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The Flight of the Sparrow

From then on, Piaf’s life was an endless string of concerts and increasingly youthful lovers. Burke makes the frenzied monotony of her tours as interesting as possible. Her research into the popular press is impressively broad, and she quotes hundreds of reviews of Piaf’s performances. Obviously, the stale prose of journalists is no substitute for the music, and it seems slightly unfair of Burke to accuse Olivier Dahan of “thinning the texture” of Piaf’s life in his recent biopic, La Môme (2007; retitled La Vie en Rose for anglophone audiences), in which Marion Cotillard mimes brilliantly to recordings of Piaf’s voice.

Neither the biography nor the movie are fundamentally in disagreement with Piaf’s own view of her life. Both accept her suffering as excusing one action or another. Justifiable self-pity was a crucial element of Piaf’s image, and perhaps the conviction that she was doomed to unhappiness was a way of coping with success. Her sheer doggedness verged on masochism. She survived addiction to morphine, alcohol, and sleeping pills, and several chronic illnesses. She collapsed on stage several times. She sang until she could no longer stay in tune, standing in the spotlight “like a dying moth.” She took her first and only vacation four months before her death in October 1963.

Burke’s biography resembles the movie, too, in appearing to underestimate Piaf’s steeliness. The great tragedy of her adult life was the death in a plane crash of one of her longer-lasting lovers, the boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, who was married and had three children. The lamented Marcel became a part of Piaf’s act. “Audiences were gripped with emotion each time she sang ‘Hymne à l’amour,’ from then on backed by a chorus of angelic voices.” Burke concludes that, by making a cult of her tragic love, Piaf was sublimating her erotic energy and transforming it into art. But her reaction to Cerdan’s death also suggests a more conscious professionalism. The news of the plane crash had spread throughout New York City before she was told about it, and every ticket for that evening’s performance at the Versailles Club had been sold. Piaf gave an interview, lit a candle at a church, then performed her entire repertoire at the nightclub, including “Hymne à l’amour.” At the end, “she clutched the curtain, then collapsed before she could sing the final line.” After this impressive performance, she decided to complete her run at the Versailles because it would “damage her career if she left…before the end of her contract.”

That savage lullaby, “Je ne regrette rien,” was not just the anthem of a brave survivor. Describing Piaf’s triumph at the Paris Olympia, Burke writes, “she personified the Gallic way of meeting adversity in her belief that there was no reason to regret the past, no reason at all.” “Not regretting the past,” in this stoic sense, is not an attitude that one readily associates with France in the twentieth century. Nor, when applied to a singer who consistently left her audiences in tears, does it suggest the “tough-minded refusal of sentimentality” that Burke associates with “French culture.” She seems closer to the mark when she describes a French Foreign Legion unit defiantly singing Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” after the failed putsch by pro-French Algeria generals in 1961. In this context, the phrase does not refer to the past (about which French Algeria activists cared only too deeply); it means “I have no remorse.” Piaf often likened herself to Mary Magdalen, but, on stage, she was a dry-eyed Magdalen who infallibly made other people weep. Without the toughness she acquired on the roads of France and in the bars of Pigalle, “Je ne regrette rien” would not have been such an inspirational hymn to the sustaining power of egotism.

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