Born Édith Giovanna Gassion in Paris in 1915, Piaf’s life was filled with tragedy. Abandoned by her mother, she lived in her Grandmother’s brothel. She then lost her eyesight for some time as a youth. At 14, she decided to join her father, a street acrobat, and it was while performing with him that she first sang in public.
Édith’s stage name came from Louis Leplée, her first employer and provider of steady gigs, who referred to her as “la mome Piaf”, meaning “the waif sparrow” in French. It was he who suggested her trademark black dress and his promotions led to a record deal. The association ended when Leplée was murdered, and Piaf was questioned as an accessory. But her songs of life on the streets began getting radio play in France in1936. Her lyrics consisted of deep, dark themes involving sex, drugs, and death that, while accompanied by her strong, yet sorrowful voice, made her a music sensation in France.
She toured the US in 1947 with a worldwide hit under her belt, “La Vie en Rose”, but suffered a tragic loss when her lover, world middleweight boxer Marcel Cerdan, was killed in a plane crash. Two years later, she was caught in a car crash that left her with two broken ribs and a broken arm, leading to her ultimate addiction to painkillers and alcohol. It was during her rehabilitation that she met Jacques Pills, who accompanied her to her rehab many times and the two eventually married.
Ed Sullivan had his “very petite friend,” (as he would often call her) on his show on September 21, 1952, a day after her wedding to Pills. She performed “Padam, Padam” and her rendition of “Jezebel.” Appealing to Ed and his audiences, she successfully appeared eight times from 1952 to 1959, often singing in English and French. Piaf was by now an international sensation, but her health began to fade due to liver cancer. She was still able to record the very famous “Non, je ne regrette rien” and “L’homme de Berlin” before she passed at 47 years old.
Though her life was cut short, her legacy continues to live on and is often brought back into the spotlight. Her track, “La Vie en Rose” was entered into The Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. A few biographical films have been produced, the most famous being Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose” (2007), for which actress Marion Cotillard won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Piaf. Her music and voice transcend language and time, and will live on for many decades to come.