In Parisian working-class slang, a piaf is a sparrow. The proper term is moineau, which means “little monk.” But in the song “Comme un moineau,” the moineau is a prostitute who ekes out a living in the gutter where she was born and where she expects to die (“Elle est née comme un moineau/Elle a vécu comme un moineau/Elle mourra comme un moineau.”) This was the song that the diminutive nineteen-year-old Édith Gassion was belting out to passersby in October 1935 on a street near the Champs-Élysées when she was discovered by a nightclub owner called Louis Leplée. He was enthralled by the untrained voice that could penetrate the noise of the street (her “assaultive vibrato,” Carolyn Burke calls it), but also by the girl’s charismatic lack of sophistication. A few days later, the terrified waif was introduced by Leplée to the wealthy audience of his nightclub, le Gerny’s, “as she was when I first saw her: no makeup, no stockings, in a cheap little skirt.”
She stood rigidly on the stage, an incongruous specimen of Paris street life, trying to hide the unfinished sleeve of the sweater she had been knitting for the occasion. The guttersnipe’s powerful lungs won the audience over, and she became almost instantly famous. For the following twelve weeks, “La Môme Piaf” (Leplée had dubbed his protégée “Kid Sparrow”) was heard every Sunday morning on the popular program Radio-Cité. She acquired a black dress, some lipstick and mascara, and learned to match her gestures to the songs she was singing. It is a mark of Piaf’s professionalism that, from then on, practically every performance was a triumph.
One of her first reviewers, Pierre de Régnier, had been writing a newspaper column for years and had seen everything that Paris had to offer, but even he struggled to explain how La Môme Piaf could make the crummiest old song so moving. She seemed “embarrassed at being so small”; she was thin and “poorly coiffed,” but there was that voice “the color of oysters,”
that indescribable voice, which is both harsh and ample, ordinary and unique…still childlike and already full of despair, that voice that hits you in the stomach just when you’re not thinking about it.
Leplée decided that Édith would specialize in the chanson réaliste. She already knew the songs; she had the accent; she was, in the trade term, “authentic.” Chansons réalistes were mawkish, drunkenly depressing songs, written in easily comprehensible argot, about prostitution, drug addiction, hopeless love affairs, drudgery, and inescapable poverty. The singer herself was supposed to have experienced—or to be living through—all these obnoxious travails, but to have found, deep within, the courage or the brazen good humor to struggle on. The song for which Piaf is now best known—“Je ne regrette rien” (1960)—was a much later, upmarket version of these funereal ditties: its key line, “Je me fous du passé” (only weakly translated by “I don’t give a damn about the past”), appears in very similar forms in several of her early hits.
The biographies of so many popular singers were concocted by their agents and impresarios that one half expects to learn that the tales of Piaf’s wretched past were invented to fit the image. In fact, journalists and ghostwriters found, when they told her story, that the truth had to be sweetened. Her experiences of the gutter were too réaliste even for fans of the chanson réaliste. As Carolyn Burke explains in her sympathetic but scholarly biography, little Édith was already a hardened performer when she appeared on the stage of le Gerny’s. She was born in 1915 in the rough and dingy Paris suburb of Belleville where, as Burke delicately puts it, “the shared experience of grinding poverty made residents all the more likely to live for the moment.”
Her mother was a singer and an alcoholic, who left the two-month-old Édith with her alcoholic grandmother. Her father, Louis Gassion, came from a family of circus performers and earned his living as a traveling contortionniste-antipodiste, which meant that he tied himself in knots and walked upside down. At the end of World War I, Gassion returned from the front to find his little daughter sickly and malnourished. He rescued her from the slums of Belleville and sent her to live with his mother, who ran a brothel in the Norman town of Bernay. When Édith was about seven years old (the chronology is unclear), he “rescued” her again. For the next eight or nine years, she shared the sleazy existence of an itinerant contortionist. To Gassion, his daughter was a financial asset and, since he was also a womanizer, she could be used as a lure. “Shrewd when it came to recruiting women, he placed advertisements in the regional newspapers: ‘Young woman wanted to look after child. Job includes enjoyable travel.’”
Piaf herself summed up the years she spent as a circus act with the concision of a lyricist:
A new mother every three months: his mistresses, who were more or less kind to me, depending on whether my songs—I was already singing, and doing the collection—brought me money or catcalls.
At the close of each show, “Miss Édith,” the “vocal phenomenon,” sang popular songs, some of which were faintly pornographic. Burke “wonders if audiences noticed the incongruity of a prepubescent child’s crooning [a] racy fox-trot,” and suggests that “this strangeness only enhanced the song’s appeal.”
Even after liberating herself from her father, the teenage Édith remained a kind of circus attraction. As she said herself, people came to hear her “as if being shown a rare animal at a fair.” Her nasal, melancholy voice, roughened by alcohol and late nights, was like the well-rehearsed trick of a cardsharp or a pickpocket. She seems to have thrived, after a fashion, in the bars and streets of Pigalle. Burke nicely sets the scene with a few lines from the novelist René Fallet:
dark nights lit by flickering electric signs, the sound of rain and piano rolls, a hubbub, silence, dance halls, shadowy corners, neon lights, hallways.
Inevitably, Piaf’s own memoirs are the main source of information, and pre-war Pigalle sometimes sounds as phony as her sentimental repertoire: “Ragpickers hushed their cries to listen,” Burke writes, “and housewives dropped coins from their windows…. Hookers wiped their eyes when she sang.” Nevertheless, Piaf’s grim apprenticeship is the most captivating part of the biography, partly because we can never be sure what really happened in that tawdry milieu.
Burke is understandably keen to save the singer she admires from the effects of malicious gossip. Piaf was a child who had been misused by her parents and who then fell prey to pimps and gangsters: “at eighteen she could not have understood that she was being drawn into a closed world, with its own codes and expectations”; she struggled “with the milieu‘s mores”; “Piaf’s account of her attempts to leave Valette [a pimp] ring true even though they suggest scenes from a film noir.” This cautious approach is highly effective in evoking the routine horrors of Piaf’s life as a street singer: her motives are always slightly in doubt, and our view of her criminal activities is blurred as if by the rain and neon of Pigalle.
When she worked for the pimp known as Ali-Baba (Henri Valette), her job consisted of looking out for “dance halls where there were well-dressed women wearing necklaces and rings.” Valette would then seduce the women and snatch their jewels “while Édith waited at a café.” But what exactly was her role? A Pigalle pimp would have known where to find well-dressed women without the help of a street singer. Equally, the tale of her discovery by Leplée sounds interestingly implausible. Burke sees “no reason not to adopt Piaf’s account” (written—or ghostwritten—more than twenty years later) of a silvery-haired gentleman (Leplée) who was concerned that the girl might ruin her voice. However, one of the alternative versions, which Burke relegates to the endnotes, is more consistent with Burke’s own description of the milieu: one of Édith’s gangster lovers, who was blackmailing Leplée because he was homosexual, “engineered their meeting in order to “‘screw Édith for more money.’”
When Leplée himself was shot dead in 1936, Piaf was questioned by the police. The scandal boosted her career and made her face a familiar sight in gossip magazines. She was certainly innocent of the murder, yet curious, unexplained incidents continued to occur, like shadowy episodes in the cheap crime novels that were set in Pigalle. Later that year, she was booked to sing at a club in Nice:
On the train to the Riviera, she shared her third-class compartment with a young man who held her hand while she dozed on his shoulder. At Marseille, two detectives handcuffed the man and, to Édith’s distress, hauled him off the train.
Piaf recounted the incident to the songwriter Raymond Asso, who turned it into a sad but hauntingly equivocal song, “Paris-Méditerranée.” In the song, the man and the woman make love in the quiet compartment. When the police take the man away, he stretches his hands out toward her, “as if in a gesture of prayer.” The song concludes, “You meet some strange people in trains and stations.” Of course, the man himself may indeed have been a criminal.
Piaf was one of the most effective manipulators of mass emotion in the twentieth century. She wrote many of her own songs, and she excelled, for almost thirty years, in one of the trickiest genres in popular music—the “lyrics-of-the-people” tradition, in which, as the Figaro‘s music critic observed, “the slightest exaggeration makes you look ridiculous.” Piaf credited Asso with turning her into a professional singer: “It took him three years to cure me. Three years of patient affection to teach me that there was another world beyond that of prostitutes and pimps.” But what Asso called “her scrappy street spirit” was not easily tamed.
Victims are not always innocent. Piaf survived both the Nazi occupation and its aftermath more successfully than many other popular entertainers. During the war, she installed her entourage of servants, musicians, lovers, and hangers-on in an apartment on the third floor of a brothel near the Arc de Triomphe. As a useful establishment, the brothel was protected by the Nazis: it was always heated and well supplied with food and champagne. Madame Billy, who ran it, later recalled that “Édith didn’t give a damn about the Germans…or about the risks we ran,” which neatly sums up Piaf’s attitude toward the occupation. She left the brothel in a timely fashion in the spring of 1944: as Burke euphemistically puts it, “an apartment that could not be linked to collaboration with the Germans made sense.”
After the war, Piaf was interrogated by one of the “purge panels” set up to deal with collaborators, and cited the names of “Jewish friends whose shelter she had arranged and financed.” She had shown admirable defiance of the Nazis by performing a song by a Jewish composer. She explained that her well-advertised tours of German prison camps—a propaganda coup for the Nazis—had enabled her to distribute maps, compasses, and fake identification papers to the prisoners. Burke also writes that she performed at “benefits for bombing victims and families whose breadwinners were doing forced labor in Germany.” The purge panel voted unanimously, “No sanction and congratulations.” Even so, some of the tales of her courage may sound as implausible as lyrics without the singer’s voice. According to her secretary, “officials at one [prison] camp became suspicious and told Piaf to leave.” It is hard to imagine a Nazi officer simply telling a suspect to leave the prison without even searching her luggage (although she may have gotten rid of anything incriminating by then).