Who was Edith Piaf? (1915 - 1963)

Liz Highleyman | October 22, 2003

Edith Piaf is groomed by her hairdresser Mario after a stomach operation on March 13 1959, while she keeps knitting. (Photo: AFP)
French chanteuse Edith Piaf - often called "the Little Sparrow" - gained renown as one of the most famous singers of her era. And, like other tragic female divas, Piaf has been regarded as an icon by many gay men.

Piaf - nee Edith Giovanna Gassion - claimed she was born on a street corner in Paris' Belleville neighborhood in December 1915. She was neglected by her mother, a cafe and street singer and sometime prostitute. Her father, a traveling acrobat, arranged for young Edith to live with his mother, who worked in a Normandy brothel, until she reached the age of 7, when he made her part of his act. At 15, Piaf struck out with her half-sister, Simone Berteaut, singing in the streets of Paris for money. The teenage Piaf became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, who died of meningitis at age 2.

In 1935, Louis Lepleáe, the proprietor of an elegant Champs Elyseées nightclub, discovered Piaf singing in the street and coaxed her onto the stage despite her shyness. The tiny woman with the huge voice soon captured the hearts of Parisians with her poignant ballads. The following year, Lepleáe was murdered, and Piaf, along with other denizens of the criminal underworld with whom she associated, was briefly considered a suspect.

With the club closed, Piaf began an affair with an aspiring musician who helped her secure work at some of Paris' most prestigious music halls. She later took up with Paul Meurisse, a young singer who introduced her to the upper-class, intellectual milieu. She became friends with celebrities such as actor Maurice Chevalier and playwright Jean Cocteau, who in 1940 wrote a play for Piaf based on her stormy relationship with Meurisse.

World War II had a profound effect on the artistic scene in Paris. Once the Nazis occupied France, all performers were required to have their material approved by German censors. Piaf was popular among the Germans, performing for high-ranking officers and entertaining members of the Gestapo at her apartment. Some Parisian antifascists felt she was too popular and suspected her of collaboration, but she claimed to be part of the resistance and helped at least one person, Jewish composer Michel Emer, escape occupied France.

Hugely famous by the war's end, Piaf began a series of relationships with younger men, playing the role of mentor as well as lover. Among these were actor Yves Montand, who met Piaf when they were both performing at the Moulin Rouge. In 1946-47, Piaf first toured the United States where - after an initially cool reception - she soon took the country by storm. She befriended celebrities such as Orson Welles, Judy Garland, and Marlene Dietrich, who remained a friend for life and was reputedly her lover.

In 1949, another of Piaf's lovers, a Moroccan boxer, was killed in a plane crash, and beset by grief, she turned to alcohol. Further misfortune followed two years later when Piaf was involved in an automobile accident. Although her injuries healed, she became addicted to morphine. She began performing under the influence of alcohol and drugs, sometimes injecting herself through her clothes before taking the stage. "During these periods there was within me a kind of invincible need to destroy myself," she later wrote. "Then, when I had sunk to the bottom of my abyss, when everyone thought I was lost, suddenly I would find within myself the will to climb up the slope again."

Despite her troubles, Piaf continued her successful singing and acting career throughout the 1950s. Although she collapsed on stage several times, she also gave many stunning performances. Piaf also continued her long string of love affairs, and, at age 47, scandalized French society by marrying an up-and-coming Greek singer 20 years her junior.

Even as her health failed, Piaf refused to give up her work, performing until the year before her death. "For me, singing is a way of escaping," she explained. In October 1963, Piaf succumbed to cancer. Although the Catholic Church denied her a religious service, thousands of mourners joined Piaf's funeral procession, and her grave is among the most visited at Paris' Peáre Lachaise cemetery.

Piaf always had a strong cult following, and many of her most devoted fans have been gay men who both admired her glamour and identified with the pathos and resilience she embodied. In the days before Stonewall, the diva was "the homosexual's proxy," writes gay cultural critic Daniel Harris, "offering them a tough-as-nails persona they can assume like a mask during emotionally trying experiences."

Piaf's music remains popular to this day, and the name of her best-known song, "Non, je ne regrette rien" ("No Regrets"), was adopted as the title of a 1992 film by Marlon Riggs about black men and AIDS. -QSyndicate

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

Further Reading
  • Berteaut, Simone. 1969. Piaf (Harper and Row).
  • Harris, Daniel. 1997. The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture (Hyperion).
  • Piaf, Edith, Jean Noli, and Margaret Crosland. 1995. My Life (Peter Owens).

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