1 December 2018

Gilles Costaz: Edith Piaf (1974)

Although much shorter than Duclos and Martin's biography, which I could in no way conclude, this book – which is both biography and the words of her most noted songs – I could relate to it far more as it is straightforward and doesn't lose itself at all.

It's interesting to note that both Piaf and Maurice Chevalier – who I can't stand at all – were both born in the Belleville area of Paris (20th arrondissement), but received a very different upbringing. Piaf had a much rougher time, and was literally born in the street. Her mother was an 'artiste lyrique' and her father a street acrobat. After staying some years (during three of which she was blind) with her brothel-keeping paternal grandmother in Bernay, l'Eure, her father took her back to Belleville when she was seven. There, she passed around the hat for her father's audience, and he got her to sing a few lines of songs in the process. Realising the success of her singing, he taught her some more songs.

She was on her own at the age of fifteen, became pregnant at seventeen but lost her baby at a young age. She moved to Pigalle and was 'discovered' at twenty by Louis Leplée, who changed her songs from the sugary Tino Rossi type to a more 'realistic' kind.

However, a bigger break came when Raymond Asso, who came to write songs for her, changed her name from 'la môme Piaf' to Edith Piaf. The rest, I suppose, is well-known history, and Costaz goes on to mention her first film La Garçonne (an adaptation of Victor Margueritte's novel); the beginning of her song-writing during the war ('La Vie en rose'); her acting L'Étoile sans lumière with Yves Montand; and her success with 'Les Trois Cloches', which I've mentioned before in this blog in relation to Jean-François Nicot and the wrongly identified grave in Baumes-les-Messieurs, Jura.

Piaf's short life, her addiction to morphine and refuge in alcohol, etc, make for sad reading. Both of her marriages were short-lived: the first, to the famous boxer Marcel Cerdan, only lasted a few years because he died in an air crash in 1949. She re-married in 1962, to the much younger Theophanis Lamboukas (later Sarapo), although she died a year later, at 47.

Costaz finishes the story on a positive note: Piaf's grave in Père-Lachaise has become one of the most sought-after sights in the cemetery; Serge Lama and Léo Ferré, for instance, wrote songs of praise to her; but most of all her singing lives on.

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