The Phenomenal Edith Piaf
I did not really “get” what and who Edith Piaf was until I got to France and first slipped a cassette of her “greatest hits” into what now seems to have been an over sized cassette player. I had heard of her by reputation in eighth grade French class, but had not yet heard a recording of her work. But my discovery of my love for her in France was when I was a first year medical student in the fall of 1973, freezing in an apartment over a cafe and a dress shop, looking for a few minutes of respite from studying in a way that was more compulsive and obsessional than efficient. My Mother-Of-Blessed-Memory had been full of ideas about things that I could do if and when my wild adventure in Europe did not work, and I would come back to Boston and become either an excessively-qualified nurse or an excessively-qualified French teacher who had “tried” medicine in France. Me — I just told her what I had learned ancient Greek soldiers told people when they went off to war: That I would “come back with my shield or upon it.” It meant that I would not be the coward who drops their shield and runs, but if I died they would send back my dead body. She was horrified and yelled at me, right there in the airport, but that was how I felt about being a doctor and how I basically feel about my life now — I have to do what I can do and I am meant to do and is important. I really do not have much better than medicine for that.
So I was finishing with my papers for school when I turned on the tinny-sounding cassette player. I ended up abandoning the papers and sitting across from the tape-player and staring at it, without blinking. Blinking was not necessary because my eyes were wet with tears. I got every word, which was not as tough as it sounds since the lyrics are direct and simple and my French was well advanced. She told of a life where every man seems to either cheat on you or die. My tears were all the more amazing because at that time I really did not believe in the kind of love that you give your life to. I had been turned off by prep school mixers and women who dropped out of college to start families. I thought a profession like medicine might be my only salvation, the only way to use the brains God seemed to have given me to do any good — maybe help somebody else. But there I was, in front of my cassette player, crying like nothing I can explain or describe, for this naive woman who was even more of a victim than the beautiful but stupid girls in prep school. Clearly, it was the raw emotionality of her songs. Her voice, which was clear as a bell in her younger days, became raspy as she went through all manner of traumas and substance abuse, but the feeling was still there. It seemed only to have been intensified by her world-weary nature. I did know that this frail little woman had, in her final days, been so sickly and so weak that people had bought tickets to her last show at the Olympia Theater in Paris just to be there in case she keeled over on stage. My typical response to anything that grips me the way Piaf’s voice did is to read and learn. I bought a couple of her biographies at a bookstore in downtown Amiens. I know now that most of what was said or written about this woman was sheer mythology. I think she created a lot of it herself. It must have worked.
It is now 50 years since her death. I visited her grave at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. I was not the only one then to visit what must be the best tended grave in the place, with lots of photos and remembrance plaques, and a team of two women emptying the dead flowers from several vases and replacing them with fresh ones.
Lots of famous people are buried in Pere Lachaise, but her grave stood out from several walks away, really.
I doubt her mythology would have been as powerful as it is if she had not contributed to it herself. Most books start by saying that she was literally born on the streets of Paris, her mother having given birth to her in front of an address on rue de Belleville, in the very lower-working-class 20th division (arrondissement) of the city of Paris. Somebody exploded that one by actually locating her birth certificate that describes this auspicious event as having occurred in the hospital of that part of Paris.
Attempts to trace her lineage come up with foreign sounding names and include the fact that her father was some kind of street acrobat and she sang for money as a child when performing with him. Mother was a singer and grandmother was a madam, so she spent at least some of her childhood in the bordello. This s a situation I have heard of before in other contexts, since having a child is often a side effect of prostitution.
There are some curious stories about her having been temporarily blind as a child, allegedly from keratitis, which was allegedly cured as a miracle of St. Theresa of Lisieux. Some have suggested that the true diagnosis was allergic conjunctivitis. As much as I hate to admit that any French doctor could make such a diagnostic mistake, that is not an unbelievable, and is actually a somewhat common mistake. She was born in 1915 and died at age 47 in 1963. Her life had an intensity that seems somehow consistent with its brevity, as she was a person of passions. I always liked the story of how she did not own anything “nice” that she could wear when she was first literally taken off the street to audition to sing at a night club. She said she tried to knit herself a sweater as fast as she possibly could, but did not have time to finish the second sleeve, so she covered the relevant arm with a scarf. She was impassioned with the idea of nurturing and basically developing the careers of other artists after her own meteoric rise. The fact that these were almost entirely young and handsome males earned her the envy of lots of Frenchwomen.
I would say it ruined her reputation, but I really do not think she had ever had a very good one. I mean, her lifestyle was considered so “bad” that the Catholic Church refused to bury her, although they agreed to do something or other years later. I mean, I never heard of the Catholic Church refusing to bury anybody including murderers, so their fit of getting judgmental seems pretty egregious to me. Perhaps her greatest, and surely most famous lover at the time of being her lover was Marcel Cerdan, then world champion (French also) boxer, and very much married. He was on a plane to meet her when she was playing the Versailles in New York, and the plane crashed in the Azores and this was another tragedy to write songs about. I actually knew someone, a hospital administrator and great friend, who had met Edith Piaf when she was playing the Versailles club in New York, circa 1950. He had a bit part in a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in a theater a few doors down. He told me that after the play one night he went with most of the cast to see Piaf’s late show, and it was amazing how this teency woman commanded this large, “garish” night club that was the “over-decorated” Versailles, but it was so unmistakably French that it was the only place in New York that it made any sense to put her.
The photo sure echoes that impression. After the show, her colleagues in “Le show business” were welcomed, and treated to free drinks and snacks, and whatever it is crazy New Yorkers eat in the wee hours. He said it was a truly magic evening. He remembered that her English was bad, but she seemed quite happy and did not stop laughing. Piaf worked with lots of different composers, but has a total of maybe 90 songs of which she is at least partial author, most with a decidedly autobiographical bent. Most of them have been covered by most everybody and anybody, but far and away the most famous, perhaps the most famous song ever written in the French language, is “La Vie en Rose.”
Des yeux qui font baisser les miens
Un rire qui se perd sur sa bouche
Voilà le portrait sans retouches
De l’homme auquel j’appartiens
The English translation:
Eyes which make mine look down,
A laugh that gets lost on his mouth,
Here is the unretouched portrait,
Of the man to whom I belong.
After that, English version of the song veers away from the literal French lyrics. Here is what the French versions says (literally):
“When he takes me in his arms,
He speaks to me softly,
I see life through rose-colored glasses”
The popular English version became a hit – sung by Louis Armstrong and many others. The lyrics were re-written for some reason and go like this:
“Hold me close and hold me fast,
This magic spell you cast,
This is “la Vie en Rose”
The literal translation of the title is “Life in Pink.” You could probably say, You are “in the pink,” or “Everything is coming up roses” or even, the world looks as if you are seeing it through rose-colored glasses.
Anyway, I’m sure you get the picture.
You can watch her sing it in a scene taken from one of her films (courtesy of YouTube). Her politics is more confusing than her life. She was at the height of her power (and voice) during World War II. She did save some lives (Jewish — at least some) by many reports, although at the time lots of people thought she was a traitor to France as she performed to packed nightclubs full of Nazis. She claimed later that she was working for the resistance all the time. She may well have been. The Germans did let her be photographed with prisoners in order to “raise their spirits,” and it is said that the resultant photographs were used to forge passports. I am in no position to tell what was real and what was not. I can tell you that I was in France long enough ago to have met some people who were old enough to remember WWII. Most of them told me they had worked for the resistance. If that were true of all who said it, there would not have been room in France for anyone but members of the resistance. Still, Piaf was nothing if not someone who would risk it all for passions, and most people, including me, want to believe she was indeed resistance.
In death, she has earned lots of online memorials. For example, on this French site that translates “I am dead dot com,” visitors are invited to write her a posthumous letter, and told very lovingly not to expect an answer. Her type of song, her artistry that IS France lives on in myriad ways. Her protégés all became major French artists, for she chose them well. Charles Aznavour (still active at age 89) is reputed to own her copyrights. This last-living disciple of the Grand Dame performed as recently as Dec. 2013 in Amsterdam! Quel homme! (What a man!)
There is a beautiful portrait of him on the office window of an otherwise undistinguished motel in the Armenian quarter of Los Angeles. I asked if that picture was the famous Charles Aznavour.
The young lady at the front desk answered that she didn’t know his name (I told you she was young!) but that he was a famous Armenian singer.
Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian was born in Paris to Armenian immigrants — survivors of Armenian Genocide. The Armenians are rightfully proud to claim him, as are the French. He has written terrific songs that were also popular in Spanish, Italian and other languages. He is called “France’s Frank Sinatra” – Roy Clark won an Emmy for his gold record of “Yesterday When I Was Young,” and Aznavour recorded a duet with voice tracks from the late Dean Martin “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.”
Everybody loves Aznavour – as did Piaf.
Mireille Mathieu, a young woman from the south of France, born somewhere in the middle of a family of 13 kids, seems to have something very like Piaf’s voice.
Me, personally — the closest I have come to the legend was recognizing one of her later “finds,” Gilbert Becaud, at Orly airport during one of my early trips to France I did walk up to him and shake his hand. I told him how much I had enjoyed his best known composition, “Et Maintenant,” (“And Now”) known in English as “What Now, My Love” – A hit for Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey, Frank Sinatra and others.
Becaud was still a good looker, although I would have placed him around 50 or so. Yeah, Piaf had taste in men. He excused himself quickly and told me he was traveling and had to spend some time with a young woman at the airport. I told him to go to her and he gave me a wink and said thank you and ran.
This putting love above everything, including a personal fame in which others might have basked, was the crux of Piaf, nowhere expressed better than in what must be close to her last video, where she looks more like 67 than her age which cannot have been over 47.
She is singing with her last husband, Theo Sarapo, a Greek hairdresser 20 years her junior who brought her a doll when she was in the hospital and parlayed that introduction into a career as an actor and singer. There was a beautiful rotogravure plaque of him with Edith at her grave when I visited. He is big and lumbering and young and handsome and scared stiff. I mean, he does not attempt to make any eye contact with the audience, but appears to be staring at Piaf for dear life. Their sweet innocent song is a duet in which she tries to explain love to him. She believes in love no matter how much pain it causes, and believes each one, including him, to be both her first and her last.