Édith Piaf

Édith Piaf, “La Vie en Rose”, 1956 Film “Música de Siempre”

Édith Piaf was French singer, songwriter, cabaret performer, and film actress, noted as France’s chanteuse and one of the country’s most widely known international stars. Her autobiographical songs specialized in chanson and torch ballads about. love, loss and sorrow.

Born Édith Giovanna Gassion in 1915 in Belleville, Paris, Édith Piaf was the only child of Louis-Alphonse Gassion, a highly skilled street acrobat, and Annetta Giovanna Maillard, a cafe singer of Moroccan Berber descent. When her parents’ marriage failed, Édith Piaf  lived with her paternal grandmother, who ran a brothel. At the age of seven, she joined her father, participating with him in street performances, on a traveling circus caravan to Belgium and eventually France.

Renowned for her voice even at a young age, Piaf separated from her father and became a street singer in Paris and its vicinities. In 1935,  she was discovered by Louis Leplée, the owner of the successful nightspot “Le Gerny” located on Rue Pierre- Charron. Leplée starred Piaf as “La Môme Piaf” (The Little Sparrow)”, due to her small stature and nervous energy, and ran a major publicity campaign for her opening night. Piaf’s popularity, after the successful show, enabled her to record two albums in 1935.   

After the murder of Louis Leplée in spring of 1936, Piaf worked with French lyricist Raymond Asso, who became her lover and mentor. She also worked closely with songwriter and composer Marguerite Monnot, who as a female composer of popular music in the 1930s was a pioneer in her field. Piaf commissioned songs in the style of ‘chansons réaliste’, which dealt with the lives of the French poor and working class in a realistic and emotive manner.

Édith Piaf became one of the most famous performers in France. During World War II, she went to sing for the French prisoners in Germany and posed for pictures with them. When she returned to France, Piaf had made individual passports for the prisoners, using the pictures taken in Germany during her visit. She was instrumental in helping a number of prisoners to escape. It was during these war years that Piaf wrote “La Vie en Rose”, which is remembered as her signature song.

After the war years, with her fame spreading quickly, Piaf toured Europe, the United States, and South America. In 1950 in Paris, she gave Héctor Roberto Chavero, the central figure in Argentine folk music, an opportunity to share the stage and make his debut in France. Piaf also helped launch the career of Charles Aznavour, whose songwriting and distinctive tenor voice would span seventy years, making him one of France’s most popular performers. In 1962 she married singer and actor Théo Sarapo, birth name of Theophanis Lamboukas, who would sing with Piaf in some of her last engagements.

Bruno Coquatrix’s famous Paris Olympia opera hall is where Édith Piaf achieved lasting fame, giving a series of concerts at the hall, the most famous venue in Paris, between 1955 and 1962. Excerpts of these concerts were issued on record and CD, and have never been out of print. Piaf debuted her song “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” at the 1961 concert in the opera hall, which she had promoted to financially save the venue. Her final recorded song was “L’Homme de Berlin”, in April of 1963.

Édith Piaf’s life, while containing fame and fortune, also had many tragedies. The love of her life, legendary French boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash of an Air France flight in October of 1929, while traveling to meet her. In 1951, Piaf was severely injured in a car crash, breaking an arm and two ribs, the resulting trauma leading to difficulties with alcohol and morphine addictions. Two more near-fatal car crashes followed, worsening the situation. After a series of surgeries in 1959, Piaf’s health, seriously affected by her alcohol use and medications,  deteriorated further; by 1962,  her weight had dropped to 30 kg or 66 pounds. 

Édith Piaf died of an aneurysm due to liver failure at age forty-seven while residing at her villa in Plascassier on the Riviera, on October 10, 1963. She is buried at the family gravesite in  Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The name inscribed at the foot of the tombstone is Famille Gassion-Piaf. Her name is engraved on the side as Madame Lamboukas dite Édith Piaf. 

Denied a funeral Mass by Cardinal Maurice Feltin because of her lifestyle, her funeral procession drew tens of thousands to the streets of Paris; the ceremony at the cemetery drew one hundred thousand fans, Fifty years after her death, the Roman Catholic Church recanted and gave Piaf a memorial Mass in the St. Jean-Baptiste Church in Belleville, Paris, the parish into which she was born.

Note: The video footage behind the song includes a travel film of her vacation in Mexico entitled “Édith Piaf Au Mexique, Film de Voyage”. It should be noted that Édith Piaf sings “La Vie en Rose” in Spanish in this color video footage. This is a rarity; there are no other known films of Pilaf singing in Spanish.

Leave a Reply