“Every damn thing you do in this life, you have to pay for.” – Édith Piaf
The Musée Édith Piaf (opened 1977)
The blind poet, John Milton, illustrated insight into the human condition with his statement, “The anguish of the singer makes the sweetness of the strain.” A chanteuse who proved his words was an alchemist whose songs dwelled on the permanence of love, the impermanence of lovers. To step into her world- whose dragon at the gate is a break-the-mold docent- enter the Musée Édith Piaf.
Édith remains as symbolic of France as baguettes, berets, and the Left Bank. One of her lyrics was, “My heart is at the corner of a street/And often rolls into the gutter” and the gutter was where she arrived. Lore suggests that after a horse-drawn ambulance failed to arrive on time, two policemen delivered Édith on the pavement. Another story contends she was born in the hallway of an apartment on 72 Rue de Belleville. A plaque on the cracked marble doorstep states, “On the steps of this house on 19 December 1915 was born into the greatest poverty Édith Piaf whose voice would later move the entire world.” A far more prosaic account holds that the Hôpital Tenon in Paris issued her birth certificate. Her father, Louis Gassion, an acrobat, married her mother, Annetta, a café singer, before he left for the trenches of World War I. The army issued him a leave to attend his wife’s labor; when he failed to show up, Annetta bitterly remarked, “I’ll bet he wasn’t late for happy hour-la buvette-at a train station bar.” The baby’s name was supposedly inspired by Edith Clavell, the British nurse shot by the Germans for aiding the escape of French prisoners. At two months old, Edith’s maternal grandmother became her guardian when the twenty-year-old Annetta deserted her family, partially as her drug habit kept landing her in jail. (She died of a drug overdose in 1945). Upon Louis’ return, shocked at the squalor of his child’s skeletal frame and squalid environment, he took her to Bernay to live with Acha, his mother, a madame of a Normandy brothel. When Édith suffered from blindness, her grandmother and the eight prostitutes, rosaries in hand, embarked on a pilgrimage to the nearby shrine of Saint Thérèse in Lisieux. Six days later, when her eyesight returned, the town declared it a miraculée, an experience that left Édith deeply religious. Another explanation is a doctor delivered the cure.
At age seven, Édith rejoined her father where Louis performed acrobatic tricks while she waited for the clink of coins on the cobblestones. Soon she took over as a singer; as four-foot eight-inch frame was, in Louis’ words, powerful “enough to drown out the lions.” For seven years father and daughter slept on park benches or cheap hotels until she took off with her friend, Simone Berteaut, (Mômone), who later claimed to be Édith’s half-sister. While Édith sang on the streets of Belleville, Mômone collected tips. They slept in cellars, taking turns warding off the rats. After a fling with a delivery boy nicknamed P’tit Louis, seventeen-year-old Édith gave birth to Marcelle, (Cécelle). By 1933, as her Achilles Heel was men in uniform, she left her baby’s daddy and, along with Mômone and Cécelle, performed in the army barracks of Paris. Furious at her desertion, Louis absconded with their daughter who died from meningitis before her second birthday. Another cryptic chapter relays how the bereft mother slept with a man in exchange for ten francs to bury her baby. Later in life, Édith claimed she received the money without demanding anything in return. Although Mômone had not undergone a baptism, Édith was certain she had gone to heaven.
In 1933, Édith migrated to Pigalle, Paris’ red-light district, where she became a singer for Lulu’s, a lesbian dive. Two years later, while performing near the Champs-Elysées for tips, in Hollywood fashion, Louis Leplée hired her on the spot to work at Le Gerny’s, his prestigious, mob-frequented café. He became Édith’s Pygmalion and took her shopping for a black dress-a style that became her signature fashion. Her eighty-five-pound weight reminded him of a bird, and he dubbed her Piaf (French slang for little sparrow). His nickname for her was “La Mome,” the kid; she referred to him as Papa. She made her debut in his nightclub that included Maurice Chevalier who proclaimed, “That Kid Sparrow tears out your guts.” By the end of the year, she had starred in a film and made her first recording. When a mob bullet, fired into Leplée’s eye, ended his life, suspicion fell on his protégée. She weathered the scandal and ultimately became the country’s highest paid entertainer.
During World War II, Édith toured the Stalag III-D near Berlin where the camp commander allowed her to be photographed with French prisoners of war. The Resistance used the pictures to create false identifications cards that proved instrumental in aiding the escapes of over 100 inmates. In 1947, Édith performed in America at the Versailles, an East Side nightclub where she met Marlene Dietrich who called Édith “the soul of Paris.” The relationship between the Blue Angel and the Little Sparrow made for a lifelong bond. After the club refused to admit Lena Horne, the Little Sparrow unleashed her fury..
And then, mon Dieu, there were the lovers; no one, including the chanteuse, knew their number. The possessor of a Geiger counter for Mr. Wrong, during the same year, Édith fell in love with middleweight boxing champion, Marcel Cerdan, inconvenienced with a wife and children. When the Moroccan Bomber ignored his fear of flying to surprise his lover in New York, his Air France Lockheed Constellation jet crashed over the Azores, killing all forty-eight on board. Scheduled to perform at the Versailles the night his plane went down, the audience, aware of the tragedy, applauded her entrance. She shared with the audience her heartbreak, “No, there must be no applause for me this evening. I am singing for Marcel Cerdan and him alone.” Overcome with the tragedy, Édith collapsed on stage. Several of her letters to her love are on display at the Hôtel de Ville. His loss plunged the singer into an abyss of alcoholism, morphine, and depression. In addition, she suffered from crippling arthritis, exacerbated by injuries inflicted by several car accidents. By the 1950s, the little sparrow looked twenty years older than her age; her frizzy red hair revealed her scalp; her face looked like a mask accentuated by penciled-in brows.
Édith passed away, destitute, from liver cancer in 1963 at age forty-seven. Writer Jean Cocteau stated, “Ah, la Piaf est morte. Je peux mourir aussi” that translates to “Ah, Piaf is dead, I can die also.” Her deathbed adornment was an emerald cross necklace, a present from Dietrich that the pope had blessed. While the little sparrow had always embroidered her biography, her final act needed no embellishment. After the media posted her obituary, mourners purchased 300,000 of her records. Her final resting place is Pere Lachaise Cemetery, situated ten blocks from where she was born; her black marble tomb is near Gertrude Stein’s. At the foot of her monument are the words, “God reunites those who love each other.” In tribute, 40,000 Parisians wept at her grave where Marlene Dietrich delivered her eulogy. The Archbishop of Paris denied her a funeral Mass as he pronounced her lifestyle “irreligious.” In contrast, the French government allocated her the honor of placing a tricolor flag over her coffin for her wartime valor.
To make certain Edith would not endure a second death-one of oblivion-Bernard Marchois founded the Musée Édith Piaf and has served as its curator for over half a century. The museum is in Belleville, in the apartment where Édith had lived in 1933 when she sang in the streets for her supper. As visitors walk down the hallway, they hear the strains of a Piaf song such as “La vie en rose.” The museum consists of two small rooms on a fourth-floor apartment that adjoins the docent’s own living quarters. Stepping across the threshold, one is greeted with a life-size cardboard cutout of the diminutive songbird. A pair of boxing gloves that belonged to Marvel Cerdan rest on a small round table that holds both their photographs. He had been the inspiration for “Hymn à l’ Amour and it was what she sang on stage on the evening of his death. Almost the same size as the former occupant, on a rocking chair rests a teddy bear, a gift from her second husband, Theophanis Lamboukas. The red walls are adorned with floor to ceiling framed letters such as those from Jean Cocteau, photographs, and album covers. Throughout are the former occupant’s collection of China plates, birth certificate, and awards. There are also portraits of the diva, mouth open in the agony of song. Petite headless mannequins model her black dresses; nearby are her Cinderella-sized shoes, gloves, and crocodile-skin Hermès handbag. Bernard says the haphazard placing of the items were intentional as he did not want a traditional, everything-in-its-place museum. He preferred to make it seem as Édith was still present. The heavy furniture came from the apartment where she lived during her final years. When asked why he did not move to a larger space, Bernard responded, “You’ll have to ask Édith yourself.” He said his feelings for Édith was platonic, and this was the reason why he closes the doors between their apartments at night,. He elaborated, “She has her rooms and I have mine.” Before bidding guests adieu, Bernard looks pointedly at the donation bowl. Making their way down the hallway, visitors are oftentimes accompanied by the strains of “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” “No Regrets.”
The View from Her Window: When Édith looked from her window at her beloved Paris, its streets reflected her metamorphosis from the Little Sparrow to the International Nightingale.
Chapter # Remained to Pray