Edith Piaf was a French cabaret singer who became famous throughout the world during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. She captivated listeners with her sad, seemingly autobiographical songs of lost love, sorrow and deprivation. She was born into poverty and prostitution, was only 4′ 8″ tall and spent her entire life with an incredible number of lovers. She suffered terrible muscle and joint pain, many diseases, addiction to drugs and alcohol and a premature death at age 46.
She was born Edith Giovanna Gassion in Paris in 1915. She was named after the World War I British nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed by the Germans for helping French soldiers escape from their German captors. Her father performed acrobatics on the streets for pennies. Her mother never had anything to do with her and her father enlisted in the French Army in 1916. Edith lived with her father’s mother who ran a brothel, and she was fed and cared for by prostitutes. In her autobiography she wrote: “I thought that when a boy signaled to a girl, the girl should never refuse”.
Her father reclaimed her when he returned from the war and brought her into his acts on the streets, in circuses and in nightclubs. She charmed his audiences with her distinctive singing voice. In 1932, at age 17, she had a child who died of meningitis at age two. She never married the child’s delivery-boy father and kept up her lifestyle of many different lovers. In 1935, Louis Leplée got her off the streets by hiring her to sing in his nightclub. She sang dressed in black and continued to do so for the rest of her life. A year later, Leplee was killed, and Piaf was a suspect because of her association with the criminals involved in his murder.
She then started living with Raymond Asso, who changed her name to Edith Piaf (“little sparrow”) and had her sing songs about her previous life of poverty and despair. In 1939, she left Asso for Paul Meurisse, a wealthy singer. By the 1940s, the Germans had conquered Paris and the couple performed many times at Nazi parties, but they soon separated because they fought verbally and physically every day of their relationship.
She moved into an apartment over a house of prostitution and entertained members of the Gestapo in her home. She continued to perform during the Nazi occupation of France and hobnobbed with other celebrities such as actor Maurice Chevalier and poet Jacques Borgeat. She was accused of collaborating with the Nazis but claimed that she was a member of the French resistance.
During the war, both parents showed up on her doorstep. She supported her father until he died. The police called Piaf many times to pick up her mother after she had passed out at a local bar; she died from an overdose of morphine in a cheap hotel room.
In 1944, Piaf met Yves Montand and hated him. She wrote in her autobiography: “He sings badly, he dances badly, he’s got no sense of rhythm. That man’s just nothing.” A year later, she attended his performance and went to his dressing room to apologize for telling everyone that he was a lousy entertainer. He eventually became a star in France. Although they were often seen together, she said that their relationship was not sexual.
In 1949, she lost the love of her life, Marcel Cerdan, a married former world middleweight champion boxer who died in a plane crash while flying to New York to meet her.
In 1951, she made Charles Aznavour famous by taking him on tour with her in France and the United States. She was riding in a car with him and was seriously injured in a crash that broke her arm and two ribs. After that, she was addicted to alcohol and morphine and was frequently seen going to bars in Paris and picking up strange men.
In 1952, she married songwriter and entertainer Jacques Pills and her matron of honour was Marlene Dietrich. Pills was also an alcoholic and the two would drink together for days. He did love her, however, and provided her with the most stable relationship of her lifetime. However, true to her past, she ran off with other men and divorced him in 1957.
In 1962, she met her last husband, Theo Lamboukas, who was 27 and earned a living by cutting hair. She was 47 and very sick. She made him famous, even though he had no talent whatever. A year later, they married and the media laughed at them. However, his parents loved her and welcomed her into their family home, causing her to cry from their kind reception. In 1963, she recorded her last song, “L’homme de Berlin”.
In the early 1950s, her joints started to swell and hurt and she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She was addicted to painkillers and had to be hospitalized for her addiction many times. In her forties she looked decades older.
In 1959, she collapsed while she was giving a concert, apparently because of liver disease brought on by alcohol, narcotics, or infection from her numerous sexual encounters. She did have an operation on her liver, but we do not know the reason. By 1963, her belly was swollen and she had visible signs of liver cancer. She died on October 11, 1963. We will never know the actual cause of death as no autopsy was performed.
Because of her lifestyle habits that were famous all over the world, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris denied her a Catholic burial mass. 100,000 fans attended the ceremony at the cemetery, and the funeral procession stopped traffic for hours. On October 10, 2013, fifty years after her death, the Roman Catholic Church gave her a memorial mass in the St. Jean-Baptiste Church in Belleville, Paris, her birth parish.
What You Should Learn from This Story
Most people are products of their environments. A person who is brought up with crime, poverty, prostitution, promiscuity, alcohol and drugs has to work very hard to avoid suffering the same afflictions. Many poor people who succeed financially still retain into later life some of their serious insecurities.
Poverty: Being brought up in poverty markedly increases your chances of dropping out of school and decreases your chances of ever being exposed to opportunities to improve your social position.
Promiscuity: There is no such thing as safe sex with multiple partners. Virtually all promiscuous people have already picked up venereal diseases, many of which are still incurable. Most cases of chronic urinary symptoms such as burning on urination, urinating frequently at night, and difficulty starting your stream are caused by venereal diseases that have no cure. You can pick up more than 100 different HPV viruses that cause warts and cancers. You can be infected with syphilis in your twenties, and have no symptoms until it causes you to go crazy 30 or more years later.
Alcohol: No amount of alcohol is safe. Recent data show that one drink a day increases risk for many different types of cancers. Data showing that one drink a day helps prevent heart attacks is flawed. Alcohol can damage every cell in your body: your brain to cause dementia, your nerves to cause impotence, your liver to cause cirrhosis, your stomach to cause ulcers, your mitochondria in your cells to cause cancers, and so forth.
Drugs: If you suffer with pain, drugs will temporarily lessen its severity. However when you stay on medications to block pain, you increase your risk for addiction. Even the safer non-steroidal pain medicines are associated with increased risk for heart attacks and bleeding.
Rheumatoid arthritis: Edith Piaf suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that caused terrible pain in her joints and muscles. Doctors call it auto-immune because it looks like an infection and the patient’s immunity is overactive. However, instead of her immunity killing germs, her immune cells attack and destroy her muscles and joints. There is strong evidence that rheumatoid arthritis is tripped off by an infection, but so far doctors have not found a specific germ that causes this disease.
Liver cancer: Liver cancer is often caused by hepatitis C, a sexually-transmitted infection.
December 19, 1915 to October 10, 1963