Edith Piaf: A Look Back at Her Life at 100

The timelessness of Edith Piaf's songs, as well as the lore of her unlikely rise to fame, have preserved her legacy long after her passing.
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The timelessness of Edith Piaf's songs, as well as the lore of her unlikely rise to fame, have preserved her legacy long after her passing.
Edith Piaf Photo

Edith Piaf poses for a studio portrait in 1940 in France. (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images)

December 19th marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of France’s most famous and beloved chanteuse, Édith Piaf. Following her gripping debut performance in Paris in 1935, the singer quickly rose to celebrity status within her home country. After the Second World War, Piaf toured Europe and the Americas, earned international recognition, and acquired an adoring global fan base. Despite her life being cut short from cancer at the age of 47, the timelessness of Piaf’s songs, as well as the lore of her unlikely rise to fame, have preserved her legacy long after her passing. Here are five interesting facts about the chanteuse that you may not know.

1) Her Petite Frame Belied Her Powerful Voice

Piaf, born Édith Giovanna Gassion, reached only four feet and ten inches in height, and was known to have remained very slight of build throughout her life. Louis Leplée, the Parisian club owner who discovered the singer and invested in her formal training, hoped to capitalize on the seeming contradiction between her large, commanding voice and small, fragile figure for the marketing campaign leading up to her debut. He dubbed her, "La Môme Piaf" ("The Little Sparrow"). As predicted, audiences marveled and were enchanted.

Following Leplée’s murder a year later, the chanteuse struggled to manage her career without him amidst allegations of personal involvement in the crime and the ensuing scandal. Eventually, she sought out songwriter and businessman Raymond Asso, who would eventually become her lover in addition to managing her professional recovery and the rehabilitation of her image. It was Asso, in the spirit of “rebranding,” who suggested that the young woman change her name to “Édith Piaf.”

2) Performing Was In Her Blood

Edith Piaf Photo

Edith Piaf in her younger years. (Photo: Trisku (collection privée de Trisku) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Piaf was born into a family, however unhealthy and unstable, that was both internationally diverse and rooted in music and performance. Her father, Louis-Alphonse Gassion, was a street performer and acrobat from Normandy with a background in theater. Piaf’s mother, Annetta Giovanna Maillard, was an Italian-born café singer whose Moroccan maternal grandfather had also been an acrobat.

It comes as little surprise that, given the fact that Piaf’s mother had abandoned her at birth and that her father became poor and without consistent income, that he later encouraged and enlisted his daughter’s singing talents in an effort to make a living. At the age of 14, Piaf joined him in his street performances. Together, they took their act across the country, securing a modest income mostly thanks to the girl’s beautiful singing accompaniment to his acrobatic antics. Yet, within two years Piaf had separated from her father and was pursuing street performance opportunities alongside her friend, Simone "Mômone" Berteaut, instead.

3) Her Childhood Was Fraught With Difficulty

When Piaf was born, she and her father were immediately abandoned by the infant’s mother. As if this did not present enough of a challenge for the struggling family, her father enlisted in the French armed forces less than a year later to fight in World War I. Piaf was first left in the care of her maternal grandmother. After the war ended two years later, her father relocated her to Normandy. This time, he left her in the custody of his own mother, Léontine Louise Descamps, the proprietor and madam of a brothel in Normandy. For the next four years, Piaf lived in the bordello and was cared for, in turn, by the prostitutes who worked there.

By the time she reunited with her father, she had not only become accustomed to this sort of instability, but had also suffered from a painful inflammation of her eyes that resulted in her being blind from the ages of three to seven. By age 17, after having left her father, Piaf found herself tragically repeating the cycle of abandonment which her own mother had done to her. Unable to juggle the demands of motherhood and her street-performing lifestyle, Piaf left her baby daughter, Marcelle, in the care of the father, Louis Dupont. Sadly, the child died two years later from meningitis.

4) Her Notoriety Protected Her During and After The Second World War

An in-depth examination of Piaf’s activities during the German occupation of France in World War II can, to an extent, call into question the loyalties she would later claim to have held, once the fighting was over. In the eyes of her skeptics, who made the case that she had collaborated with the Germans, her choices were, in the very least, controversial. Thanks, in part, to the Francophilia common amongst the most senior members of the German occupation leadership, Piaf found herself in a privileged position. She was not only permitted to continue performing, but encouraged to do so. Much to their approval, her audiences often included members of the German armed forces, prominent Nazi Party officials, and members of the SS and Gestapo.

Despite all this, Piaf, her friends, and her supporters later claimed that she had not only aided the French and Allied war effort, but also secretly been a member of the French Resistance all along. It is undeniable that her sanctioned visits to, and performances in, German prisoner of war camps containing French and Allied soldiers helped raise the captured soldiers’ morale. Furthermore, she reportedly used her fame and finances to help her Jewish friend and colleague, Michel Emer, escape persecution.

At her trial, Piaf was defended by secretary Andrée Bigard, a member of the Resistance who had lived and worked in the same building as the singer. Yet the claim made that the visits to prisoner of war camps were part of a plan to secretly fabricate and smuggle falsified identification and travel documents to aid in the prisoners’ escapes is dubious at best. In the end, it’s most likely that the reemergence of the French people’s unrestrained pre-war admiration of Piaf, as wrapped up in collective French cultural pride and identity as it was, likely influenced public opinion and guaranteed her having gone unpunished despite flagrant fraternization with the enemy.

Edith Piaf Photo

Edith Piaf in Rotterdam, December 1962. (Photo: Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 - negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang 2.24.01.05, bestanddeelnummer 914-6440 (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl], via Wikimedia Commons)

5) Her Life Was Cut Tragically Short

On her deathbed, Piaf famously (and dispassionately) stated, “every damn thing you do in this life, you have to pay for.” Perhaps no other notable figure has offered in his or her last words a summary quite so sadly succinct. Despite the unlikely success of her musical career and legions of admirers spanning the globe, adulthood offered Piaf little respite from the traumas of her childhood. By the time she died of cancer in 1963, at the age of 47, the singer had been struggling with alcohol and drug addictions, arthritis, insomnia, chronic stomach ulcers, a failing liver, and the constant, lingering pain of injuries sustained in three separate automobile accidents.

There can be little doubt that, underlying Piaf’s physical ailments, she also bore a heavy, emotional burden of remorse relating to her family history, as well as to the death of the love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan, in a 1949 airline accident. Perhaps, despite the claims the famous chanteuse made in one of her most popular songs, "Non, je ne regrette rien" (meaning: "No, I regret nothing"), Piaf did carry serious regrets to her grave, though it certainly cannot be argued that she had not been a survivor of her circumstances and, in the very least, earned the admiration of her stoicism until the very end.

Watch Edith Piaf perform "Non, je ne regrette rien" live: