I’m not sure what I was expecting of Edith Piaf’s grave, given that she was such a Parisian legend, but somehow I was surprised to eventually track down a very unprepossessing tomb with a number of unfamiliar names: “Anita Maillard” (her mother), “Louis Gassion” (her father), “Marcelle Dupont” (her infant daughter), “Theo Lamboukas” (her last husband), and “Madame Lamboukas”, the little sparrow herself…
Edith Piaf was born on 19th December 1915 – allegedly under a gaslight on a policeman’s cloak in the Rue de Belleville. Her mother was an alcoholic Italian street singer and a part-time prostitute who was accustomed to aimlessly wandering through life – traveling with circuses, hanging out at fairgrounds and picking up men at bars. Her father Louis Gassion, a famous acrobat, went off to the war shortly after her birth and returned two years later to find a dirty, sick child who had been abandoned into the “care” of her alcoholic maternal grandparents. He took Edith to stay with his own mother, the madam of a Lisieux brothel, where she remained until the age of six. He then reclaimed her and they spent several years traveling around France entertaining people with their acrobatic side-show.
By the time she was fifteen, she had had enough of circus life and returned to settle in Paris with her half-sister Simone. They toured the streets singing for money, and she soon became pregnant by a young delivery boy and gave birth to a daughter – Marcelle. Like her mother, Edith had little maternal instinct nor domestic ability and rapidly returned to street singing, and Marcelle was often left alone in the room whilst Edith and Simone were out on the streets. When the child died of meningitis at the age of two, Edith appears to have quickly got on with her life.
She became involved with a brutal pimp named Albert. She later claimed that she never worked for him as a prostitute but, rather, sang for coins in the street. She was well aware that Albert was beating and robbing women that he picked up in bars. She only left him when one of her friends, forced into working for him, killed herself. He subsequently turned his violence against Edith, slapping her around and attempting to shoot her, luckily without success.
In 1935 she met the man who was to change her life – Louis Leplée, a nightclub owner who convinced her, despite her nervousness, to sing in his club. He gave her the nickname that would stay with her for the rest of her life: La Môme Piaf (literally “the kid sparrow”, although this has often been translated into English as “the little sparrow”).
Soon all of Paris was talking about the waif with the heartbreaking voice. She began to make friends with famous people, such as the actor Maurice Chevalier and the actor Yves Montand. Throughout the next 20 years her career went from strength to strength, but her personal life was peppered with a string of failed relationships.
In 1951 she suffered a horrific car crash, breaking an arm and several ribs. The doctors prescribed morphine, and she quickly became an addict, and also began drinking heavily to ease the pain. This began to have an effect on her professionally and her performances began to suffer as she weaved across the stage, slurring her lyrics. She was soon recognized cruising the bars of Paris, picking up strange men to assuage her loneliness. It was an odd, sad echo of her mother’s life.
Piaf met her last husband, Theo Lamboukas, in 1962. She was 47; he was 27. Lamboukas had little talent, but he wanted to be a singer and saw Edith as his ticket to the world of show business. Though by this time she was in very bad health, she worked hard to make Lamboukas a presentable entertainer, introducing him to the press and writing several songs for him.
In early 1963, Edith recorded her last song, “L’homme de Berlin.” Not long after, Lamboukas took his ailing wife to the Cote d’ Azure, hoping to restore her health. Old friends like Jean Cocteau, sensing the end was near, came to visit for the last time. Edith asked them to pray to St. Rita, the patron saint of lost causes. She died on the afternoon of October 10 1963, aged 48.
Non, Rien De Rien, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien
Ni Le Bien Qu’on M’a Fait, Ni Le Mal
Tout Ca M’est Bien Egal…
Non, Rien De Rien, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien
C’est Payé, Balayé, Oublié,
Je Me Fous Du Passé!