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Edith Piaf Biography


Home > Music > P > Piaf, Edith > Biography


Birth Name: Édith Giovanna Gassion
Born: 1915/12/19
Birth Place: Belleville, Paris, France
Died: 1963/10/11
Years Active: 1935–1963
Genres: Cabaret, Torch Songs, Chanson


Édith Piaf (December 19, 1915 – October 10, 1963) was a French singer who became widely regarded as France's national diva, as well as being one of France's greatest international stars. Despite numerous biographies, much of Piaf's life is shrouded in mystery. She was born Édith Giovanna Gassion in Belleville, Paris. Legend has it that she was born on the pavement of Rue de Belleville 72, but her birth certificate cites the Hôpital Tenon, on 19 December 1915 -- the hospital for the 20th arrondissement, of which Belleville is part. She was named Édith after the World War I British nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed for helping French soldiers escape from German captivity. Piaf – an argot colloquialism for "sparrow" – was a nickname she received 20 years later.

Louis-Alphonse Gassion, Édith's father, was a street acrobat performer from Normandy with a past in the theatre. He was the son of Victor Alphonse Gassion and Léontine Louise Descamps, known as Maman Tine, who ran a brothel in Normandy. Her mother, Annetta Giovanna Maillard, was of French descent on her father's side and of Italian and Berber origin on her mother's. She worked as a café singer under the name Line Marsa.

Édith's mother abandoned her at birth, and she lived for a short time with her maternal grandmother, Emma (Aïcha). Before he enlisted with the French Army in 1916 to fight in World War I, her father took her to his mother, who ran a brothel in Normandy. There, prostitutes helped look after Piaf.

In 1929, at age 14, she joined her father in his acrobatic street performances all over France, where she first sang in public. At the age of 15, Piaf met Simone "Mômone" Berteaut, who may have been her half-sister, definitely a companion for most of her life, and together they toured the streets singing and earning money for themselves for the first time. With the additional money Piaf earned as part of an acrobatic trio, Piaf and Mômone were able to rent their own living space. She separated from her father and took a room at Grand Hôtel de Clermont , working with Marmone as a street singer in Pigalle, Ménilmontant, and the Paris suburbs.

In 1932, she met and fell in love with Louis Dupont. Within a very short time, he moved into their small room, where the three lived despite Louis' and Mômone's dislike for each other. Louis was never happy with the idea of Edith's roaming the streets, and continually persuaded her to take jobs he found for her. She resisted his persuasions whenever possible, until she became pregnant and worked for a short while making wreaths in a factory.

In February 1933, when Edith was 17 years old, her daughter, Marcelle, was born in the Hôpital Tenon. Like her mother, Piaf found it difficult to care for a child while living a life of the streets, as she had little maternal instinct, parenting knowledge or domestic skills. She rapidly returned to street singing, until the summer of 1933, when she opened at Juan-les-Pins, Rue Pigalle. Marcelle's father, Louis, whom Piaf never married, was incensed. They quarrelled and Piaf left, taking Mômone and Marcelle. The three of them stayed at the Hôtel Au Clair de Lune, Rue André-Antoine. Marcelle was often left alone in the room while Piaf and Mômone were out on the streets or at the club singing, and died of meningitis at age 2.

In 1935, Piaf was discovered in the Pigalle area of Parisby nightclub owner Louis Leplée, whose club Le Gerny off the Champs-Élysées was frequented by the upper and lower classes alike. He persuaded her to sing despite her extreme nervousness, which, combined with her height of only 4 feet 8 inches inspired him to give her the nickname that would stay with her for the rest of her life and serve as her stage name, La Môme Piaf (Paris slang meaning "The Waif Sparrow" or "The Little Sparrow"). Leplée taught her the basics of stage presence and told her to wear a black dress, which became her trademark apparel. Later, she would always appear in black. Leplée ran an intense publicity campaign leading up to her opening night, attracting the presence of many celebrities, including actor Maurice Chevalier. Her nightclub gigs led to her first two records produced that same year, with one of them penned by Marguerite Monnot, a collaborator throughout Piaf's life and one of her favorite composers.

In April 1936, Leplée was murdered. Piaf was questioned and accused as an accessory, but acquitted. Leplée had been killed by mobsters with previous ties to Piaf. A barrage of negative media attention now threatened her career. To rehabilitate her image, she recruited Raymond Asso, with whom she would become romantically involved. He changed her stage name to “Édith Piaf,” barred undesirable acquaintances from seeing her, and commissioned Monnot to write songs that reflected or alluded to Piaf's previous life on the streets.

In 1940, Piaf co-starred in Jean Cocteau's successful one-act play “Le Bel Indifférent.” She began forming friendships with prominent people, including Chevalier and poet Jacques Borgeat. She wrote the lyrics of many of her songs and collaborated with composers on the tunes. In 1944, she discovered Yves Montand in Paris, made him part of her act, and became his mentor and lover. Within a year, he became one of the most famous singers in France. She broke off their relationship when he had become almost as popular as she was.

During this time, she was in great demand and very successful in Paris as France's most popular entertainer. After the war, she became known internationally, touring Europe, the United States, and South America. She helped launch the career of Charles Aznavour in the early 1950s, taking him on tour with her in France and the United States and recording some of his songs. At first she met with little success with U.S. audiences, who regarded her as downcast. After a glowing review by a prominent New York critic, however, her popularity grew, to the point where she eventually appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” eight times and at Carnegie Hall twice once in 1956 and again in 1957.

Édith Piaf's signature song, “La vie en rose,” was written in 1945 and was voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. Bruno Coquatrix's famous Paris Olympia music hall is where Piaf achieved lasting fame, giving several series of concerts at the hall, the most famous venue in Paris, between January 1955 and October 1962. Excerpts from five of these concerts (1955, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962) were issued on record and CD and have never been out of print. The 1961 concerts, promised by Piaf in an effort to save the venue from bankruptcy, debuted her song “Non, je ne regrette rien.” In April 1963, Piaf recorded her last song, “L'Homme de Berlin.”

Piaf died of liver cancer at age 47 at her villa in Plascassier (Grasse), on the French Riviera, on October 10, 1963.