Coco Chanel: Her Life, Her Secrets
Paris Was Yesterday
At a press conference when she first came to America in 1947, Edith Piaf was asked whom she most wanted to meet and she replied, “Einstein. And I’m counting on you to get me his phone number.” Her agent was understandably delighted with this piquant sally from his illustrious, unwashed, and untutored gamine. But according to her half sister who writes her vastly too detailed biography, Piaf was not entirely spoofing:
There was a Bible, a copy of Plato, and a book on relativity alongside a framed picture of St. Theresa of Lisieux on Edith’s night table. She mixed them all up a little in her head at first, but she gradually got it straight. Edith had a very open mind and adored learning things.
On Coco Chanel’s last visit to New York in 1957, she expressed the wish to meet Billy Graham of whom she said,
He’s a very intelligent person: he lives in his time and he helps people to understand it. He tells them: “Look at me, I’m smiling, I have good teeth, I’ve had them worked on to give me a beautiful smile because you can’t teach people anything if you’re homely.”
The aspiration of the idolized nightingale of the Paris gutters to meet Einstein, while it was gushier, was more stylish. The dictatorial couturière, famous for her hauteur, in her desire for a rendezvous with Mr. Graham showed a striking vulgarity of taste in Homo sapiens and a highfalutin want of mother wit (teachers, historically, have not been primarily noted for their good looks, pedagogy has not been allied with dentistry), with a clear-eyed mercantile shrewdness: if the meeting had come off, Mlle Chanel might have added a dentifrice to her line of cosmetics, a preaching suit to her costumes, and a chic Bible tote to her accessories.
Why neither Parisienne realized her dream of meeting these heroes is not clear: from all we have heard of Einstein, it seems likely that with his lamblike generosity he might very well have received Mlle Piaf and even accompanied her on the fiddle as she sang “La Vie en Rose“; and from what we know of Billy Graham, it’s a dead cert that he would have been delighted to grant an audience to Mlle Chanel and to have been photographed with her for the front page of Women’s Wear Daily.
If Simone Berteaut’s life of her half sister were only a chronicle of love affairs, struggles, successes, debacles, orgies, good deeds (some of them brave, some quixotic), car crashes, and gross insults to the internal organs brought on by the prodigious assimilation of dope and booze, it would not be much more interesting than any other such chronicles which make up a good part of the literature of show biz. But there is a subplot in this melodrama, the star of which is the author, which makes the book so curious that the reader endures much run-of-the-mill glory-cum-squalor in order to follow the much more unusual and complicated life of Simone.
Both born out of wedlock to different mothers, Edith and Simone were introduced by the sire they shared when Edith was fourteen and Simone was twelve. Papa Louis Gassion was a free-lance acrobat whose stage was the street; an amiable and philoprogenitive fellow, he “never was quite sure exactly which kids were his…. He had more than nineteen he knew of, but try and keep the record straight! In his world you don’t tell city hall before you make a baby, or afterward either.” Simone was born in a hospital, but Edith was born on the pavement on a bitter December night when Gassion was home on leave from the front. Because there were no taxis to be had, the delivery was made nearby a police station and Papa was to say with pride, “My daughter was born on a cop’s cape under a lamppost in front of number 72 rue de Belleville.” Without irony, her sister writes, “There was no better way to ‘arrive’ in the world. For putting over realistic songs later in life, Edith was branded the day she was born.”
Her mother, a circus child and a chanteuse of low degree, handed the baby over to her parents when she was two months old, and in this house where it was believed that “alcohol kills ‘the worm,’ ” she was nourished on milk and red wine while she herself gave suck to lice and other vermin that thrive on filthy human flesh. But when the war was over, Papa Gassion came to her rescue and took her to a clean, well-lighted brothel in Normandy where his mother was the cook for her cousin, the Madam, and the Madam’s kindly whores who scoured the little girl and cosseted her and dressed her like a baby doll; and, in the course of their ministrations, found that she was blind. It had escaped the notice of her sozzled grandparents that she had had cataracts from infancy. Whether it was thanks to the local doctor’s treatments with silver nitrate or to the novenas made to St. Theresa of Lisieux by the adoring girls of the bordello out of business hours, the child began to see when she was seven years old. For the rest of her life, she gave the credit to the Little Flower to whom she prayed when the chips were down and whom she thanked when her star was in the ascendancy.
From the time she was able to see until she was fourteen, she worked with her father in the streets, singing and passing the hat, and learning the pleasures and chicaneries of low-life with such aptitude and enthusiasm that by the time she met her younger half sister, she was already a boss and was to continue in that role, alternately benevolent and despotic, the rest of her hard-working, boisterous, spendthrift days. Their father had taught Simone a handful of acrobatic acts, but by the time the sisters met, she was working (she was twelve, remember) in a factory assembling automobile headlights; she earned eighty-four francs a week for a ten-hour day, and when Edith, who had dissolved the partnership with her old man, offered to hire her, she was delighted to leave her machine known as a “crimper.”
The girl children clowned and sang and flirted in the streets and drank in the bistros with their entourage of friendly pimps and genial burglars, con men, fences, legionnaires who acted as their shills and their protectors and, frequently, as their non-paying guests. Tiny (they were both under five feet when they were mature) and dirty (washing made them nervous), they had the stamina of lunatics, needing next to no food and next to no sleep to sustain them in their strenuous breadwinning and their continual “horsing around”—Simone’s cordial phrase.
When Edith was seventeen, she fell deeply in love for the first and only time with a young bricklayer (as she was to fall deeply in love for the first and only time with an amazing number and variety of men for the next thirty years). Louis Dupont (known as P’tit Louis) came to live with the girls and they slept three in one bed until, after a normal lapse of time, baby made four. When Edith’s pregnancy became conspicuous, they retreated from the streets to work at making pearl funeral wreathes—their job was to paint the pearls black with a spray gun. Subsequently they took the baby about with them, buying her new clothes to replace those she had dirtied (they knew no better how to launder than they did how to bathe).
P’tit Louis was too square for Edith and she dropped him as casually as she had picked him up. He took his daughter to live with his mother but the child died of meningitis at the age of two and a half; in the morgue, Edith cut off a lock of her hair with a nail file lent her by an attendant. The mourning of the mother and the aunt was short-lived: it was not that they were heartless, they simply had other things on their generous, goofy minds.
Eventually, after her arduous (but on the whole, joyful) apprenticeship in the underworld slums, Papa Gassion’s little girl got a break: she was taken up by a cabaret owner, Louis Leplée, who rechristened her La môme Piaf (literally “kid sparrow”), and from her success in his middling—but fashionable and on the Champs-Elysées—establishment, she went on to blossom as a star in Europe and America, singing, from the depths of her diaphragm and at the top of her lungs, simple songs of love and heartbreak, fugitive ecstasy and hard knocks. Sentimentality and toughness, handled with skill, is a parlay hard to beat. She was taken up and fondled in the recherché press by Cocteau; she and her kid sister knew “guys like Baudelaire.”
She toured the provinces, she played in films and on the stage; during World War II, she sang for the men in the stalags; she ran through numerous impresarios; she trained, loved, and repudiated numerous co-stars (the most illustrious was Yves Montand); she made a great deal of money and spent it all on clothes and jewelry for her lovers and week-long sprees for anybody who happened along. During rehearsals for a show, she spared herself and her colleagues nothing, keeping them up all night and sometimes night after night, stoking herself and them with red wine, pernod, brandy, coffee, champagne, and, occasionally, a batch of french fries. Now and again she nostalgically went back to traipsing about the scruffy quarters of her girlhood.
The great love of her life was the Algerian boxer Marcel Cerdan, who, when he was in training for his fight in Jersey City with Tony Zale, divided his time among Casablanca at home with his wife and children to whom he was devoted, his camp, and Edith’s Paris apartment. In Paris, she was conscientious about his diet and his hours and his abstention from weakening dissipations; but, following him to America, with the faithful Simone, she secretly took up lodging in a cottage nearby his celibate quarters and he visited her there nightly. This defiance of a cardinal rule in all prize-fighting circles in no way enfeebled Cerdan and he kayoed Zale in the fourth round to become middleweight champion of the world. But later on, when he was preparing to defend his title against La Motta at Madison Square Garden, Piaf dropped her role of mother hen and, because he was mad for her and she was a sorceress, she led him down every primrose Dionysian path she could find, and, after weeks of revels with champagne until sun-up, La Motta won the title from Cerdan without half trying.
A few months later, Piaf went to New York for an engagement at the Versailles where she had been a smashing hit before. Marcel, who was giving exhibition bouts throughout France and was once again conscientiously in training, and Simone were to join Edith when he had finished his tour. They had booked passage on a ship, but the day before they were to sail, the impetuous sparrow telephoned to say that she could not be without her lover one minute longer, and he obediently took a plane; it crashed in the Azores and he was killed. For three years thereafter, Piaf held consultations with a table, imbued, she was convinced, with Cerdan’s spirit. (During this period, she acquired the conviction that in an earlier life she had been Marie Antoinette—“ ‘I’d have thrown cake down to them, too, as much as they wanted.’ “) Along with table-tapping, she took up drugs, and she returned to her pattern (she still grieved for Cerdan, but a girl has to keep busy) of falling deeply in love for the first and only time.