Saturday is Edith Piafs centenary and its fitting to remember a singer who helped shape French national identity in the 20th century
dith Piaf was born 100 years ago on Saturday, around the same time Einstein made a breakthrough with his theory of general relativity. She arrived at the Hospital Tenon in the 20th arrondissement of Paris on 19 December, though according to her own version of events, she was delivered on the front steps of her home at 72 Rue de Belleville after a horse-drawn ambulance failed to show. If this was fanciful, then Frances most legendary chanteuse didnt have to embellish the details of the rest of her life, such was the dramatic scope. From growing up in a bordello, to spending four years blinded by keratitis in her infancy, to joining her acrobat father on the road in her teens, to shooting up morphine, cortisone and falling into alcoholism to alleviate a dodgy back sustained in a car crash as an adult (precipitating what she described as her years of hell), it certainly wasnt without event.
While celebrations for Piafs centenary have been low key this December, France and the Belleville neighbourhood of Paris in particular honoured her memory following the 50th anniversary of her death in October 2013. If Piaf is a little out of fashion with todays jeunesse dore then you suspect that could all change at any moment with, say, a high-profile cover version or a new motion picture. To paraphrase an old footballing cliche, fashion is temporary, class is permanent. Her brand of torch songs and cabaret showtunes might seem antediluvian to some, but a voice with such power to convey emotion never dates. Whats more, she led a life so bohemian and wild that she makes the Jim Morrison buried, like her, on Pre Lachaise cemetery look like a calculable conformist who got a bit carried away on his gap year. Avert your ears and Piafs life was a punk opera decades before the genre exploded.
Born dith Giovanna Gassion, she was nicknamed La Mme Piaf (meaning the little sparrow) by her first manager, Louis Leplee. Leplee was murdered by the mob in 1936, and Piaf was under police surveillance as a suspect for a time, but later cleared. He discovered her singing for her supper on the streets of Montmartre, and she often sang in a Bellevilloise argot apparently not dissimilar to a Parisian version of old cockney. La Mme kept singing about the streets where shed come from all her life (Mon coeur est au coin dune rue and Elle frequentait la rue Pigalle are just two examples), and as a parvenu living in style once shed hit the big time, she blew all her money on a farm, as well as showering her hangers-on in gifts.
I told myself that I wanted to breed cows, she wrote in her memoir. It was all the rage all the artistes were going into breeding. But in four years I picked two kilos of green beans, a pound of strawberries and some tomatoes. I bred two chickens, a rabbit, and all the cats in the neighbourhood. It cost me one and a half million francs for the central heating so I sold it for next to nothing and later on, when I was ill, I had no money left to pay for my hospital bill. Paif also sold valuable paintings and her jewellery collection, and unsurprisingly she left her second husband with a mountain of debt when she passed on.
She took many lovers, including world heavyweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, with whom she had a very public relationship with despite him having a wife and children. The Moroccan Bomber ignored his aversion to flying in a bid to surprise her in New York before a show in 1949. His Air France Lockheed Constellation jet crashed into Monte Redondo in the Azores, killing all 48 people on board. Piaf took to the stage that night after hearing the news and collapsed twice mid-chanson, and had to be helped off stage. She always maintained that Cerdan was her one true love.
As for America, Piaf played Carnegie Hall twice in 1956 and 1957, and she cracked the worlds biggest market more than a decade before the Beatles (finally, in 1998, she was given a Grammy hall of fame award), some feat for a European who mostly sang in French. She popularised the French language overseas with titles like Je ne regrette rien and La vie en rose passing into English as phrases. Shes influenced everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Anna Calvi, and Elton John when he was good (1976s Cage the Songbird charts the hours before Piaf apparently committed suicide; clearly nobody had told lyricist Bernie Taupin that she died of liver cancer). She passed away hours before her friend Jean Cocteau, whose last words were: Ah, la Piaf est morte. Je peux mourir aussi. (Ah, Piaf, is dead, I can die also.)
After her death, Piaf received the highest honour from the French government when the tricolor flag was draped over her coffin. It was no empty gesture. During the second world war, she toured the unoccupied zone of Vichy France and apparently helped free as many as 300 POWs at the Stalag III-D camp near Berlin, by talking the camp commander into allowing her to be photographed with all the inmates the photos then used to create false papers for them, crediting them as free French workers in Germany.
In the years since Piafs death its been commonplace to refer to musicians as brave for all sorts of reasons: releasing an unusual album, saying unexpected things in interviews, touring places that are rarely visited, playing gigs while not feeling very well. On the eve of her centenary, its worth remembering a musician who really was brave.