By NIAMH O’DONNOVAN
Perhaps France’s greatest popular singer of all time, Edith Piaf is remembered by most for classics such as La Vie En Rose and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, songs most street musicians have covered, in French or otherwise. She belted out lyrics with an edgy, impassioned vibrato, giving her delivery its unforgettable, heart-wrenching resonance. And she began her career as a street performer.
Piaf’s beginnings are cloaked in drama. Her father was Louis Gassion, an acrobatic street performer. Her mother was Anita Maillard, who earned money as a part-time prostitute when she wasn’t singing as a busker or cafe entertainer. Legend has it that on December 19, 1915, Piaf was born on a street corner in the rough Paris district of Menilmontant, with two policeman stepping in to act as labour nurses. A combination of frustrated ambitions and poverty had given her mother a taste for alcohol, which had grown into addiction well before Piaf was born.
Piaf experienced a neglected childhood and spent a period living in her grandmother’s brothel, in a red light district of Normandy, cared for by the prostitutes there. When she was seven, she was retrieved by her father to travel with him as part of his street act. Her initial role was to pass the hat around for contributions from audiences. Her life on the road continued for eight years, during which time she began to find her own strength as a singer, and to hold her own with watching crowds.
Now 15, Piaf and her half-sister Simone formed their own act as a duo, with Piaf’s voice, with its natural projection and emotion, dominating the act. Each day they busked, frequenting busy street corner spots and cafes where audiences could be entertained. By night, they dwelt in budget hotels, and Piaf, already following in her mother’s footsteps with a heavy predilection for alcohol, enjoyed raucous drinking sessions in bars, where she socialised with an array of characters on the petty crime circuit. Her love life was equally colourful. She was attracted to the ‘bad boys’ who could act as bodyguards while she held her own on the pitch. She was, doubtless, feisty enough to defend herself, but the sense of having tough men as backup held a justifiable appeal.
Piaf had a habit of losing interest and breaking up with these ‘protectors’ promptly, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, landed her in some scrapes with various bombed-out egos, one belonging to a pimp, who when Piaf dumped him, attempted to shoot her and narrowly missed. She never resorted to prostitution, though that particular partner tried to persuade her.
Piaf’s first serious love affair was with a delivery boy, by whom she became pregnant with a daughter. Her mothering skills reflected those of Anita. Struggling to balance a life as a performer with the responsibilities of single parenting, she often left her little girl unsupervised until that her boyfriend eventually stepped in and took over. Not long after this, Piaf’s only child died from meningitis. She carried the guilt for the rest of her life. She and Louis Dupont were not together long. It was one in a line of relationships that would haunt her, none more so than that she had with the boxer Marcel Cerdan, who, although married and unable to live with her, became the greatest love of her life. His death in a plane crash tipped her over the edge, placing her in a neurotic and sometimes hysterical emotional reality.
Piaf’s busking career came to an end in 1935, when she was noticed and swept away to the fame that thereafter directed her life. Her singing career soared from then on, but she burned herself out swiftly. Succumbing to alcohol dependency and substance abuse, she was barely middle-aged when she died in 1963. But her early years foretold the intensity that would characterise the rest of her life. It was a perilous existence, and at that time, for an unmarried young woman, life as a busker on Paris streets was cut-throat, and only survived by being a very tough, very fierce, very determined lady. Piaf was that lady through and through. It was her days spent aflame with a raw love of song on a street corner that earned her the lyrical stage name: La Môme Piaf. The legacy of ‘The Little Sparrow’ in her vibrant, fearless prime can be savoured every time a busker sings her touching, triumphant, and melancholy French songs .
This article first appeared in Busk(H)er magazine (https://view.publitas.com/busk-h-er/busk-h-er-magazine-issue-1/page/1)