French singer and national icon Édith Piaf was born on December 19, 1915 in Belleville, one of the roughest parts of Paris. Her real name was Édith Giovanna Gassion, but she was more commonly known as La Môme Piaf, or the Sparrow Kid, often translated as the Little Sparrow. She was abandoned by her parents and raised by both of her grandmothers, one of whom ran a brothel in Normandy. Piaf eventually joined her father as a street performer before she struck out on her own as a singer in Pigalle, the red-light district.
She was discovered by Louis Leplée who launched her career at his club off the Champs-Elysées. He turned the 4’8”, nervous girl into an accomplished stage performer in her signature black dress. Their association turned disastrous when Leplée was murdered by gangsters formerly associated with Piaf.
Her career was taken under the wing of Raymond Asso. Piaf’s new act featured songs that she wrote or co-wrote that talked about her life as a street singer. She discovered singers Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour and championed their careers.
Her personal life included a passionate love affair with married man Marcel Cerdan, former middle-weight champion of the world and almost as famous in France as Piaf. When he died in a plane crash, Piaf was an emotional wreck. She was then in a series of near-fatal crashes and never surmounted a cycle of painkiller addictions and alcohol abuse. Piaf had a couple of marriages, but no children. She didn’t seem to find lasting happiness.
She died of cancer on October 10, 1963. The Catholic Church denied her a funeral mass, but the procession, including 100,000 mourners, stopped Paris traffic.
Her songs are part of the soundtrack of France in the collective memories of untold millions. Here’s Piaf performing “La Vie en Rose,” her 1946 hit. Her 1949 classic “L’Hymne à l’amour” coincided with Cerdan’s death. The lyrics to this song are so moving. And here’s a huge song from 1960, near the end of her career, “Non, je ne regrette rien, ” (noh sjuh nuh regret ree-en), which means, “No, I regret nothing.”
The film version of her life, La Vie en Rose (the French title is La Môme), for which Marion Cotillard won an Oscar in 2008, did a great job of capturing the highs and lows of the life of the woman with probably the most widely recognized voice of the 20th century.