Review: No Regrets: the Life of Edith Piaf by Carolyn Burke
Bloomsbury, €15.99, Paperback
Published 07/05/2011 | 05:00
Edith Piaf, the "little sparrow" with the cavernous throat, sang herself onto the Paris pavements between the wars.
Always waiflike, by the time she died in 1963, aged 47, she had started to look like a Disney witch; she seemed smaller than her 4ft 10in, her famous hands, which fluttered about on the stage like moths, were stiff with arthritis, her liver was destroyed, her frizzy hair had thinned to the point that you could see her scalp, and the mask-like face beneath the pencilled brows was swollen and yellowed by drugs.
For 30 years, as Carolyn Burke puts it in this concise and compelling book, Piaf had represented "France to the French" and 40,000 mourners joined her funeral procession.
Then began the afterlife, in which her few intimates (including Marlene Dietrich) and many hangers-on (her so-called "sister" Simone Bertaut, known as Mômone) gave conflicting accounts of Piaf's rise to fame while competing over who had known her best.
Whichever version of Piaf's life you read, it's a terrific story and a biographer's dream. Burke's approach is rational rather than romantic and she dispenses with a good deal of the myth.
Born in a hospital in Belleville, a slum on the outskirts of Paris, Edith Gassion was abandoned by her young mother -- a street singer and drug addict -- to be raised by the prostitutes in her grandmother's brothel.
Piaf later described how, aged six, she lost her sight and the women of the house took their rosaries to the grave of St Theresa. When her vision returned soon afterwards it was treated as a miracle, and her life was seen as blessed.
Burke suggests it was the doctor rather than the saint who cured her, but Piaf remained a committed Catholic with a sense of divine purpose.
She was encouraged by her father -- a 5ft-tall trapeze artist -- to belt out her boulevard ballads on street corners, where she was discovered by a homosexual nightclub owner, Louis Leplée, who not much later was shot in the eye by hoodlums.
Piaf's only child died, aged two, of meningitis, after which, desperate to love and be loved, the singer surrounded herself with dependants. She began and ended sexual relationships with terrifying velocity, her scores of lovers circling her life like aircraft waiting to land.
Her "great love" was the middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, who was killed in an accident on his way to see her in New York; Piaf afterwards supported his widow and children while the menacing Mômone, part of her entourage of lost souls, faked seances in which Cerdan advised his grieving mistress to part with large sums of money.
Piaf married twice, on the second occasion to a Greek hairdresser 20 years her junior. Neither marriage was happy.
"The song is my life," said Piaf, who would sing herself to death, and Burke accordingly gives us the life through the lyrics. Because there are so many and because Burke describes so well their composition and performance, placing each in its historical and emotional context, it was helpful, I found, to play them as a soundtrack.
This also served as a reminder of the astonishingly feral quality, the trance-like strangeness, of Piaf's voice. Her mode was chanson réaliste: spare, tragic tales of the downtrodden, whose verité drew the attention of the likes of Jean Cocteau, who became her friend.
The famous 'Non, je ne regrette rien' was written after an illness brought on by Piaf's "suicide tour" of 1959, when she would frequently collapse on stage. The song, she said, brought her back to life and her audiences also saw it as a sign of resurrection.
"Piaf was singing," writes Burke, ''for all who believed that old amours could be transcended and sorrows overcome -- that what counted was a resilient heart."
The song's debut performance brought Piaf 22 curtain calls. "I think it's working," she said backstage.
Burke, who clearly adores Piaf, at times exchanges the objectivity of the commentator for the loyalty of a fan.
Piaf's public life is explored in more detail than her private demons, and she leaves us wanting to know more about the terrors that kept the star from sleeping at night (Piaf compared sleep with death), which led to her dread of being alone, and made her so sexually and emotionally unsatisfied.
It would also be good to know Burke's uncensored opinion of some of Piaf's "friends" and lovers, but the biographer's politeness aside, No Regrets is poised, persuasive and powerful -- like the sparrow herself.