Artist Spotlight: Édith Piaf, The Little Sparrow

Believe it or not, it’s time to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the acclaimed film La Vie en Rose.  A biographical masterpiece about the life and times of France’s greatest entertainer of the 20th Century, Édith Piaf.  To honor this remarkable woman, and her large body of work we’re dedicating this Artist Spotlight to her.

Born Édith Gassion in December 1915, Piaf’s mother abandoned her at birth – leaving her in the care of her father, an acrobatic street performer.  When he enlisted to fight in World War I, the then 1-year-old Édith was left in the care of her grandmother, who ran a brothel.  She eventually contracted keratitis, which left her blind from the ages of 3 to 7.  Édith’s sight was eventually recovered, after the prostitutes at her grandmother’s brothel raised money for a pilgrimage to honor Saint Térèse of Lisieux; and she experienced what she described as a miracle healing.

After the war, at the age of 14, Édith began performing on the street alongside her father.  She also teamed up with her life-long friend Simone Berteaut, and the two of them would perform as a singing duo on the streets of Paris.  Three years later, she fell in love with a man named Luis Dupont, and the two had a daughter named Marcelle; who eventually died of meningitis at the age of 2.  Dupont kept insisting that Édith give up her life of singing on the streets, but she resisted and left not long after Marcelle’s birth.

In 1935 a prominent nightclub owner, Louis Leplée, discovered Édith singing on the street and offered her a chance to sing at his club.  He trained her in stage presence, told her to wear a black dress (which became her signature apparel) and nicknamed her “The Little Sparrow.”  Her performances were sensational, and led to her release of her first two albums the very same year.  Not long after, Leplée was murdered by gangsters who had ties to Édith, and she was eventually exonerated of any involvement.  To save her career, Édith hired Raymond Asso to change her public reputation.  Asso officially changed her name to Édith Piaf, and instructed her to sing songs which alluded to her early life on the streets.

During the German occupation in World War II, Piaf’s life came full circle.  Many nightclubs and brothels were reserved specifically for German soldiers, who seemed to genuinely enjoy Piaf’s gifts as a singer.  By returning to the brothels and nightclubs to perform, Piaf made valuable contacts that catapulted her to international stardom after the war.

In 1948, scandal erupted when it came out that Piaf was having an affair with married boxer, Marcel Cerdan.  Cerdan was the great love of Piaf’s life, and they were very open about their scandalous relationship.  However, Piaf was left devastated when Cerdan died suddenly in a plane crash on his way to see her in New York – having just completed in a fight in Detroit.

Not long after, in 1951 Piaf was severely injured in a series of car crashes, that compounded with years of alcohol abuse, left her addicted to morphine.  During this time, her popularity in America only grew and she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show eight times, and performed two concerts at Carnegie Hall.  Piaf went in and out of rehab a few times at the insistence of her first husband, Jacques Pilles whom she married in 1952; however, the couple later divorced in 1957.  Piaf then married Greek singer Théo Sarapo in 1962, and the two occasionally performed together in some of Piaf’s last concerts.  She eventually died in 1963 at the age of 47, and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris next to her daughter Marcelle.  Her funeral procession was witnessed by tens of thousands of mourners, and it was remarked by singer Charles Aznavour, that her funeral was the only time since the end of World War II that Parisian traffic came to a complete stop.

Numerous books and films have been dedicated to the legacy of Édith Piaf’s work.  She remains to this day a prominent feature in popular culture; with many of her songs appearing in movies, commercials, and performances by modern singers.  Most notably among these, the 2007 film La Vie en Rose starring Marion Cotillard as Piaf.  Her performance in this film was so stunning, it won her an Academy Award for Best Actress.

If you’ve also been inspired by one of Piaf’s songs, share your stories with us in the comments!