Posted by: nancycurteman | March 14, 2015

Edith Piaf: A French Icon

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thEdith Piaf was Paris. In fact, she was the symbol of all France. In the early thirties her penetrating, defiant, tough, pugnacious yet wistful voice rang out in Paris, first on the streets, later in the clubs and music halls and at last on record players. She sang of the hard times, hard luck and heartbreak that reflected her own life.

Edith Gassion, later renamed Piaf (sparrow) was born in 1915 in a doorway under a light post on Rue 72 de Belleville, a working class section of Paris. At two months old, her mother, a café singer, handed her over to her alcoholic, maternal grandmother who kept the baby’s bottle filled with red wine. Her father found her two years later, dirty, drunk and half starved. He sent her to live with her paternal grandmother who owned a brothel. The filles de joies took good care of her treating her like a baby doll.

At age 15 she became a street singer for coins and was discovered by Louis Leplée who gave her the chance to sing in his cabaret. There in a simple skirt and sweater before an audience that included Chevalier and Mistinguett, Piaf became an overnight sensation.

In 1939 Europe was on the brink of World War II. During the Nazi occupation Piaf was ordered to sing for Herr Goebbels. She flouted the order by arriving hours too late. But she willingly entertained French soldiers in POW camps.

In 1947 Piaf found two loves—Contender for world middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan and the United States of America where she would perform again and again. Her romance with Ceran ended with his death in a plane crash. Her romance with the United States endured the rest of her life. For each performance in the United States and in every country she always charged a flat one thousand American dollars per night.th-1

In the 1950’s life for Piaf who was barely 4’10” with stooped shoulders, ulcers and arthritis became a series of physical collapses that seemed to be ending her career. In 1959 she arose from a hospital bed and embarked on what the French press labeled “Piaf’s suicide tour.” Friends tried to dissuade her from the tour but she insisted on going, saying, “I much sing! Singing is all I have. If I do not sing, I will die.”

That Piaf was finished was the talk of Europe. She was a physical wreck—broke, broken and dying. Then the announcement came: Piaf would open at her traditional Paris stand, the Olympia Music Hall for a month’s engagement. Stooped, battered, ravaged, her hair a cobwebby nimbus about her face, Piaf stood before a packed house and sang as never before. Day after day people lined up in the street for tickets.

Piaf continued performing until her death in 1963. A hundred thousand French visited Piafs home in the weekend following her death. Four thousand attended her burial in Père LaChaise Cemetary. Edith Piaf will forever remain a cherished symbol of France.

Appreciation to Rory Guy

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