Edith Piaf: Like Cold Oysters

In David Looseley's take on the iconic French chanteuse Edith Piaf, her notoriously elusive life story is rendered as cultural history, drawing out what Piaf meant - and still means - to France and to her wider audience. Looseley notes that her musical persona was highly and brilliantly constructed. She projected a stage mask of suffering that was all the more affecting because the audience saw there was deprivation behind it. With Piaf, you underwent her.
Bee Wilson
May 19, 2016
A Cultural History - Published to coincide with centenary of Piaf's birth.
https://global.oup.com/academic/covers/pdp/9781781382578

 

In 1957, six years before her death, Edith Piaf added a new song to her repertoire, ‘La Foule’ (‘The Crowd’). It wasn’t actually new, having been composed in 1936 in Spanish by Angel Cabral, an Argentinian, using the form of a vals criollo, a dance favoured by the Peruvian working class. Piaf heard it and asked one of her librettists, Michel Rivgauche, to compose new French lyrics. It isn’t hard to see why it appealed to her, musically and thematically. She had always been good at milking nostalgia – ‘chanson’ itself is a wistful genre – and the plaintive, rhythmic accordion and piano introduction recalls her prewar youth, when she sang in the Paris cabarets. The song is about a woman whose destiny is in the hands of the crowd – Piaf had been making a living out of crowd hysteria since she was a child in the 1920s, singing in Belleville and Pigalle. The heroine of ‘La Foule’ is jostled by a jubilant crowd celebrating a feast day. She is pushed into the arms of a stranger, with whom she falls in love, only to be dragged away from him again by the crowd, ‘who dance a mad farandole’ that drowns out the sound of her beloved’s voice. She ‘clenches her fists’ and curses the crowd for having stolen her love.

You can watch Piaf performing ‘La Foule’ on YouTube, in a recording of a concert in the Netherlands in December 1962. It is completely mesmerising. A journalist who saw her live in 1939 described her as ‘part wounded animal, part passionate woman’. There is no hint that the song had been written more than two decades earlier, in another language, for other singers. Piaf delivers it as piercing confessional, and she its only narrator. As always, she wears a black dress, and while the introduction plays, she looks down and clicks her fingers. Then she suddenly flicks her head up and looks accusingly at the crowd, her white hands glued to the side of her body (Cocteau said she had hands like ‘a lizard in a ruin’). She looks much older and frailer than 47, but however disoriented she is pretending to be, she hardly sways at all and her gestures are deliberate. She sings with brutal force, wringing maximum vibrations from her rolling ‘Rs’ (‘entrrrrraînés parrrrr la foule’ – ‘carried along by the rushing crowd’). She may be accusing the crowd with her words, but with her body and voice, she is seducing them. When her last word is done, she continues the story with gestures, dancing now, as if doing a mad farandole with the crowd, her eyes half-closed and her feet tapping. The applause roars to a crescendo and the film cuts for a moment to rows of bourgeois Dutch men and women in smart evening dress palpably thrilled to be Piaf’s crowd for a night.

Like all her best songs, ‘La Foule’ functioned as a kind of autobiography, given resonance by the audience’s sense of Piaf’s own suffering. The crowds who listened to her in the late 1950s and early 1960s knew from the newspapers that she had fallen into the arms of many men over the years; and been wrenched away from many. They knew that the love of her life, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, had died in a plane crash on 28 October 1949. They knew about her affairs with a string of young protégés, including Yves Montand. In 1952, they may have pored over photos of her wedding to Jacques Pills, a French singer and songwriter with dark matinée idol good looks. Dietrich was the matron of honour. The audience also knew that she’d been in an implausible number of car accidents with a string of different men; first with the singer Charles Aznavour in July 1951; then again with Aznavour a month later – this time her lover, the cyclist André Pousse, was also in the car. In 1958, she had two accidents on the same stretch of road with another lover, Georges Moustaki, an Egyptian-French singer-songwriter who wrote ‘Milord’ for her. The next year, in July 1959, she had yet another accident with yet another lover, the painter Douglas Davis. On that occasion she broke several ribs, but it didn’t stop her embarking on her next round of performances the following day. A couple of months later, she was rushed to hospital for an emergency operation for pancreatitis but was soon back on stage again for what the media called her ‘suicide tour’.

The crowd always came first. Her most stable relationship was with her audience. In real life, the crowd neither stole lovers from her nor pushed them on her, though the fact that she was known to be unlucky in love gave piquancy to her stage persona. When she met her final husband, Théo Sarapo, a hairdresser and would-be singer two decades younger than her, she presented him to her fans, as if begging a blessing from a father (her own father, Louis Gassion, a circus contortionist and street performer, a miniature, bendy man just five feet tall, died in 1944). The night before her wedding to Sarapo, in 1962, she appeared on stage with him at the Paris Olympia and sang ‘Le Droit d’amour’. ‘Do I have the right to love?’ she asked the audience. ‘Yes,’ came the answer, though she knew and they knew that domestic bliss was not what anyone sought from her. According to her childhood friend Simone Berteaut – ‘Momone’ – Piaf would say that it was OK for her to be happy when she was singing ‘but not for long; it doesn’t go with my looks … It’s got to tear [the audience] apart, scream at them, that’s what my character is.’

In David Looseley’s new interpretation, Piaf’s notoriously elusive life story is best told as cultural history. This is a book about Piaf and her crowd. Rather than trying to get to the ‘real’ Piaf, as Robert Belleret did in Piaf, un mythe français (2013), Looseley is interested in interpreting the myth itself and drawing out what Piaf meant – and still means – to France and to her wider audience. The final three chapters are about her posthumous meanings and her adoption by everyone from François Hollande to Lady Gaga. Looseley, who teaches contemporary French culture at the University of Leeds, is too much given to obfuscating seminar jargon – the ‘dimensions of language and location … provide an intercultural optic which is possibly unique to those working in the liminal territory between linguistically distinct cultures’ – but he is perceptive about Piaf herself, noting that her musical persona was highly, and brilliantly, constructed, however artless it was intended to seem. In private, she was amusing and loved practical jokes, but her act was devoid of irony. In her songs, she projected a stage mask of suffering, pain and deprivation which was all the more affecting because the audience knew that there was real suffering, pain and deprivation behind it. Her fans often remarked how ‘natural’ she was; how real. ‘With anyone else you have time to think that she’s singing well or badly. With Piaf, you undergo her,’ a critic wrote in 1950. Sometimes – especially towards the end when her health was bad – she might forget her lines or warble off-key, but she never came out of character.

From her formative years, Edith Giovanna Gassion knew that if she could find a way to feed them with her voice, they would throw money at her. She got the concept from her parents, both of them performers, but it was clear almost at the start that she was better at wringing affection from strangers than her mother, Line Marsa, who abandoned Edith to sing realist songs on the streets of Belleville, but never made much of a living from it. From the age of seven, Edith passed the hat for her father while he performed street acrobatics. One day, at the end of Louis’s contortions, the audience asked the little girl to perform and she stood and proudly sang the ‘Internationale’, the only song she knew. That night, Louis’s takings doubled. She would tell this anecdote many times, but in the retelling, she changed the song to the ‘Marseillaise’, a less divisive choice and a better fit with her image as the symbol of Frenchness. According to Looseley, Piaf had little interest in politics, although she admired de Gaulle. ‘She probably never voted,’ Looseley writes, ‘and no polling card was found after she died.’ She could be Liberty at the barricades or the voice of Gaullism itself – it depended on how you wanted to see her.

She learned early on that it didn’t pay to be too ingratiating, too smiling or polished. The crowd – who were just as hungry themselves in the early 1930s – preferred to see her as vulnerable, in need of protection. On the streets, she would sing her guts out – her voice was ‘cathedral-like’, according to the singer Odette Laure, who as a child collected 25 centime pieces to throw at Piaf’s feet whenever she busked in her part of the city. Yet part of the act was to appear indifferent to the applause. In 1931, she met Momone, who started to collect the money for her, allowing Edith to give the impression that she sang only for the love of music. She earned more that way.

A series of collaborators helped her construct her ‘sincere’ persona. The first was Louis Leplée, the owner of the cabaret-restaurant Le Gerny’s, who saw her singing on the street and offered her an audition. It was Leplée who came up with the idea of calling her ‘La Môme Piaf’ – ‘Kid Sparrow’ – a label that played on her waif-like slightness. Some of those who heard her sing at Le Gerny’s said she looked undernourished. One journalist who saw her in 1935 said she was a ‘little scrap of a woman, wearing a pleated skirt like a Les Halles streetwalker and a white sweater’, a cheap outfit that recalled ‘all her sisters of the Paris streets’. Already, she was being seen as emblematic of a whole underclass: the downtrodden women of Paris, the heartbroken urban poor.

The Piaf act was further honed by the lyricist Raymond Asso, who met her in 1936 when he was 34 and she was 20 and mourning the death from meningitis of her only child, Marcelle, aged two. When Louis Leplée was murdered by mobsters close to Piaf in 1936, Asso helped her get over the scandal. He became her lover as well as her main songwriter in the prewar years. Asso changed her stage name to the more dignified Edith Piaf: from a kid to a woman. He schooled her in stagecraft and insisted that she always wear a plain black dress when singing, because it would call to mind other practitioners of ‘la chanson réaliste’, notably Damia, Marie-Louise Damien, before Piaf the queen of French tragic song. She started to go to the theatre and read books. As Asso later recalled, ‘over two years, she would lose her vulgar side, evolve, and completely transform herself.’ He banished Momone, her disreputable friend from the streets (though she would soon resurface). Yet the mask that he helped create for Piaf consciously drew her back to those same streets. Although he remade her, Asso did not try to sell her as a beauty or an artist but as the raw voice of suffering, someone who understood what it meant to have ‘rien dans la poche’ as she sang in ‘Les Deux Copains’.

Piaf first became aware of Asso’s lyrics with his song ‘Mon légionnaire’, about a woman’s affair with a tattooed soldier:

Son cou portait: ‘Pas vu, pas pris.’
Sur son coeur on lisait: ‘Personne.’
Sur son bras droit un mot: ‘Raisonne.’

It was first recorded by Marie Dubas in 1936, but Piaf often jealously said it was really ‘my song, my story’ because she had also had an affair with a legionnaire. ‘Maybe that’s why I sang it so well?’ she noted in her autobiography, Ma vie. Then again, when a journalist asked her in 1941 whether her affair with a legionnaire happened just like in the song, she replied, ‘Some of it’s true, some of it’s false. It all depends on how you tell stories.’

Once Asso and Piaf were working together, he gave her storylines that consciously alluded to her insalubrious childhood and made it seem even more Zola-like, most obviously in his 1939 song ‘Elle fréquentait la rue Pigalle’. Asso’s lyrics tell of a woman of the red light district, who briefly finds happiness with a man, only for him to reject her when he sees her face in daylight and realises she wasn’t as pretty as he thought.

Elle fréquentait la rue Pigalle
Elle sentait le vice à bon marché
Elle était toute noire de péchés
Avec un pauvre visage tout pâle

‘I want to keep the look of the streets about me; pale with big eyes and a mouth, no more,’ she once said. In Looseley’s view her characteristic stance on stage – hands on hips, feet planted on the ground, slightly apart – was like a French peasant taking a moment’s rest from his labours.

More than looks, she projected the sound of the streets, even though her huge voice was the very thing that had propelled her away from Pigalle. One journalist compared her powerful timbre to the rasping shout of a greengrocer in the market. Another said it was like cold oysters being opened outside a bistro. In 1958, Le Soir illustré commented that after ‘just three notes’ she ‘once more becomes the thing she always wanted to escape from: the sad little bird who was born in the street’. But this was the wrong way round. Her songs didn’t take her back to the street but to a simulacrum of it, where even the suffering was uplifting. Piaf found a way to voice the pain of the sad little bird so convincingly that even she couldn’t be quite sure whether the lyrics were about her or someone else. ‘By the time I die,’ she said, ‘so much will have been said about me that no one will know any longer what kind of person I was.’

 

 

The wedding of Edith Piaf and Jacques Pills, September 20, 1952 
photo credit: London Review of Books

 

Piaf’s persona shifted significantly over the years, as Looseley shows, even as she maintained her air of authenticity. During the war, as her popularity soared, her myth moved away from the specific locations of working-class life in Pigalle and Belleville. She started to be seen as a more universal and comforting embodiment of Paris itself, or even of France. When she was introduced on stage now, presenters would say: ‘Just one name, and in that name, the whole of chanson: Edith Piaf.’ During the Occupation, as Looseley writes, her melancholy songs ‘came to personify a Paris lost definitively, or so it seemed’. In October 1942, she returned from a tour in the South of France and was given a heroine’s welcome. ‘The whole of Paris was waiting for me at the station, flowers, press, the lot. I’ve never seen such a fuss.’ In autumn 1942, against tricolore lighting, she performed ‘Où sont-ils tous mes copains?’, about French soldiers bravely going off to war. When German officials ordered her to stop singing it, she refused, although she did remove the blue, white and red lights.

In 2009, the singer Martha Wainwright claimed in a series of concerts publicising an album of Piaf covers that the great chanteuse had been a courageous supporter of the Resistance. It sounds plausible. But in reality, Piaf spent most of the war drunk, waiting for it to be over. Far from being a freedom fighter, she seems to have regarded the Occupation mainly as an annoyance that got in the way of her work schedule and her chances of eating her favourite food. She didn’t like the Nazis – a police report from October 1944 spoke of her having several altercations with the authorities – but she wasn’t the wartime heroine that Wainwright and others have hailed. It was Piaf herself who first spread the rumour that she helped 118 POWS escape from Germany by passing them off as members of her band and giving them false papers. Some of her supporters claimed that the only reason she ever consented to sing in Berlin – after refusing many times – was to lift the morale of French prisoners and to help some of them escape. But the story of Piaf’s 118 escapees has never been verified. In some versions of the story, the numbers saved were as high as 170. Piaf’s secretary, Andrée Bigard, claimed it was only a few dozen.

Robert Belleret, who has extensively researched Piaf’s wartime activities, notes that none of the 118 she supposedly rescued ever came forward after the war to thank her. What is known is that she gave financial assistance to several Jewish colleagues, including the lyricist Michel Emer, the film-maker Marcel Blistène and her pianist and lover Norbert Glanzberg, the composer of ‘Padam … padam’, one of her biggest hits. Glanzberg was arrested in Marseille in 1943 and threatened with deportation but then secretly released, at which point Piaf helped him financially. Perhaps this was some compensation for the time she had got drunk on a train and shouted to the whole carriage that Glanzberg was a Jew. In 1945, she confessed to him that in 1941 she had destroyed the visa that would have allowed him to flee to the States, presumably because she wanted him to stay and work with her. In other words, like so many others, she survived the Vichy era with a pragmatism that was neither disgraceful nor very honourable.

Her crowd, however, needed her to be more than this – and so, symbolically, she grew to become what they wanted her to be. In Piaf: La Vérité (2008) Emmanuel Bonini asked: ‘what does it matter whether we are talking about one or a hundred prisoners’ that Piaf rescued? So strongly was she identified with France by the 1940s that it was crucial to see her as always on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors. As Looseley writes, ‘this was a mythified but not exactly false identity.’ The wartime celebration of Piaf as the spirit of the true France, defiant against the occupiers, was part of a more generalised denial of the extent to which the French population made an accommodation with the Occupation. If Piaf resisted, then maybe the rest of France resisted too. Whatever her own activities, Piaf’s music kept alive an idea of France as a sovereign and proud nation. In Paris-Midi in 1943, a journalist remarked that Piaf, as an ‘ambassador of chanson’ could soothe the nostalgia of French hearts ‘devoted to memories’.

During and after the war, her myth shifted again. Her collaboration with Asso was at an end and she started to work with new lyricists, notably Henri Contet and Michel Emer, whose style departed from the realist tradition. She read hundreds of songs before finding one that suited her persona, and even then, she worked for days with the composers and lyricists until every element in a song matched her character. ‘What we write for her is babble,’ Contet once said; ‘she turns it into cries, pleas and prayers.’ In No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf, Carolyn Burke describes Piaf’s working methods, sitting for hours at the grand piano, stopping only to eat steak covered with garlic and to drink mint sirop. Her composer Marguerite Monnot would arrive on a motorbike in the afternoons and they worked together for hours. Much as she respected Monnot, Piaf never allowed a composer complete control over the music, humming or playing until a tune felt right to her. As Looseley writes, ‘increasingly, the narrator-in-chief of the imagined Piaf was Piaf herself.’

In 1947, she went on her first tour of the United States, where she found new crowds and a new version of authenticity to sell. She and her songwriters were moving away from the realist traditions of chanson to more universal love songs, such as ‘La Vie en rose’ (Piaf-Louigny, 1945) and ‘Hymne à l’amour’ (Piaf-Monnot, 1949). Her very first American audiences seem to have been unsure what to make of her apparent lack of showmanship, her sheer foreignness. But then the critic and composer Virgil Thomson wrote a rave review in the Herald Tribune that marvelled at how still she stood in her black dress, and soon, Looseley writes, ‘people were bribing the doorman to get in, diners were standing on table to applaud.’ Over successive visits – with repeat appearances at Carnegie Hall and on the Ed Sullivan Show – she became the embodiment of France in America. The more America applauded her, the more adored she was by French crowds at home. Latterly, thanks to various health worries compounded by morphine, cocaine and alcohol, she looked almost too frail to perform. The singer Marie Bizet saw her in one of her final French shows in 1963. She weighed just 66 pounds. ‘She was emaciated, unsteady. Then she started singing and the miracle occurred. The crowd went wild. People were on their feet, jumping up and down.’

It was only in her final three years that ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ became part of her set, which seems strange given how closely she is identified with it now. The song was brought to her in October 1959 by the songwriters Michel Vaucaire and Charles Dumont. Vaucaire had originally called it ‘Non, je ne trouverai rien’ (‘No, I will not find anything’), intending it for Rosalie Dubois, but then he thought of Piaf and changed it to ‘regret’. The resonance came from the knowledge of how many things she had to regret. Performing this song, more than any other, she seems to expose her own pain even though, as Looseley remarks, the song is ‘musically conventional’ and the lyrics are a ‘banal’ and familiar tale of ‘someone putting the past behind them’.

Avec mes souvenirs
J’ai allumé le feu
Mes chagrins, mes plaisirs
Je n’ai plus besoin d’eux!

In 1960, she was forced to cancel her summer tour and sell her country house to pay medical bills. She also cancelled a residence at the Olympia in Paris, until the new song made her change her mind. The first audiences who saw her perform ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ at the Olympia were thrilled before she even sang a note. ‘No doubt because everyone had accepted that she was finished,’ Looseley wrote, ‘and because she still looked frail, the applause and the chanting of her name when she first appeared would go on for ten minutes before she could start.’ So long as it was part of the act, her frailty and pain seemed right. In Ma vie, she went so far as to suggest that she would like to die for her public ‘on stage, at the end of one last song’. In October 1963 hundreds of thousands of onlookers lined the streets of Paris for her funeral. ‘She was a woman of the people, like me, like us,’ one of the onlookers told a reporter. People turned to her again after the Charlie Hebdo killings of January last year and again after the Paris terror attacks in November. At the American Music Awards that month, as a tribute to the 130 who died, the Canadian singer Celine Dion sang Piaf’s ‘Hymne à l’amour’ to a montage of Paris landmarks. When he was still the Labour leader, Ed Miliband chose it as one of his Desert Island Discs. Really? ‘Rien de rien?’ I thought at the time. But maybe we are all deluding ourselves when we listen to Piaf.

[Bee Wilson's most recent book is First Bite: How We Learn to Eat.]

May 26, 2016