The Tragic Life of Édith Piaf
Last night I went to the Théâtre Dejazet in the 3rd Arrondissement of Paris to see Piaf, Une Vie en Rose et Noir with Jacques Pessis and Nathalie Lhermitte as Édith Piaf. The title is of course a reference to her well known song Une Vie en Rose.
I well knew that Édith Piaf led a difficult life but it was not until I researched before last evening and saw the show that I knew really how difficult it really was. Here are some points from the tragic life of Édith Piaf.
- Legend has it that Édith Giovanna Gassion was born on the pavement in front of 72 rue de Belleville, but her birth certificate states she was born in a Belleville hospital in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. She was named Édith after the executed British nurse Edith Cavell
- Her mother was a 17-year-old girl, native of Italy, who worked as a café singer. Her father was a street performer. She was abandoned by her parents shortly after birth and was given to her maternal grandmother.
- Returning a short time later, her father took the child and brought her to his mother, who ran a cheap brothel in Normandy, France. He then joined the army to fight in WWI.
- From the age of three to seven Édith was blind. She reportedly recovered her sight after her grandmother's prostitutes pooled money to send her on a pilgrimage honoring Saint Thérèse de Lisieux
- From eight to fourteen Édith was deaf
- Édith suffered from severe Androgenetic alopecia or male pattern baldness most of her life
- In 1929, age 14, Édith left the brothel and joined her father in his acrobatic street performances
- She soon separated from her father, going her own way as a street singer in Pigalle, Ménilmontant, and the Paris suburbs
- When she was about 16 years of age when she fell in love with a delivery-boy, Louis Dupont, and shortly after had a child, a little girl named Marcelle. Sadly, Marcelle died in infancy of meningitis.
- In 1935, at the age of 20, Édith was discovered by a nightclub owner in the neighborhood Pigalle and changed her last name to Piaf, a nickname for little sparrow because of her small size. Her first record was produced in the same year but shortly afterwards, the nightclub owner was murdered and Piaf was accused of being an accessory. She refused to testify but was later acquitted.
- Édith met and fell deeply in love with the boxer Marcel Cerdan. Later in 1949, Édith wanted that he join her as soon as possible in New York where she was on tour. Edith insisted that he take a plane rather than travel by ship. He was reluctant, fearing air travel but finally he agreed. The plane crashed into a mountainside in the Azores and all aboard were lost. Piaf never recovered from the loss of her love and took refuge in drugs and alcohol.
- Édith Piaf never sang the obvious rhymes amours and toujours, "love" and "always".
- Édith started detoxification in 1953 and started to travel throughout the world.
- Piaf married in 1952 her first husband who was a singer. They divorced in 1956.
- In 1958 she was in a serious car accident and took morphine for pain and relapsed into drug and alcohol abuse.
- In 1959, Édith broke down during a performance in New York and thereafter survived a number of operations. She returned to Paris in poor health.
- Édith met her second husband, Théo Sarapo, in the winter of 1961. Théo was a twenty-six-year-old hairdresser-turned-singer and actor, and was twenty years younger than Piaf. They married in 1962. He rejuvenated her enough to make her last recordings and performances.
- Piaf went to a small town in the South of France in early 1963 to recuperate but she fell in and out of a coma beginning in April 1963. At the early age of 47 on October 10, 1963, Édith Piaf died of cancer. Her husband Théo discretely drove her body back to Paris and announced her death on October 11, 1963.
- Upon hearing of her death, Édith's long-time friend, Jacques Cocteau suffered a cardiac arrest and died.
- The Roman Catholic Church denied Édith Piaf a funeral mass because of her lifestyle.
- Piaf was buried in cemetery Père Lachaise on October 14, 1963.
- Théo Sarapo, Édith's husband died in an automobile accident in 1970 and is buried beside Piaf in Père Lachaise.
Despite the dramatic and tragic life of Édith Piaf, she found worldwide success and was loved by everyone. The day of her funeral in Paris there were 400,000 people in the streets of Paris and 80,000 people at cemetery Père Lachaise. Charles Aznavour recalled that Piaf's funeral procession was the only time, since the end of World War II that all Parisian traffic came to a complete stop.
Édith Piaf's songs are still popular. Her recordings have been re-mastered and have brisk sales. Her songs have been sung by international artists like Louis Armstrong, Joséphine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Johnny Hallyday, Serge Gainsbourg, Liza Minnelli, and recently Etienne Daho. In 1997 Charles Aznavour made a virtual recording with her. Theatre productions like Piaf, Une Vie en Rose et Noir are common. Last night, the audience sang along with Édith Piaf's character. More than forty years after her death, everyone knew the lyrics by heart.
Here is her song L’hymne à l'amour that she dedicated to the love of her life, Marcel Cerdan.