Photo compliments of the Library of Congress

Edith Piaf: The Little Sparrow
By Kelly Wittmann
Photos by Grant Rosenberg

Legend has it that Edith Piaf was born on a Parisian street corner, with two policemen attending. In reality, Edith Giovanna Gassion was born on December 19, 1915 in the Hospital Tenon in the rue de Chine. It is easy to see why the myth persists, however; Edith's later life was so chaotic that a "normal" birth just wouldn't seem fitting. Edith had no patience for the ordinary and propagated the street-birth scenario her entire life. Indeed, she may have convinced herself that it really was true.

The street corner where Piaf was allegedly born.
Edith's mother, Anetta Giovanna Maillard, was an alcoholic Italian street singer and a part-time prostitute who was accustomed to aimlessly wandering through life–traveling with circuses, hanging out at fairgrounds and picking up men at bars. For all of two months, she neglected her infant daughter and then abandoned her to her father, Louis (Jean) Gassion. Gassion was a famous acrobat who had neither the time nor the skills to nurture an infant. He dropped the child off with his mother, Louise, the madam of a bordello in Lisieux, and she raised Edith through her toddler years.

Edith admitted that this early exposure to prostitution warped her view of the relationship between men and women. In her autobiography, My Life, she said, "This upbringing had not made me very sentimental. . . I thought that when a boy signaled to a girl, the girl should never refuse. I thought women should behave like that." Her early promiscuity and faithlessness to men in later life can probably be traced to the lessons she learned at that brothel in Lisieux.

When Edith was school-aged, her father reclaimed her and made her part of his act, performing in circuses and nightclubs. Although her father's life was not a stable one, he truly loved Edith and did his best to care for her. By the age of fifteen, though, Edith had enough of circus life and went back to Paris. At sixteen, she became pregnant by a young delivery boy and gave birth to a daughter, Marcelle, who died in infancy from meningitis. Like her own mother, however, she seemed to have little maternal feeling–only one photograph was ever taken of the child—and Edith quickly got on with her life.

After the child’s death, Edith became involved with a brutal pimp named Albert. She claimed, rather unconvincingly, that she never worked for him as a prostitute but, rather, sang for coins in the street, delivering her take to him at the end of each day. Here again, Edith showed a curious lack of empathy. She was well aware that Albert was beating and robbing women that he picked up in bars, but she was happy to share his ill-gotten booty, toasting his "victories" with champagne. She only left him after he turned his violence against her, slapping her around and holding a gun to her head.

In 1935, Edith was discovered by a nightclub owner named Louis Leplee. Leplee's establishment was called Gerny's and was frequented by the upper and lower classes alike, as many Parisian clubs were in those days. Leplee convinced Edith to sing at Gerny's, despite her extreme nervousness, and gave her the nickname that would stay with her for the rest of her life: La Mô me Piaf ("the little sparrow," as she is often called in English, although the literal translation is "the kid sparrow"). From this, she took her stage name. Edith's specialty was the poignant ballad, and soon all of Paris was talking about the waif with the heartbreaking voice. She began to make friends with famous people, such as the actor Maurice Chevalier and the poet Jacques Borgeat.

In April of 1936, Edith was devastated when Leplee, her mentor, was found murdered in his apartment. She was appalled to be considered a suspect but knew that her reputation for associating with unsavory characters wasn't helping her in this situation. It was at this low point that she turned to a businessman named Raymond Asso. Though Asso was married, he helped Edith straighten things out with the police, and they began a tempestuous affair. She handed the reins of her career over to him, and under his management, her star ascended. Soon her shows were selling out, and her financial prospects improved dramatically.

In 1939, Edith left Asso for Paul Meurisse, a wealthy singer who offered her a way into sophisticated, upper-class Paris. While Edith enjoyed her new lifestyle, the relationship was not a happy one. Both partners were stubborn and temperamental, and their arguments often turned violent. They were befriended by the playwright Jean Cocteau, who based his play, Le Belle Indifferent, on their twisted love. Edith starred in the first production of the play, in 1940.

By this time, the Germans were threatening invasion. Edith performed in many benefits for the French Army but knew that hope was slim. Meurisse was called up for duty, and Edith was relieved when he was rejected on medical grounds. The two toured the unoccupied areas of France but were finally forced to go back to Paris because all artists under the occupation had to have their material vetted by the Nazis. Some were persecuted more than others, and to many people, it didn't appear that Edith was persecuted enough. In fact, she performed many times for Nazi parties and banquets. When she moved into an apartment over a bordello, she befriended and entertained members of the Gestapo in her suite. She later claimed to be a member of the Resistance, but like her friend Maurice Chevalier, she was always suspect. We do know, however, that she helped at least one Jewish acquaintance, the composer Michael Emer, escape France and death.

In her memoirs, Edith mentions the Occupation in passing, as if it were just one more thing getting in the way of what was truly important: her love life. This may have been her way of avoiding the truth, if indeed she had been a collaborator. But it is just as likely that for one as self-absorbed as Piaf, the war really was more of an irritant than a tragedy. She saw no need to analyze the conflict once it was over and picked up her life exactly where she had left it. For someone who was and is seen by the public as a fragile waif, Piaf showed a remarkable adaptability and force of will. Her massive ego and burning ambition presaged Madonna.

During the war, both of Edith's parents reentered her life. She was happy to see her father and supported him until he died a few years later. Her mother, however, was another story. Edith would often be called to bars or the police station to pick up the inebriated woman. "My poor lamentable mother," she said. "I tried four times to make her take a cure, but each time she slipped back into her vice again." Anetta's death in August 1945 was as depraved as her life: alone in a cheap hotel room, the victim of a morphine overdose.

The building that Piaf lived in for many years.

Though she had her hands full with family matters, the war years were arguably Edith's most creative, and she wrote her signature song, "La Vie en Rose," in the middle of the Occupation. The list of men that Edith went through during this rough time looks like a Parisian phone book, but things weren't going to get any better.

In 1944, Piaf met Yves Montand, who was then a minor cabaret performer. Her first reaction was revulsion—she saw Montand as the kind of silly, no-talent entertainer that wartime audiences had learned to put up with because there was no alternative. His penchant for singing American cowboy songs annoyed her to no end. "I don't know what you see in him," she'd say to friends. "He sings badly, he dances badly, he's got no sense of rhythm. That man's just nothing." But audiences and fellow entertainers alike seemed to love him, which enraged Edith all the more. "He seemed so pleased with himself that he'd made me angry," she noted in My Life.

Then one evening late in the war, Piaf was persuaded by friends to give Montand's act one more chance. Although she was not bowled over by the act as it was, she reluctantly admitted that he had a great deal of potential. She went back to his dressing room to apologize for the way she'd been running him down to others in the business. But she also told him very plainly that unless he changed his repertoire, he would not live up to his promise. Over the next few months, she convinced him to give up the cowboy songs and the goofy jokes. "There's only one kind of beautiful song," she told him. "A love song." At first audiences booed, but eventually Montand became a huge star in France and relatively well-known throughout the world. Piaf always insisted that her relationship with him was purely platonic, and this assertion is backed up by the fact that Montand didn't seem to care about her many other boyfriends.

Piaf's grave at Pere Lachaise.

After the war, Edith toured Europe, the United States and South America, becoming an internationally known figure. Then, in 1951, tragedy struck when Piaf was in a horrible car accident, breaking an arm and several ribs. The doctors prescribed morphine, and she quickly became an addict. In her autobiography, Piaf said, "For four years I lived almost like an animal or a madwoman: nothing existed for me beyond the moment I was given my injection and felt at last the soothing effect of the drug." She describes how, in a pinch, she would inject herself right through her skirt and stockings, moments before going on stage. The one time she performed without morphine was a disaster, with the audience booing her off the stage.

Piaf also began drinking heavily to ease the pain. She shocked an audience at the Casino in Royat by weaving onto the stage and slurring lyrics she could barely remember. Friends stopped drinking in front of her and tried to hide her bottles of alcohol, but it was no use. As she recalled, "During these periods there was within me a kind of invincible need to destroy myself. Nothing could stop me. These crises would last two or three months. 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. But soon I would sink down once more until I was practically out of my mind." She was soon recognized cruising the bars of Paris, picking up strange men to assuage her loneliness. It was an odd, sad echo of her mother's life.

In 1952, she settled down a bit when she married songwriter and entertainer Jacques Pills. Pills was also an alcoholic and did nothing to discourage her drinking. The two would often spur one another on in drinking binges that lasted for days. He did love her, however, and provided her with the most stable relationship she'd ever known. But again she proved faithless, divorcing him after several years.

Piaf met her last husband, Theo Lamboukas, in 1962. She was 47; he was 27. Lamboukas had little talent, but he wanted to be a singer and saw Edith as his ticket to the world of show business. Though by this time she was in very bad health, she worked hard to make Lamboukas a presentable entertainer, introducing him to the press and writing several songs for him. They shocked all of France by marrying (in a civil service, needless to say) less than a year after they met. Lamboukas' parents seemed to be the only ones in the entire country who weren't upset about the marriage. Theo took her to his family home, where the entire family graciously welcomed her. Edith was so nervous that she broke down in tears.

In early 1963, Edith recorded her last song, "L'homme de Berlin." Not long after, Lamboukas took his ailing wife to the Cote d' Azur, hoping to restore her health. Old friends like Raymond Asso and Jean Cocteau, sensing the end was near, came to visit for the last time. Edith asked them to pray to St. Rita, the patron saint of lost causes. She died on the afternoon of October 10, 1963.

Several years after her death, in a highly publicized ceremony, Maurice Chevalier unveiled a plaque outside no. 115 on the rue de Belleville in Paris commemorating the spot where Edith Piaf had not been born. The legend was intact.