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Living It Out

She married twice: in 1952 she married the singer Jacques Pills but she was too far gone on drink and drugs and on the headiness of her own réclame to be domesticated, and four years later, the marriage, never robust, petered out. In 1962, she married Théo Sarapo, a beautiful (” ‘He looks like a big black tomcat’ “) stage-struck Greek hairdresser twenty-odd years her junior.

For years she had been plagued with arthritis for which she was given cortisone and painkillers; her liver and stomach and lungs had been abused nearly to the limit of their endurance. She collapsed, in the middle of performances, she was booed, the press garroted her; but she always landed on her feet—to be sure, a little less firmly each time. “From 1951 to 1963,” writes Simone, “Edith Piaf had undergone four automobile accidents, one attempted suicide, four drug cures, one sleep treatment, two fits of delirium tremens, seven operations, three hepatic comas, one spell of madness, two bouts with bronchial pneumonia and one with pulmonary edema.” Balding, her face bloated with steroids, she was cared for with infinite tenderness and adoration by her child bridegroom until she died less than a year after their wedding in a Greek Orthodox church in the sixteenth arrondissement, “the snobbiest of them all.”

Simone tells her sister’s story with a racy and agreeable abandon and in timeless slang. Up to a point the story is moving, comic, exhilaratingly scandalizing, full of enough turpitude and glitter and grime to run three Sundays in The News of the World. But Piaf’s career is not unique and it is Simone’s role in it that is far more puzzling and arresting than those of any of the stars and supernumeraries. She admits that life with Edith was tiring but she does not really complain:

…she had no set hours for anything, not even sleeping. When she decided she was sleepy, I had to put her to bed, tuck her in and give her her ear plugs and a black mask for her eyes…. And when she woke up, I had to be awake before she was, before I even knew she’d opened her eyes. If she decided she didn’t want to sleep, I had to stay up with her.

While she never scrupled to cheat on her men, Piaf was hysterically jealous of them and made Simone dog their footsteps when they were out of her sight. Now and again Simone cut out to live her own life, but of a marriage which was apparently happy but which ended when her husband was killed in World War II almost the moment he got to the front, she says little. One time, living in Casablanca where she had gone to visit her fiancé (he is not further identified), she met and slept several times with Marcel Cerdan before Edith met him in New York afterward. “I’d returned from Casablanca and was working the gas pump at a suburban garage. One night the boss sent me out to get the paper. On the front page was a picture of Cerdan, Edith Piaf and ‘Miss Cotton,’ an American, getting off a plane.” She did not associate her short-term lover with her sister. All she cared about was that Edith was back, and she at once set about to find her; and when she did, “I wept for joy. I couldn’t live without Edith,” although “I was scared. Our reunions weren’t always pleasant, and it was a long time since I’d seen Edith.”

If she ever revealed her own affair with Cerdan to Edith, she does not report their conversation; probably she did not, for one gathers that she did not share her sister’s joy in screaming matches. During the Cerdan period, it was she who rose early and fixed his fruit juice and then jogged along behind him on his morning workout; and it was she who first ate the food served to him by others to test it for poison.

When she was dying on the Riviera, Piaf telephoned Simone in Paris, summoning her to her bedside. It was not Piaf’s fault that Théo had taken a house remote from railways and bus routes, nor was it her fault that Simone arrived on a cold and windy night and was obliged to stumble on foot a good distance after the taxi could proceed no further; nor was it the sparrow’s fault that Simone and the couple caring for her were not on good terms so that, half-frozen, she was offered no coffee, half-starved, was offered none of the rabbit stew which was giving off delicious odors as it simmered on the back of the stove. After the sisters’ final conversation (Piaf died the following day), she was not invited to sleep in the house but was bidden a cool good-bye at four in the morning. Piaf’s funeral was spectacular; she left her husband, loving, overwhelmed with debts.

Undoubtedly there was a genuine sisterly devotion between the two, but there is something unwholesome in Simone’s immolation to Edith and one wishes that now, when surely she has nothing to lose, she would step out onto the stage from the wings where she faithfully stayed, always at the ready with pills, a needle and thread, a damp washcloth, glad tidings of applause in the peanut gallery. I’d like to know what became of her and how she fares now and where. She sounds like a nice kid.

The little black dress in which Edith Piaf habitually performed did not come from the House of Chanel. Until the arrival on the Paris scene of Gabrielle Chanel, the imperious milliner and seamstress from the Auvergne, black had been worn almost exclusively by women in mourning. She made black, with simple embellishments of white cuffs and collars or with modest fake jewelry, at first a beguiling novelty and then a necessity. “The little black dress” was to become as essential to a proper wardrobe as underclothes. Mlle Chanel got to Paris during la belle époque before World War I, and with quiet diligence she set about to revolutionize fashion. She gave the coup de grâce to the hampering finery of the cocotte, an attire that was already obsolescent because the species was obsolescent now that kings, dethroned, were too poor to dress their favorites in pearl-encrusted fur-belows. Chanel did not begin the vogue of bobbed hair but, by bestowing her imprimatur on it in 1917, she hastened and broadcast it.

Her taste was inherent; her practical intelligence was agile and fertile. She renewed simplicity, cleanliness, perfume, and the hat: “The hat to her was the ultimate privilege of the privileged woman, the mark of distinction, the patent of membership in the cast of the true happy few—she used the English phrase—the rare possessor of wealth and eminence: her aristocracy. For them, the very well provided for, she believed, the hat would always be mandatory.” Did this perhaps account for the old habit of fashion magazine editors and their staffs of wearing hats to their offices? The Chanel suit, like the cardigan and the chesterfield, is an established article of apparel; Chanel No. 5 is a household term; summering in the South of France instead of in the north, a trend she began, will probably continue as long as there are summers and are sands and are human beings.

Coco Chanel’s biographer, Marcel Haedrich, met her for the first time in 1958 when she was seventy-five, “a prodigy beatified,” and if he did not succeed in abstracting the whole, or even part, of the truth from her, he assembled enough of the fictions she had contrived about herself to make his book highly entertaining. She was elusive in interviews, partly because it was her nature to be elusive and partly because she was forgetful with age. Together with M. Haedrich, the reader wonders why she felt the need to invent herself and what she might have been if she had not deliberately obscured herself in myth. ” ‘Legend…is the consecration of fame,’ ” she said and “to embroider her own she became Penelope. Each night she undid what she had made that day, and each day she started over, unwearyingly.” Troubled—indeed, imperiled—by somnambulism, she was once advised to see a psychiatrist, but she laughed the suggestion to scorn, saying that she had never told the truth to anyone, not even to a priest—how could she tell the truth to a footling minion of Freud?

She came from a family of itinerant wine-speculators who roved from village to town and from market to fair. “‘They bought wine on the spot…. If they bought it for two francs and sold it for three, it was a big day. And if they paid three and sold for one, it was the end of the world.”’ Her mother died when she was six and she was taken in (this was her tale) by two good but cool-hearted aunts who lived in a beautiful house with gleaming floors and chests full of linens. Her father had gone to America to seek his fortune. In fact, on the death of her mother, she and her two sisters were taken to their paternal grandparents in Vichy, and her two brothers, whom she never saw again, were put into an orphanage. One night, her father went out to buy cigarettes and disappeared as completely as Judge Crater. He may, indeed, have gone to America to sample Virginia tobacco but he may instead have gone to Istanbul if he fancied Oriental smokes.

Coco (she had been christened Gabrielle but her father, dreading the nickname “Gaby,” called her Coco from the start and she insisted on this form of address) was sent as a charity pupil to a convent school in Moulins. So galling was her position (she was not an orphan! Was not her father amassing a fortune in America?) that she probably vowed while she was learning fractions and subjunctives to make money, to be independent, and to be the giver rather than the recipient of alms. At Moulins, a beautiful and very old city, there was a cavalry garrison and one of its officers was the rich and nobby Etienne Balsan whom she met when she was twenty and who, for all practical purposes, launched her on her career.

Balsan’s principal interest was in horses and he was a record-breaking gentleman jockey while he was still at the garrison. When he had finished his training and completed his tour of duty in Algeria, he bought the château of Royallieu near Compiègne and near his stables and training tracks at La Croix-St.-Ouen, and to it he took the rustic beauty to play second fiddle to his official mistress, a magnificently bejeweled and beflounced Parisian cocotte, Emilienne d’Alençon. It was an odd but evidently harmonious household; Coco accepted her ambiguous situation without rancor and, anyhow, practiced a clever one-upmanship by spending her time at the stables where she had Etienne to herself as well as the jockeys and trainers and other enthusiastic equestrians who were smart, rich, cynical, Anglophiliac, and who found her beauty exotic and the acerbity of her wit delightful.

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