Edith Piaf

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Biography of Edith Piaf, one of the most famous French singers of the 20th century. She had a very peculiar and exceptional voice, sometimes torn.

Many songs from the world-famous francophone repertoire are owed to her; such as “La vie en rose” and “Non, je ne regrette rien“.

This brilliant singer inspired many composers; and she was the mentor of young artists who achieved international fame.

She was also an outstanding film and theater actress. Her popular fame was contemporary with that of Violeta Parra, from Chile; and later with that of Mercedes Sosa, from Argentina.

Childhood and family of singer Edith Piaf

She was born in Paris on December 19, 1915, in the middle of the First World War.

Her father Louis Alphonse Gassion was an acrobat.

Her mother, Annetta Maillard, of Italian-Berber origin, was a traveling singer.

To celebrate Edith’s impending birth, Louis Alphonse Gassion got drunk and ran away from home.

With no support from anyone, Annetta had to face the delivery on her own.

She walked out of the house, but was unable to reach the hospital.

Edith Piaf was born in the middle of the street, under a lamppost, opposite 72 Belleville Street in Paris.

In a corner of Belleville Street, Edith Piaf was born in 1915. Credit: web parisinfo.com

The beginnings of Edith Piaf’s life

Annetta was too poor and had no means of raising her little Edith.

The girl passed into the hands of the maternal grandmother, Mrs. Emma, of Moroccan origin.

This good lady, instead of bottle-feeding her, fed her wine.

Grandmother was convinced that nothing better than wine, to kill microbes.

Happily, Grandma Emma felt unable to continue raising Edith and managed to hand her over to her father, Louis Alphonse.

But, this one was about to go to the front in the First World War; and Edith ended up with her paternal grandmother, who ran a prostitution house in Bernay, Normandy.

In short, that the girl Edith was raised by the prostitutes of the house.

Bernay is in the heart of Normandy, 150 km from Paris. Credit: web france-voyage.com

Edith Piaf’s beginnings as a traveling artista

At the end of the First World War, Edith’s father returned from the front and took her with him to live the life of the artists of the small traveling circuses for a time.

Then he went with her to follow the life of the traveling artist.

Edith revealed her talent and her exceptional voice, singing on the streets with her father, just as her mother used to do.

Edith Piaf’s beginnings as a freelance Singer

In 1929 Edith was 14 years old and was still known as Edith Gassion.

The “little sparrow,” as they would call it, soon began to spread her wings.

With her friend Simone Berteaut, she walked the streets of the Belleville neighborhood in her spare time, singing songs and receiving money.

In the mid-1930s, she had saved enough to leave her father and rent a room at “rue Véron, 18”; in the Montmartre neighborhood.

In a humble guest house, originally built for the workers who built the Sacré-Cœur Basilica.

Veron Street
Veron street, in Montmartre. Credit: web francetoday.com

She made her own life as a singer, brightening up the day for the walkers of Place Pigalle and touring the suburbs of Paris, looking for a street auditorium.

Edith Piaf wife and mother in 1933

In 1933, she fell in love with an errand boy, Louis Dupont.

Soon after, she had her only daughter with her, a girl named Marcelle, who died at the age of two from meningitis.

Place Pigalle
View of the Place Pigalle in Paris, in 2009. Credit: Wikimedia. Vitold Muratov.

Edith Piaf’s first professional steps

In 1936, already 21 years old, Edith was quite well known and admired.

The record company Polydor offered her a contract and recorded her first album: “Les Mômes de la cloche“, (“The Children of the Bell”).

The album was immediately popularly popular.

But in April of that year, Louis Leplée, the owner of the cabaret where Edith Piaf worked, was murdered in his own home.

The scandal and the bad reputation of the Parisian neighborhood of Pigalle, affected the artist’s work. At the moment, she had to return to the streets and to the small cabarets.

Happily, she met the great lyricist Raymond Asso, who became her protector, trainer, and lover.

He wrote a large number of songs for her and helped her become a professional singer in the Music hall.

Edith Piaf, singer of “music-hall”

In March 1937, she debuted in the “music-hall” genre at the “ABC Theater” in Paris.

The triumph was tremendous and from that day Edith was a star of the French song, adored by the public; her songs were broadcast on the radio.

In 1940, Edith Piaf triumphed in the “Bobino”, famous “music hall” located in the “rive gauche” and whose prestige increased since Edith Piaf started singing there.

Then Georges Brassens, Barbara Streisand and Josephine Baker passed by.

Edith’s debut was with a piece written especially for her by Jean Cocteau, called “Le Bel Indiférent“, which she performed with great success, along with actor Paul Meurisse.

The following year, in 1941, with Paul Meurisse as co-star, Edith Piaf was the lead actress in Georges Lacombe’s film “Montmartre-sur-Seine”.

During the filming of that feature film, Edith met Henri Contet, who was since then one of her favorite authors.

Edith Piaf during the German occupation of Paris

During the German occupation in Paris, the singer changed her stage name Edith Gassion for “Edith Piaf”; and she continued to give concerts, despite the Nazi invasion.

In this difficult period for all the inhabitants of France, Edith Piaf turned to the protection of the Jewish artists, who were in constant danger of being arrested.

Thousands of people from France and Europe, also from Germany, risked their lives to save those of the persecuted Jews.

One of them was Suzanne Noël, a great plastic surgeon from Paris, who saved dozens of Jews, modifying her features.

In the spring of 1944, at the Moulin Rouge she met Yves Montand; the then young singer was part of the show. A crush occurred between the two artists.

Yves Montand
Yves Montand at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. Credit: Wikimedia. George Biard

Edith Piaf after World War

When the war ended, in 1945, Edith Piaf wrote the lyrics for “La vie en rose”, her most famous song. She performed it for the first time in the “Comédie-Française”.

Yves Montand became a music-hall star. He debuted in the cinema with Edith Piaf in the film “Étoile sans lumière“.

Later, both went on tour in 1946; this tour over, they parted ways.

Edith Piaf ended the year 1946, interpreting “Les Trois Cloches“, with the group “Les Compagnons de la Chanson“. With the triumph of this song on her lips, she went on tour to the United States, in 1947.

Sentimental life of singer Edith Piaf

In 1948, while on a triumphant tour of New York, she experienced her great love story.

The lucky one was Marcel Cerdan, a French boxer of Algerian origin. Marcel Cerdan had won the world middleweight championship on September 21, 1948.

Cerdan is the only French member of the International Boxing Show.

Edith Piaf Marcel Cerdan
Edith Piaf and Marcel Cerdan in 1949. Credit: web pinterest.es Ariela Kimchi

Disgrace fell on Edith Piaf, on October 28, 1949, when Marcel Cerdan was traveling to meet her; he died in the plane crash of the flight from Paris to New York.

Edith sang her great hit “Hymne à l’amour” in her memory. Since then, Edith Piaf always wore black.

This courtship had not even lasted two years and originated the film “Edith et Marcel“, by director Claude Lelouche, which was released in 1983.

In 1951 Edith Piaf hired young singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour as secretary, assistant, driver, and confidant. Aznavour wrote some of the best songs for her, such as “Plus bleu que tes yeux“.

On July 29, 1952, Edith married the famous French singer Jacques Pills, in New York City. Marlene Dietrich was one of the witnesses.

Pianist Gilbert Bécaud and Jacques Pills had written the lyrics for “Je t’ai dans la peau” for Edith Piaf.

In 1956, Edith Piaf was praised the world over, as a great music-hall star.

Especially in the United States, where she triumphed at the “Carnegie Hall” in New York. She frequently returned to New York, where she had started a morphine detoxification cure.

She had started a love story with Georges Moustaki whom Edith helped to enter the world of song.

At his side she had a serious automobile accident, the year 1958; this worsened Edith’s already deteriorated state of health.

Her dependence on morphine, which had started when her great love, boxer Marcel Cerdan, also increased.

George Moustaki
George Moustaki at an album gala, in 1974. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Archibald Tattle

Health deterioration and death of Edith Piaf

In 1959, while on stage during a tour in New York, Edith collapsed.

She had to endure numerous surgical operations. She returned to Paris in a poor state of health.

In France, she had the joy of seeing the huge success of her song “Milord“.

Carnegie Hall New York
The Carnegie Hall in New York. Credit: Creative Commons. Martin Dürrschnabel

At the request of the owner of the Paris Olympia hall, in 1961 she offered a series of concerts, perhaps the most memorable and emotional of her career.

Olympia Paris was threatened with disappearance due to serious financial problems.

Since Edith Piaf performed her new song “Non, je ne regrette rien” there, the audience was so large that Olympia was saved from bankruptcy.

The brave “Paris sparrow” as she was called was very ill at the time. She was able to move and sing thanks to large doses of morphine.

On October 9, 1962, at 46 years old, very tired and sick, she married the singer Theo Sarapo.

Theo was young and handsome, he was 26 years old. Theo and Edith sang a duet, among other songs, “À quoi ça sert l’amour“, what is love for?

At the beginning of 1963, Edith recorded her last song “L’Homme de Berlin”, written by Francis Lai and M. Vendôme.

The great Edith Piaf died on October 11, 1963, at the age of 47, from liver cancer.

Shortly thereafter, on the same day, her friend the filmmaker Jean Cocteau died.

Upon learning of Edith Piaf’s death, Jean Cocteau had said: “The ship has just sunk. This is my last day on this earth. I have never known a being more detached from her soul. She did not give up her soul, she gave away, she threw gold out the windows“.

Her burial took place in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, with the tribute of a huge crowd of admirers.

Since the Second World War traffic in the entire city had not been stopped in this way.

Despite her Catholic faith, she was denied religious funerals because of her divorced status.

However, the theater and music chaplain, Father Villaret Thouvenin, gave her the final blessing, in the presence of a huge crowd of admirers.

In the Père-Lachaise cemetery, Edith Piaf rests with her father, Louis Alphonse Gassion and her daughter Marcelle, who died in 1935 at the age of 2 years. Her last husband, Theo Sarapo, who died seven years after Edih Piaf’s death, is buried with her in the same grave.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.

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