“I want to make people cry even when they don’t understand my words.” – Edith Piaf
The French chanteuse Edith Piaf did the above effortlessly, without a doubt. Her melodic whisper “Je vois la vie en rose” into the listeners’ ears mesmerised them into a dreamy state in which they saw life only through rose-tinted glasses. A boundless free soul, Piaf worked her way up through the ranks of the entertainment industry with nothing less than pure talent and an alluring persona. “Singing is a way of escaping. It’s another world. I’m no longer on earth,” said Piaf, carrying her listeners with her on this heavenly journey but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a hellish side too.
Born Édith Giovanna Gassion, she didn’t have the luxury of listening to and practising quality music. Her childhood was spent in a daze of confusion where she was made to shuffle between homes frequently after her mother abandoned her. She grew up with her paternal grandmother in a brothel in Normandy, being keenly looked after by the prostitutes that worked and boarded there. The darkness within her and in her life was just not metaphorical; it was literal too.
Piaf suffered from Keratitis between the age of three to seven which blinded her temporarily. She later said, “I always thought my days spent in darkness gave me a very special sensitivity. Much later, when I really wanted to hear, really ‘see’ a song, I’d close my eyes, and when I wanted to bring it out of the very depths of myself, out of my guts, out of my belly, when the song has to come from far away, I’d close my eyes.”
She was taken away by her father when she was just 14-years-old and travelled all over France taking part in his acrobatic performances. Soon, Piaf started singing on the streets, benefiting the warm company of Simone ‘Mômone’ Berteaut who, it was speculated, was her half-sister. However, the freedom-bug had stung her so hard that she found it challenging to settle down in one place with her then-boyfriend Louis Dupont after their daughter Marcell was born.
The singer despised the motherhood that was forced upon her and claimed that having no previous example of good parenting, she too would fail to fulfil her duty. So, Piaf followed the example of her mother and left her child with financial support in place of emotional comfort. The damage it caused is not for us to comment on but it’s certainly not the brightest moments in a glittering career.
Piaf led a frivolous life of booze, clubs and performing as an attempt lighten up her inner darkness. She pinned the blame for her sexual promiscuousness on her childhood influences, saying, “I thought that when a boy called a girl, the girl would never refuse.” Though she had numerous partners, she didn’t let anyone take control of her and her life. In other words, she didn’t let anyone come between herself and her freedom: “I was hungry, I was cold but I was also free. Free not to get up in the morning, not to go to bed at night, free to get drunk if I like, free to dream…to hope.”
It was the Le Gerny nightclub’s owner Louis Lepelee who took Piaf away from the streets and launched her as his club’s singer. Owning to her small stature, he named her ‘La Môme Piaf’, a Parisian slang meaning ‘a little sparrow.’ Dressed in her trademark black apparel, Piaf bedazzled commoners and celebrities alike who frequented the club. After Leplee’s death, Piaf went on to collaborate with Raymond Asso who changed her stage name to Edith Piaf due to some controversies regarding Leplee’s passing. Though she became a world-class performer and recording artist, she worked a great deal to popularise cabaret music.
One noticeable blockage in her journey came when she was put on a public trial for allegedly working in collaboration with the Germans during the sordid days of the German occupation of France. It is true that she performed in clubs frequented by Germans and also went to Berlin on a concert tour being sponsored by the German officials. However, her secretary Andrée Bigard, who was a Resistance fighter himself, spoke in her support, claiming that she performed at the prisoner of war camps in Germany and also helped many prisoners to escape.
After the Second World War, she toured Europe and went to America for the first time. Though she received a lukewarm response initially from the audience there, a review in the New York Herald Tribune by the influential Virgil Thomson changed the nation’s attitude towards her.
After a long and successful career, Piaf died in 1963 due to a ruptured aneurysm and liver failure that stemmed from an excessive amount of alcohol abuse throughout her life. What she left behind was her indomitable spirit that echoed: “Don’t care what people say. Don’t give a damn about their laws” and inspired many to do the same.