The story of Edith Piaf was meant to have a happy ending but never quite got there.
Whenever I’m asked what kind of music I listen to, my automatic answer is, “I like weird stuff that nobody knows.” It’s not because I’m trying to be a presumptuous jerk. It’s because, apart from those who really know me and people in Spain (I love contemporary flamenco music and most of these bands aren’t internationally famous), nobody knows the bands I like. Besides that genre or taste in music, there’s a twenty percent of my Spotify music that I like due to proximity, which is, in other words, the music my parents listened to and I grew up liking and enjoying. Most of these could be the perfect pieces for the soundtrack of my life, and yet I didn’t really know the authors or singers of these songs until I became a teenager. One of these particular cases is none other than Edith Piaf. Her particular intonation, unique voice, and the quirky way she pronounced the “r’s” caught my attention at a very early age without knowing who this character was.
Born Edith Giovanna Gassion in 1915, Piaf, who became an icon of French culture, didn't really have an easy or at least tranquil life. Her mother, Annetta Giovanna Maillard, was a French-Moroccan bar singer from whom she might have inherited the musical talent. Her father, Louis-Alphonse Gassion, was a street acrobat performance. When her parents split, she stayed with her mom, who soon abandoned her in a state of malnourishment.
She was rescued by her father's mother, who ran a brothel. From a young age the artist experienced the difficulties people endured to have something to eat and survive. As for seeing, I'm not quite sure, since legend has it, she was blind between the ages of three and seven, when she was miraculously cured after some of the prostitutes went on a pilgrimage to ask for her recovery. When she was only 14, she abandoned her life at the brothel (perhaps just in time to avoid following that profession) and joined her father at his circus caravan. Now, he wasn't really the loving and caring parent we could think. He was violent, abusive, and only wanted her to work for his company.
It was during this time of her life that she met her first love. She was only 16 when she gave birth to a girl she called Marcelle. Sadly she died very soon due to meningitis. She had had enough of that difficult and unstable life and decided to abandon her father's company. But she would soon learn that for her, life just wouldn't be that easy going, or at least free from tragedy.
One day, when she was singing on the street, she was discovered by Louis Leplée, a man in the music business who owned Le Gerny, a very popular club in the Champs-Élysées. She was a short woman with a very particular style in terms of stage development and soon caught the attention of the audience who named her “La Môme Piaf” (The Little Sparrow). More than trying to fight against the nickname people gave her, she made it her official artistic name and embraced that attitude. All this made her one of the most popular musicians of the thirties in France, and she even recorded her first two albums in the same year (1935). But things weren’t going to be given to her that easily, and later that year Lepleé was found dead. Authorities determined that it had been a murder, and the first suspect was obviously Piaf, the woman he represented and with whom he had a relationship.
When she was clear of all suspicion of the crime, she partnered with Raymond Asso, who became her manager and her new love interest. But she then realized she didn’t want to sing random and void songs only to be famous. So she began writing and composing pieces inspired by her life experiences and the difficult moments she had endured throughout her short life. Soon, she became famous for being a woman showing the realities of people, who conveyed truth through her songs but in a beautiful and alluring way. She was the singer of the people, the woman who spoke directly to those who had suffered, and the one who showed them how to use their tragedies to succeed in life.
She wasn’t really immune to controversy, and during the Nazi occupation during the forties, she was attacked and questioned for performing for Nazi soldiers. But there’s some evidence showing that, in fact, she was working for the French resistance at the time and used her talent as a masquerade to help Jewish people flee from the country. She knew how it was to live in the worst misery and used her fame and possibilities to help others overcome their situation. But her main weapon was her music and her lyrics. They became anthems sung not only along France but around the world because they showed the vulnerabilities of all human beings. Her songs speak directly to us and are so relatable that they have survived the passing of time.
She devoted her life to music, and even during her last days, she didn’t stop singing and writing. Edith Piaf passed away in 1963 from liver failure. Although she was denied a funerary mass, arguing that she didn’t follow a religious life, people poured their hearts into the funeral, which became a huge event. Crowds joined to mourn the passing of an icon of France and a living example to follow.
Sometimes tragedies sink us in the worst of the miseries, but we can use them to move on and succeed. Take a look at these characters who were on the verge of life's tragedies: