She was little, and far from beautiful with her thin frizzy red hair, her Napoleonic forehead, her short neck, the painted-on eyebrows that became a trademark, the heavy-lidded yet staring eyes that seemed about to cry.
She laughed a lot in "real life," although the songs are almost all sad, telling over and over a tale of a girl abandoned, a soldier killed, a promise forgotten. Singing about the permanence of love, if not of lovers, she could bring an audience to tears by offering herself, standing in the spotlight in her plain black dress, a prime example of the helpless lover.
It is more than 20 years since she died. This tidy illustrated biography by Margaret Crosland, author of books on Colette and Cocteau, is the first one in English on Edith Piaf. Compared with Piaf's own autobiographical efforts and a very long screed by a girl named Simone Berteaut who claimed to be Piaf's half-sister, Crosland's book inspires confidence. Berteaut used the savory argot that we hear in Piaf's songs: rough, tough, but not quite to be believed.
We are grateful for Crosland's sober story, though it seems thin, a literary person's view, Piaf seen from a distance. We are indeed a long way from the era of Piaf. The nightclubs and music halls where she sang hardly exist anymore. The singing tradition in which she learned her art, a tradition that began with Yvette Guilbert, thrived on Mistinguett, and continued with Juliette Gre'co, has faded. Other singers, using a more allusive, ironic poetry, have taken over.
But Piaf had a universal sentimental appeal. She was not ironic, she did not allude. Her subject was so fundamental that anyone could throb in response.
Crosland warns of the confusion of myth and fact. She does her best to separate them. It is not exactly true that Piaf was "born on the sidewalk, delivered by two policemen"; it is not certain that she was entirely innocent in the unsolved murder of Louis Leple'e, her first sponsor.
Piaf herself used apocryphal anecdotes to compose her image, that of an unpretentious vulnerable woman singing her heart out in a hymn to love, always in contact with her emotions, never losing her roots in Belleville or her solidarity with the unsung failures. This image is an honest one, apocrypha and all. She was the girl she sang about. Crosland recognizes this: Piaf the artist was always sincere.
Add to the image the self-discipline of the professional, the determination to succeed, the success itself, which was fabulous, the love affair with her public (the show must go on, even though I am reeling with illness). Add further the self-indulgences, the alcoholism, drug addiction, reckless squandering of the vast sums she earned so that she died in debt, and finally add the parade of lovers, whom she cruelly dominated when she could, turning them into singing pupils under her wing, shrugging them off when she tired of them, manipulating and manipulated -- this too is the stuff of her art, the theme of her songs.
Although she was virtually unschooled, Cocteau and Marcel Achard admired her, wrote plays and films for her. But her real world was never the literary one -- it was the spotlight. Piaf constantly willed herself back into the limelight, though her health grew worse with each comeback and she died young, at 48.
This simple, talented woman became what Cocteau called a monstre sacre', a phenomenon, an original. Now, with Crosland's straightforward biography, English-speaking readers can get a glimpse of what she meant to France and to the world.