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French vocalist, songwriter, cabaret performer and film actress noted as France’s national chanteuse and one of the country’s most widely known international stars. Piaf’s music was often autobiographical and she specialized in chanson and torch ballads about love, loss and sorrow. Since her death in 1963, several biographies and films have studied her life, including 2007’s Academy Award-winning La Vie en rose — and Piaf has become one of the most celebrated performers of the 20th century. Despite numerous biographies, much of Piaf’s life is unknown. She was born Édith Giovanna Gassion in Belleville, Paris. She was named Édith after the World War I British nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed 2 months before her birth for helping French soldiers escape from German captivity. Normandy with a past in the theatre.
French descent on her father’s side and of Italian and Moroccan Shilha Berber origin on her mother’s, and she was a native of Livorno, Italy. She worked as a café singer under the name Line Marsa. When her father enlisted with the French Army in 1916 to fight in World War I, he took her to his mother, who ran a brothel in Bernay, Normandy. There, prostitutes helped look after Piaf. From the age of three to seven, Piaf was allegedly blind as a result of keratitis. According to one of her biographers, she recovered her sight after her grandmother’s prostitutes pooled money to accompany her on a pilgrimage honouring Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.
Piaf claimed this was the result of a miraculous healing. In 1929, at age 14, she joined her father in his acrobatic street performances all over France, where she first sang in public. Together they toured the streets singing and earning money for themselves. 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 Piaf’s roaming the streets, and continually persuaded her to take jobs he found for her. She resisted his suggestions, until she became pregnant and worked for a short while making wreaths in a factory.
Like her mother, Piaf found it difficult to care for a child, 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. The three stayed at the Hôtel Au Clair de Lune, Rue André-Antoine. During this time, Marcelle was often left alone in the room while Piaf and Mômone were out on the streets or at the club singing. Dupont eventually came and took Marcelle away, saying that if Édith wanted the child, she must come home. Leplée ran an intense publicity campaign leading up to her opening night, attracting the presence of many celebrities, including actor and singer 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 favourite composers.
On 6 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. In 1940, Piaf co-starred in Jean Cocteau’s successful one-act play Le Bel Indifférent. In 1947, she wrote the lyrics to the song « Mais qu’est-ce que j’ai ? 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. 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. Piaf’s career and fame gained momentum during the German occupation of France. Piaf was deemed to have been a traitor and collaboratrice. She had to testify before a purge panel, as there were plans to ban her from appearing on radio transmissions.
At age 17 Piaf had a daughter, Marcelle, who died aged two. Piaf neither wanted nor had other children. The love of Piaf’s life, the married boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash in October 1949, while flying from Paris to New York City to meet her. In 1951, Piaf was seriously injured in a car crash along with Charles Aznavour, breaking her arm and two ribs, and thereafter had serious difficulties arising from morphine and alcohol addictions.