Édith Piaf

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Édith Piaf
Édith Piaf.jpg
Background information
Birth nameÉdith Giovanna Gassion
Also known asLa Môme Piaf
(The Little Sparrow)
torch songs
Occupation(s)Singer, songwriter, actress
Years active1935 – 1963

Édith Piaf, born Édith Giovanna Gassion (19 December 1915 - 10 October 1963), was a French singer and cultural icon of partly Algerian and Italian descent[2][3][4] who "is almost universally regarded as France's greatest popular singer."[5] Her singing reflected her life, with her specialty being ballads. Among her songs are "La vie en rose" (1946), "Hymne à l'amour" (1949), "Milord" (1959), "Non, je ne regrette rien" (1960), "l'Accordéoniste" (1941), "Padam...Padam", and "La Foule".

Early life

Despite numerous biographies, much of Piaf's life is shrouded in mystery.[6] She was born Giovanna Edith Gassion[7] in Belleville, Paris, a high-immigration district. Legend has it that she was born on the pavement of Rue de Belleville 72, but her birth certificate cites the Hôpital Tenon,[8] the hospital for the 20th arrondissement of which Belleville is part.

She was named Édith after the World War I British nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed for helping French soldiers escape from German captivity.[9] Piaf—a Francilien colloquialism for "sparrow"—originated as a nickname she would receive 20 years later.

Her mother, Annetta Giovanna Maillard (1895–1945), was a pied noir of French-Italian descent on her father's side and of Kabyle Berber origin on her mother's. She was a native of Livorno, a port city on the western edge of Tuscany, Italy. She worked as a café singer under the name Line Marsa.[8]

Louis-Alphonse Gassion (1881–1944), Édith's father, was a Norman street acrobat[10] with a past in the theatre. Édith's parents soon abandoned her, and she lived for a short time with her Kabyle maternal grandmother, Emma (Aïcha) Saïd ben Mohammed (1876–1930). Before he enlisted with the French Army in 1916 to fight in World War I, her father took her to his mother, who ran a brothel in Normandy. There, prostitutes helped look after Piaf.[5]

From the age of three to seven, Piaf was allegedly blind as a result of keratitis. According to one of her biographies, she recovered her sight after her grandmother's prostitutes pooled money to send her on a pilgrimage honoring Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, resulting in a miraculous healing.

In 1929, at 14, she joined her father in his acrobatic street performances all over France, where she first sang in public.[5]

She took a room at Grand Hôtel de Clermont (18 rue Veron, Paris 18ème) and separated from him, going her own way as a street singer in Pigalle, Ménilmontant, and the Paris suburbs (cf. the song "Elle fréquentait la Rue Pigalle").

She joined her friend Simone Berteaut ("Mômone")[8] in this endeavor, and the two became lifelong partners in mischief.[5] She was about 16 when she fell in love with Louis Dupont, a delivery boy.[5]

At 17, she had her only child, a girl named Marcelle, who died of meningitis at age two.[10] Like her mother, Piaf found it difficult to care for a child while living a life of the streets, so she often left Marcelle behind while she was away, and Dupont raised the child until the death at age two.[5]

Piaf's next boyfriend was a pimp named Albert who took a commission from the money she made singing in exchange for not forcing her into prostitution. One of her friends, a girl named Nadia, killed herself when faced with the thought of becoming a prostitute, and Albert nearly shot Piaf when she ended the relationship in reaction to Nadia's death.[5]

Singing career

In 1935 Piaf was discovered in the Pigalle area of Paris[5] by the nightclub owner Louis Leplée,[7] whose club Le Gerny off the Champs-Élysées[10] was frequented by the upper and lower classes alike. He persuaded her to sing despite her extreme nervousness, which, combined with her height of only 1.42m (4'8"),[8][11] inspired him to give her the nickname that would stay with her for the rest of her life and serve as her stage name, La Môme Piaf[7] (The Waif Sparrow, The Little Sparrow or Kid Sparrow in Parigot slang).[5] Leplée taught her the basics of stage presence and told her to wear a black dress which would later become her trademark apparel.[5] Leplée ran a large publicity campaign prior to her opening night, which resulted in celebrities including actor Maurice Chevalier attending the opening.[5] Her nightclub gigs led to her first two records produced that same year,[11] with one of them penned by Marguerite Monnot, a collaborator throughout Piaf's life.[5]

On 6 April 1936,[5] Leplée was murdered and Piaf was questioned in the matter and accused of being an accessory, but she was acquitted.[7] He had been killed by mobsters with previous ties to Piaf.[12] This resulted in much negative media attention directed towards Piaf,[8] which threatened her career.[5] To rehabilitate her image, she recruited Raymond Asso, with whom she would also become romantically involved. He changed her stage name to "Édith Piaf", barred her undesirable acquaintances from seeing her, and commissioned Monnot to write songs that reflected or alluded to Piaf's previous life on the streets.[5]

In 1940, Édith co-starred in Jean Cocteau's successful one-act play Le Bel Indifférent.[5] She began to become friends with prominent people, such as Chevalier and the poet Jacques Borgeat. She wrote the lyrics of many of her songs and collaborated with composers on the tunes. In 1944, Édith Piaf discovered Yves Montand in Paris, made him part of her act, and became his mentor[8] and lover.[12] Within a year, he became one of the most famous singers in France, and she broke off their relationship when he had become almost as popular as she was.[5]

During this time, she was in great demand and very successful in Paris[7] as France's most popular entertainer.[11] After the war, she became known internationally,[7] touring Europe, the United States, and South America. In Paris, she gave Atahualpa Yupanqui (Héctor Roberto Chavero)—the most important Argentine musician of folklore—the opportunity to share the scene, making debut in July 1950. She helped to launch the career of Charles Aznavour in the early 1950s, taking him on tour with her in France and the United States and recording some of his songs.[5] At first she met with little success with U.S. audiences, who regarded her as downcast.[5] After a glowing review by a prominent New York critic, though, she met with better success[5] and her popularity in the United States was such that she appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show eight times and at Carnegie Hall twice (1956[10] and 1957).

Édith Piaf's signature song "La vie en rose"[5] was written in 1945 and was voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998.

The legendary Paris Olympia concert hall is where Piaf achieved lasting fame, giving several series of concerts at the hall, the most famous venue in Paris,[8] between January 1955 and October 1962. Excerpts from five of these concerts (1955, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962) were issued on record and CD and have never been out of print. The 1961 concerts were promised by Piaf in an effort to save the venue from bankruptcy and where she debuted her song "Non, je ne regrette rien".[8] In April 1963, Piaf recorded her last song, "L'homme de Berlin".

World War II

During World War II, she was a frequent performer at German Forces social gatherings in occupied France, and many considered her a traitor; following the war she stated that she had been working for the French Resistance. While there is no evidence of this, it does seem to be true that she was instrumental in helping a number of individuals (including at least one Jew) escape Nazi persecution. Throughout it all, she remained a national and international favorite.[13] Piaf dated a Jewish pianist during this time and co-wrote a subtle protest song with Monnot.[5] According to one story, singing for high-ranking Germans at the One Two Two Club[14] earned Piaf the right to pose for photographs with French prisoners of war, to boost their morale. The Frenchmen were supposedly able to cut out their photos and use them as forged passport photos.[14]

Personal life

The love of Piaf's life,[7] the married boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash in October 1949, while flying from Paris to New York City to meet her. Cerdan's Air France flight, flown on a Lockheed Constellation, went down in the Azores, killing everyone on board, including noted violinist Ginette Neveu.[15] Piaf and Cerdan's affair made international headlines,[8] as Cerdan was the middleweight world champion and a legend in France in his own right.

Piaf married Jacques Pills, a singer, in 1952 (her matron of honour was Marlene Dietrich) and divorced him in 1956. In 1962, she wed Théo Sarapo (Theophanis Lamboukas), a Greek hairdresser-turned-singer and actor [5] who was 20 years her junior. The couple sang together in some of her last engagements.[5]

In 1951, Piaf was seriously injured in a car crash along with Charles Aznavour, breaking her arm and two ribs, and thereafter had serious difficulties arising from morphine and alcohol addictions.[5] Two more near-fatal car crashes exacerbated the situation.[10] Jacques Pills took her into rehabilitation on three different occasions to no avail.[5]

Death and legacy

The grave of Édith Piaf, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Bust of Édith Piaf in Kielce, Poland

Piaf died of liver cancer at Plascassier, on the French Riviera, on 10 October 1963, but only publicly disclosed on the 11th, the same day that Cocteau died.[16] She slipped in and out of consciousness for the last months of her life.[10] It is said that Sarapo drove her body back to Paris secretly so that fans would think she had died in her hometown.[5][14] She is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris, where her grave is among the most visited.[5]

Although she was denied a funeral mass by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris because of her lifestyle[14], her funeral procession drew tens of thousands[5] of mourners onto the streets of Paris and the ceremony at the cemetery was attended by more than 100,000 fans.[14][17] Charles Aznavour recalled that Piaf's funeral procession was the only time since the end of World War II that he saw Parisian traffic come to a complete stop.[14]

The minor planet of 3772 Piaf, discovered by Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Georgievna Karachkina in 1982, is named after her.[18]

In Paris, a two-room museum is dedicated to her, the Musée Édith Piaf[14][19] (5 rue Crespin du Gast).

La Vie En Rose, a film about her life directed by Olivier Dahan, debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2007. Titled La Môme in France, the film stars Marion Cotillard in the role that won her the Academy Award for Best Actress (Oscar), as Piaf. Dahan's film follows Piaf's life from early childhood to her death in 1963. David Bret's biography, Piaf, A Passionate Life, was re-released by JR Books to coincide with the film's release. Her love story with Cerdan was also depicted on the big screen by Claude Lelouch in the movie Édith et Marcel (1983) with Marcel Cerdan Jr. in the role of his father and Évelyne Bouix portraying Piaf.

In 1996, Ari Folman released a near-futuristic comedy Saint Clara (film). In this movie, Edith Piaf is repeatedly mentioned by many of the adults, who remember her seemingly from school, and prove that they are part of the leading culture, as opposed to the immigrants, but the children on both sides have no knowledge of her, and ask who she was. The movie ends with the local men discovering that the Russian immigrants were intimately familiar with Piaf.


Her song "Hymne à l'amour" inspired the film Toutes ces belles promesses by Jean-Paul Civeyrac. It was also translated into English as "If You Love Me (Really Love Me)" and covered by various artists including Shirley Bassey, Dorothy Squires and Kay Starr, who had a hit with it in 1954.


Appeared in



Appeared in



The following titles are compilations of Édith Piaf's songs, and not reissues of the titles released while Édith Piaf was active.

  • The Voice of the Sparrow: The Very Best of Édith Piaf, original release date: June, 1991
  • Édith Piaf: 30th Anniversaire, original release date: 5 April 1994
  • Édith Piaf: Her Greatest Recordings 1935-1943, original release date: 15 July 1995
  • The Early Years: 1938-1945, Vol. 3, original release date: 15 October 1996
  • Hymn to Love: All Her Greatest Songs in English, original release date: 4 November 1996
  • Gold Collection, original release date: 9 January 1998
  • The Rare Piaf 1950-1962 (28 April 1998)
  • La Vie en Rose, original release date: 26 January 1999
  • Montmartre Sur Seine (soundtrack import), original release date: 19 September 2000
  • Éternelle: The Best Of (29 January 2002)
  • Love and Passion (boxed set), original release date: 8 April 2002
  • The Very Best of Édith Piaf (import), original release date: 29 October 2002
  • 75 Chansons (Box set/import), original release date: 22 September 2005
  • 48 Titres Originaux (import), (09/01/2006)
  • Édith Piaf: L'Intégrale/Complete 20 CD/413 Chansons, original release date: 27 February 2007

There are in excess of 80 albums of Édith Piaf's songs available on online music stores.

Édith Piaf on DVD

  • Édith Piaf - A Passionate Life (24 May 2004)
  • Édith Piaf : Eternal Hymn (Éternelle, l'hymne à la môme, Non-US Format, Pal, Region 2, Import)
  • Piaf - Her Story, Her Songs (June 2006)
  • Piaf: La Môme (2007)
  • La Vie en Rose (film) (biopic, 2008)
  • Édith Piaf - The Perfect Concert and Piaf The Documentary (February 2009)

Books on Édith Piaf

  • The Wheel Of Fortune: The Autobiography of Édith Piaf by Édith Piaf (originally written in 1958, 5 years before her death), Peter Owen Publishers; ISBN 0720612284
  • Édith Piaf, by Édith Piaf and Simone Berteaut, published January 1982; ISBN 2904106014
  • The Piaf Legend, by David Bret, Robson Books,1988.
  • Piaf: A Passionate Life, by David Bret, Robson Books, 1998, revised JR Books, 2007
  • Marlene, My Friend, by David Bret, Robson Books, 1993. Dietrich dedicates a whole chapter to her friendship with Piaf.
  • Oh! Père Lachaise, by Jim Yates, Édition d'Amèlie 2007, ISBN 978-0-9555836-0-5. Piaf and Oscar Wilde meet in a pink tinted Parisian Purgatory.

Édith Piaf in contemporary music

  • Édith Piaf is mentioned in the song "St. Dominic's Preview" on the 1972 album of the same name by Van Morrison.
  • Édith Piaf is mentioned in the song "My Mother was a Chinese Trapeze Artist" by The Decemberists on the EP "5 Songs" (2001)
  • Édith Piaf is mentioned in the song "Piaf chanterait du rock" by Luc Plamondon, which was most famously recorded by Marie Carmen and Céline Dion.
  • The song "Edith and the Kingpin" on Joni Mitchell's 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns was revealed to be about Édith Piaf in an interview with Mitchell published in the February 2008 issue of Mojo.
  • The Elton John song "Cage the Songbird", from his 1976 Blue Moves album, is a tribute to Édith Piaf.
  • The Marillion song "Lady Nina" has the following line: "And Edith Piaf sings a lullaby for the night."
  • Édith Piaf is mentioned in the song "Chocolate Cigarette" by Tom Russell and Sylvia Tyson on Russell's 1991 album Hurricane Season.
  • Jeff Buckley, on the track "Last Goodbye" from his live album Mystery White Boy, asks the crowd in French 'Qu'est-ce que c'est Piaf?', before singing an impersonation.
  • In his 10 October 2004 concert in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, Jean-Michel Jarre performed a rock arrangement of "La Foule".
  • In November 2008, the french group Mypollux releases also a rock arrangement of "La Foule".
  • In the motion picture Saving Private Ryan the Americans find a phonograph and play a French record just before the last climactic battle begins. The captain (Tom Hanks) identifies the singer as Edith Piaf.


  1. ^ http://www.experiencefestival.com/a/Mezzo-soprano_-_Famous_mezzo-sopranos/id/1762431
  2. ^ Piaf: the triumphant return of La Môme, The Independent, Thursday, 8 February 2007
  3. ^ On the trail of Édith Piaf, Otago Daily Times, Tuesday, 16 Sep 2008
  4. ^ Jacques Verrière, Genèse de la nation française‎, Flammarion, 2000, p.119
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac "Édith Piaf: Biography". Yahoo! Music. Retrieved 2007-07-19.
  6. ^ Morris, Wesley (15 June 2007). "A complex portrait of a spellbinding singer". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2007-07-19.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Rainer, Peter (8 June 2007). "'La Vie en Rose': Édith Piaf's encore". Vancouver Sun. Retrieved 2007-07-19.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Biography: Édith Piaf". RFI Musique. Retrieved 2007-07-19.
  9. ^ Vallois, Thirza (February 1998). "Two Paris Love Stories". Paris Kiosque. Retrieved 2007-08-09.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Ray, Joe (11 October 2003). "Édith Piaf and Jacques Brel live again in Paris: The two legendary singers are making a comeback in cafes and theatres in the City of Light". Vancouver Sun. pp. F3. Retrieved 2007-07-18.
  11. ^ a b c Fine, Marshall (4 June 2007). "The soul of the Sparrow". New York Daily News. Retrieved 2007-07-19.
  12. ^ a b Mayer, Andre (8 June 2007). "Songbird". CBC. Retrieved 2007-07-19.
  13. ^ Amazon.com: "Know About Édith Piaf?"
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Jeffries, Stuart (8 November 2003). "The love of a poet". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-07-19.
  15. ^ Marcel Cerdan's tragic disappearance (1949) - Marcel Cerdan Heritage
  16. ^ She was 47 years old. Unofficial sources, for example, this one, say she died on the afternoon of the previous day 10 October, and some say she died in Paris, not Plascassier.
  17. ^ (in French) Édith Piaf funeral - Video - French tv, 14 October 1963, INA
  18. ^ Schmadel, Lutz D. (2003). Dictionary of Minor Planet Names (5th ed.). New York: Springer Verlag. p. 319. ISBN 3540002383.
  19. ^ Musée Édith Piaf

Caroline Nin - Hymn A Piaf www.carolinenin.com

See also

External links

Movie La Vie En Rose :

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