Tag Archives: Édith Piaf

Je ne regrette rien

1948: French singer Edith Piaf (1915 – 1963), affectionately known as the ‘Sparrow of Paris’; ‘Piaf’ translates as ‘sparrow’. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

I have long been enamoured of Edith Piaf, her life story and of course, her singing. I don’t remember how old I was when I first became aware of this wonderful, pitiful, strong, brave woman, the Little Sparrow starting life singing in the streets and living in a brothel. Not a great start in life for anyone and particularly a woman in Paris in 1915. War was raging; her father was fighting at the front and her mother had neither the money nor the inclination to look after a baby.

We are told that Edith was born under a street lamp in a doorway at 72 rue de Belleville in the 20th arrondissement on the 19th of December 1915. Above the worn out marble doorstep is a plaque that reads, dont la voix, plus tard, devait bouleverser le monde” translated as ‘whose voice later was to upset the world’. Edith did not just go on to move the world with her voice, but brought inspiration to many and continues to do so even today.

Her mother, known as Line Marsa, chose to call her baby daughter Edith after Edith Cavell, the celebrated British nurse who was celebrated for saving the lives of hundreds of soldiers from both sides. Cavell was later arrested by the Germans and shot by a firing squad just days before Piaf’s birth.

Shortly after the birth, Edith was packed off to live with her maternal grandmother. A bad decision that was overturned by her father on his return from the front. He sent his mother and aunt to bring her back. The aunt owned a thriving brothel in Paris and so Edith’s early days were spent surrounded by prostitutes and the men of class who came to visit them.

When I think of Piaf I think about her passion, her determination, the carefree spirit of her younger days and the spirit of constantly seeking greatness.

But why am I writing about Piaf on the 5th day of this New Year? Some years ago shortly after my husband died, I was playing companion to an elderly English woman. She was that particular type of woman, from her class. Peremptory, imperious, and brusque, so used to giving orders and being obeyed. But we got on very well and over the months and several returns to Chichester by me, we became friends. I remember her saying often, regret nothing; apologise for nothing. So no New Year resolutions for me – instead I am working on regretting nothing that I have done. Oh yes, some foolish decisions that would have been best left unmade but on the whole, I have enjoyed all the years of my life even when in amongst the good, the fantastic and the truly memorable, there have been a couple of hiccups when loved ones departed this world.

So onward into this New Year, with no regrets for what is past; it cannot be changed, but hopefully I can learn from it.

And now from my very favourite poet, from whom we haven’t heard for a while –

“Tell me,
what is it you plan to do 
with your one 
wild and precious life?” 
― Mary Oliver

Another Favorite

Her life was so sad that it was almost too beautiful to be true” Sacha Guitry (Alexandre-Pierre Georges (Sacha) Guitry)   French stage actor, film actor, director, screenwriter, and playwright.  1885 –  1957

Edith Piaf is my favorite singer of all time.  I don’t remember how or when I heard her first but for as long as I can remember I have had a fascination with her and her life.

She had this amazing voice that spoke to directly to you even if you didn’t know enough French to understand what she was singing about.  Of course, we all know “Non, je ne regrette rien”   and many of us have seen the film made of her life “La Vie En Rose”

Piaf movie poster

Image via Wikipedia

I have several books written about her life.  One I particularly like is by her half-sister Simone Berteaut.*  In it she tells of their meeting when Edith was fifteen and she was a couple of years younger.  It was at Alverne’s an acrobat friend of their father’s.  Simone describes the meeting:

“I was pleased to be going to Alverne’s.  His apartment was scruffy but we ate well there.  That was all I cared about, I didn’t think about meeting Edith.

“It was a poorly furnished, filthy little room.  There were some rings hanging in an empty door-frame.  A shapeless creature in a boy’s shirt was suspended from them.  It would never have occurred to me that this was my sister had I not seen two little white hands poking through the shirt sleeves.

“Are you Edith?” “Yes.” “Well, you’re my sister then”.

Edith invited Simone to join her in her life singing in the streets and that’s what they did.  As Simone says in the book “I put my hand in hers and we went off to sing in the streets”.  It is amazing to us that these two young girls were on their own and nobody cared what happened to them.  Remember Simone was not even 13 years old.  So they sang on the streets, mostly Edith sang and Simone collected the money and they hustled what they could.

The life they lived was not healthy or even sane but they survived.  And they continued to live this life until Edith  was “discovered”  by  Louis Leplé and started to sing in his nightclub and it was he who gave her the nickname ‘Little Sparrow’.  The fame and notoriety came as did the money, the booze, drugs, the men but through it all they appeared to have fun.

Two serious car accidents in 1951 led to a morphine and alcohol addiction that left her whole life running out of control.

Piaf claimed that she couldn’t live without a man in her life and she was rarely without one.  She married twice.  First in 1952 to Jacques Pils, a French singer and actor.  But despite it seeming to be a happy marriage it ended in divorce in 1956.

She later married  Theo Sarapo, twenty years younger, a handsome Greek.  This relationship ’caused more gossip than any of her other men.” But one year later , in 1963 Piaf was dead.

Her last appearance was at the Paris Olympia, racked and hunched over with pain and barely able to stand. Her last recorded song was “L’homme de Berlin” in 1963, the year of her death. She died in poverty and under Gallic law her husband inherited her “forty-five million francs worth of debts.”

Piaf’s funeral was massive yet, because of her lifestyle, she was forbidden a Mass but  Parisian traffic was completely stopped on the day because  the funeral.

*Note – In the almost 30 years since I first bought and read this book much has been written and said about Berteaut and her relationship with Piaf.  It has been claimed that they were not sisters and that Berteaut simply latched onto Piaf as a kind of parasite.  Whatever the true relationship was I still love the book.

“No! No regrets
No! I will have no regrets
All the things
That went wrong
For at last I have learned to be strong

No! No regrets
No! I will have no regrets
For the grief doesn’t last
It is gone
I’ve forgotten the past”