May 11, 2011

FRANCE: Live hard, work hard, die young

TORONTO, Ontario / The Globe & Mail / Arts/ Books / May 10, 2011

Édith Piaf performing at the Olympia in Paris in 1960.
AFP/ Getty Images

Édith Piaf (French pronunciation: [eˈdit pjaf], [PEE-ahf, pee-AHF] 19 December 1915 – 11 October 1963), born Édith Giovanna Gassion, was a French singer and cultural icon who became universally regarded as France's greatest popular singer.Her singing reflected her life, with her specialty being ballads. Among her songs are "La Vie en rose" (1946), "Non, je ne regrette rien" (1960), "Hymne à l'amour" (1949), "Milord" (1959), "La Foule" (1957), "l'Accordéoniste" (1955), and "Padam... Padam..." (1951).
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The Daily Review, Tuesday, May 10

Live hard, work hard, die young

By Jessica Warner

Edith Piaf, France’s best known chanteuse, died on Oct. 11, 1963. The first Piaf biography, a slapdash pamphlet called Au revoir Edith, appeared a week later, and since that time she has never been out of the limelight. And if there were any danger of her fading from view, the biopic La Vie en Rose (2007) reintroduced her to old fans and doubtless won her many new ones.

Carolyn Burke’s No Regrets is the latest entrant in this crowded field. The story it tells is a familiar one – live hard, die young – and in this respect Piaf’s life did not so much break the mould as fit it all too well. Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain – all belong to the same dubious tradition, and as with Piaf, the fact that they were so spectacularly self-destructive only adds to their fascination.

This presents a major challenge for the biographer. The reader is apt to become more interested in the artist than in the artistry (I am paraphrasing Burke here) and, in the case of Piaf, the overwhelming temptation is to perpetuate the cliché that she was a “self-destructive waif.”

Piaf’s tight control over her image presents yet another challenge. She did much to encourage the many myths about her past: that she was, quite literally, born in the streets of Paris; that she miraculously regained her vision, allegedly lost due to illness, after her grandmother organized a pilgrimage to the shrine at Lisieux; that she made her singing debut in one of her father’s road shows.

These are formidable challenges, and Burke’s response to them is deft. While she has a great deal to say about Piaf’s gifts, she has just as much to say about her virtues. If Piaf’s personal life was louche and often chaotic, her professional life was iron discipline itself, with long hours spent practising and perfecting each song. She helped French prisoners of war escape during the Second World War, and ran enormous risks by hiding a Jewish composer during the occupation. And she was generous to a fault to young musicians, the most notable being Yves Montand.

Carolyn Burke

The result would not have been nearly as rounded and satisfying had Burke simply relied on the usual sources or taken them at face value. Her trump card is a cache of letters that have only recently been made public: Piaf’s correspondence with her mentor Jacques Bourgeat, and the letters she wrote to four of her lovers (Norbert Glanzberg, Takis Horn, Tony Frank and Toto Gėrardin).

Burke also interviewed a dozen people who were personally acquainted with Piaf, but the value of these oral histories is undermined by a general lack of signposts in the text. Is a claim based on a reminiscence or on a documented fact? The reader is left to guess, and while the result adds to the text’s readability, it also needlessly weakens the book’s usefulness to scholars. This is unfortunate, as there is much here that is original and important.

The irony is that the thoroughness of Burke’s research effectively reinforces the image that Piaf’s life was a train wreck, not so much because she took drugs (this happened fairly late in her career) but because she allowed herself to be exploited by a shifting constellation of lovers, managers and moochers. The very worst of these was Simone Berteaut (“Mômone”), an early friend who cadged money off Piaf, stole mementos, and then went on to write a lurid (and generally inaccurate) biography.

But there were many others: the lover who staged séances for Piaf’s benefit, the mother who abandoned her as a child and then came back to sponge off her, the father who behaved scarcely better.

This list goes on. The fact that Burke is able to keep track of so large a cast of lovers and others is a tribute to her skills as a biographer. She set herself the goal of situating Piaf’s life in its artistic and social contexts, and in No Regrets she has succeeded admirably.

Jessica Warner teaches at the University of Toronto’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science. Her most recent book is All or Nothing: A Short History of Abstinence in America.

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