The swinging sixties get a lot of credit as the age of liberation and progress, but in Europe, between the wars, a budding bohemian revolution was already underway to such a rabid extent that it often descended into decadent oblivion. Berlin in the mid-1920s was a cesspit of hedonism that would even make David Bowie at his rock ‘n’ roll pinnacle blush with prudence. Bob Dylan may have sung “the times, they are a’changing” but Édith Piaf and the likes had already stubbed out the smouldering cares of the past under a sauntering heel, and was lighting up the future with a phosphorescent flare of unapologetic bravura.
This heady scene of sexual liberation and skylarking heathenry flowed over from Berlin into the kaleidoscopic scene of Parisian café culture. The streets were awash with artistry, an atmospheric zeitgeist of sanguine spring following the dark winter of the war, and all those things that money can’t buy like poverty. However, as with anything that shines brightly, there is always a shadowy underbelly.
Louis Leplée was considered the prince of the Montemarte homosexual subculture. His cabaret Le Gerny’s in Pigalle was a renowned hotbed of gay prostitution, blackmail and bribery. It also happened to be the place where Édith Piaf got her start.
As the legend goes, Leplée discovered the enigmatic Piaf performing on a Parisian street corner, back in 1935. He instantly recognised her soul-baring brilliance, signed her up and unveiled her to the luminous Parisian underworld with the stage name of La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow).
On the morning of April 6th, 1936, Leplée was murdered in his own apartment. Official dossiers from the time describe a statement from his housekeeper who claimed that in the dead of night four men forced their way into the apartment via brute force and shot Leplée dead while he slept. The men then proceeded to ransack his house in search of 20,000 Franks that they failed to find.
In the following days, the police would storm Le Genry’s in a public show of force and Piaf would be arrested while the press snapped pictures. Piaf had ascended to lofty heights of fame just to see her celestial star plucked from the plastic firmament of celebrity and plunged into the depths of press-driven despair, all within a year of being discovered from a lowly street corner.
The Little Sparrow was endlessly questioned by the police and accused of accessory to murder. Leplée had been killed by mobsters with ties to Piaf and the police believed that they had acted under her command. There was absolutely no evidence to support this and the star was acquitted, but not before her name had become entrenched in a melee of besmirching headlines. One Parisian publication, Police Magazine, issue #282 published on 19th of April, 1936, ran the sarcastically scathing headline, “The little sparrow, in her repertoire of street songs with her gestures of a little girl beaten, a pale kid who rose up from the cobblestones,” along with a picture of her being marched along by the police. The scuff-kneed sincerity of her dignified performance was now publically being jeered as an ironic act.
With her career in disarray, she recruited the famed French lyricist Raymond Asso in a bid to restore her image. He changed her stage name to “Édith Piaf”, barred undesirable acquaintances from seeing her, and commissioned Marguerite Monnot to write songs that reflected or alluded to Piaf’s previous life on the streets in a proclamation of defiance.
Edith Piaf may well have had no part in the regrettable murder of Louis Leplée, which remains unsolved to this day, but it proved to be a pivotal moment in her career. Her life was one that continually met with suffering and hardship which she bore with a shrug of hard-fought resilience and used the power of performance to transfigure into the absolved beauty of music. Songs like, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ see Piaf reach into the ether and seize upon something indefinably vital that she propagated in a soaring career of light and shade – a monochrome existence of sufferance and exultation that reflected in the war-torn world around her. Her early songs were played to alleviate the torment of battle in World War Two, and quite frankly making music like that is simply not possible without deliverance and justice stoking the flames of performance.