- 19, Mar 2018
- Theatre in Paris exclusives
- Amanda Mehtala
Who is Edith Piaf? Here's the story of her rise from her tumultuous childhood in the streets of Paris to international stardom
Edith Piaf was one of the greatest French singers. To tell the story of Piaf is to tell the story of Paris, the City of Lights, but also Paris, the city of misery. “La môme” (the kid) grew up in Belleville, sung in hallways and the shabby cafes of Pigalle, and slept on the docks of the Seine, before triumphing on the stages of Grand Boulevards, the Opera House, and Champs-Elysées. Passion, genius, and hard work enabled her to write her name in lights on the biggest music halls all across the globe. Spending much of her life in Paris, her music timelessly captures the city’s very essence. Often singing about romance and heartbreak, she is best known for the romantic realism of her songs.
Many Paris musicals have hit stages in the memory of Edith Piaf, and she has even been honored in film by Marion Cotillard in the 2007 feature entitled La Vie en Rose.
On the stage, Edith Piaf was the personification of Paris, but the City of Lights was not the kindest with the songstress, and her story is one of sadness and strife, and she channeled this emotion into her every performance.
1915 - France’s ‘Little Sparrow’ is born to a family of performers in the Belleville neighborhood, what was then the outskirts of Paris
1932 - Having left her family home at an extremely young age to embark on a singing career, Edith Piaf has her first child, Marcelle, at 17
1935 - This year marks both the death of Piaf’s daughter, overcome to sickness, and the year her singing career took off. At 19 years old, she is discovered by Louis Leplée, owner of the popular Le Gerny club on the Champs Elysées. Louis grants the singer her first regular job singing in a nightclub, and her small nervous appearance grants her the nickname Môme Piaf, the Little Sparrow.
1935 - Her mentor Leplée is murdered, and the singer selects a new management team lead by Raymond Asso, who soon becomes her lover. This period becomes her major break and her career takes off, with French songwriters Marguerite Monnot and Michel Emer writing songs specifically for her.
WWII period - Edith Piaf and her realistic songs romanticizing her formative years in the streets becomes one of the most popular performers of the period. During German occupation in France, she held concerts for German officers, though it was rumored she was also working for the French Resistance to help Jewish colleagues escape the Nazis. She also traveled to Germany to sing for French prisoners, taking a picture with each one to then make special passports granting their freedom.
1947 - Edith Piaf meets her greatest love, American boxer Marcel Cerdan, who would die tragically in a plane crash 2 years later and send the singer into a deep depression. Edith Piaf gains international renowned and goes on tours throughout Europe and North and South America. Professionally, she was transitioning from homegrown talent to international superstar, but personally, her life remained one of tragedy and unlucky events.
1950s - While Americans were at first put off by her small nervous presence and black unflashy attire, Edith Piaf becomes a household name throughout Europe and in the US, even appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. She is also involved in 3 car crashes in the 50s that led to morphine addictions.
1962 - Edith Piaf marries Greek hairdresser Theo Sarapo, 20 years her junior.
1963 - Piaf dies in her native France at the young age of 47, overcome by her multiple health issues. Piaf is buried alongside many greats in Paris' Père Lachaise Cemetery not far from her birthplace.
Her timeless songs can often be heard playing at cafés and brasseries throughout Paris, and her legacy will forever remain in the city. Want to explore all the favorite haunts and hangouts of Edith Piaf in Paris? Follow in her footsteps
Love musical theatre and want to appreciate her story and songs in a Parisian playhouse?