on the fly. Though she was tiny and appeared frail, she was tough; she was a hard worker and a quick study. The poet and playwright Jean Cocteau, who became one of her closest friends (but not one of her innumerable lovers), was dazzled “by the power emanating from that minuscule body” and by her “eyes of a blind person struck by a miracle, the eyes of a clairvoyant.” When she became an international star and made frequent tours of the United States, one New York reviewer wrote: “Edith Piaf never lets you down. [Her voice] hits you right in the heart. It is pulsating, penetrating, like no other I’ve heard. There were times when Piaf, in all her power, sounded like an organ and a whole orchestra combined.” By the time the war broke out she was a star, in France if not around the world. For a while she retreated to Vichy France, but Paris was her home, and she soon returned there. She fought with Nazi authorities over performing songs written by Jewish composers, winning some and losing some. She accepted German invitations to perform for French prisoners of war in Nazi stalags, but she smuggled fake IDs and other documents that enabled more than 100 men to escape. At the time, some criticized her for aiding the enemy, but after the war, when France was swept up in furious recrimination against collaborators, she was given a complete and honorable exoneration when the full story was made public. Doubtless nobody knew or knows, herself included, how many lovers she had. She always had at least one, sometimes more. “You have no idea how much I crave a calmer, gentler life,” she said. “I’m not meant to have heaps of lovers. At the end of each affair I’m more disgusted than ever. I’d like one true, wholesome love.” It seemed that she had found this in the mid-1940s with the celebrated boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, though inconveniently he was quite married with children, but this came to a terrible end with his death in 1949 in an airplane crash. Three days later she said: “I can think of only one thing, to join him. I have nothing left to live for. Singing? I sang for him. My repertoire was full of love, and you can be sure that I’ll sing my story each night. What’s more, each song reminds me of his gestures, things he said, everything reminds me of him. It was the first time I was really happy. I lived for him, he was my reason for being, for my car, my clothes, the springtime, they were all for him.” Some of Piaf’s more jaded friends thought that she “worshipped the boxer for the rest of her life because he left it when their love was at its height,” and her record of breaking off passionate alliances lends weight to that view. She continued to see men, many of them, and eventually she married a couple of them, each significantly younger than she was. There can be no doubt, though, of the centrality of love in her life. “Everything comes down to that,” she said, “love for humanity, for work, for the things one loves, just plain love between two beings.” Love is at the core of many of her greatest songs: “La vie en rose,” “Toujours aimer,” “Hymne a l’amour,” “Non, je ne regrette rien” (from which this biography takes its title), “L’accordeoniste.” It is not in the least necessary to speak French in order to feel the passion that surges through all these classics, passion the years have done nothing to diminish. Piaf has been given good service by Burke, the latest of many biographers but one of only a few writing in English and, more important, that rarity among Piaf biographers, one more interested in the truth than the legend. Achieving truth in biography is impossible, but Burke’s Piaf seems very close to the real thing.
The Life of Edith Piaf
By Carolyn Burke
Knopf. 282 pp. $27.95