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Edith Piaf continues to inspire, 50 years after her death

© Photo: AFP

Video by Kate Moody

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-10-09

When singer Edith Piaf died nearly 50 years ago, on October 10, 1963, she was France's biggest international star and the first to conquer America, with her melancholy music becoming an indelible part of the soundtrack for a post-war generation.

When Edith Piaf died on October 10, 1963, she was France's biggest international star and the first to conquer America, with her melancholy music becoming an indelible part of the soundtrack for the post-war generation.

Piaf's cabaret songs about carrying on living in the face of adversity – such as "Non, Je ne Regrette Rien" (I Regret Nothing) and "La Vie en Rose" (Life Through Rose-Tinted Glasses) – reflected the difficulties in her own life, which was marked by tragic loss and struggles with addiction.

Even Piaf's early years were difficult, with her mother, also a singer, abandoning her to be brought up by her grandmother.

Piaf’s only child, a daughter born when Piaf was only 17, died at the age of two from meningitis.

And the love of her life – French boxer Marcel Cerdan, who was married to someone else – died in an October 1949 plane crash while travelling from Paris to New York to see her. Piaf allegedly wrote one of her most famous songs, Hymne à l'amour (Hymn to Love), for him.

Known in France as the "Little Sparrow", Piaf struggled most of her life with alcoholism and drug addiction and survived three near-fatal car crashes.


Following her death, the Archbishop of Paris denied requests for a funeral mass, citing Piaf's irreligious lifestyle.

Nevertheless, thousands of fans followed her funeral procession through the streets of Paris before her burial in the famed Père Lachaise cemetery, where many of France’s most celebrated artists are interred.

Piaf remains one of the best-known French performers abroad, with a 2007 film about her life entitled "La Vie en Rose" earning an Academy Award for French actress Marion Cotillard as Piaf.

A choreographed death

Piaf’s personal photographer says that even as she lay dying, she carefully controlled her public image. At 47 and suffering from fatal liver cancer, Piaf insisted that only Hugues Vassal would be allowed to capture the images of her final days.

Tearing up as he recalled taking his last pictures of the diminutive star, Vassal told AFP that even at the end of her life, Piaf insisted on personally approving each photograph.

"She knew she would go down in history and she wanted control over the photographs that we would keep of her," said Vassal, 80, who was Piaf's photographer during the last six years of her life.

It was a final act of choreography from a star whose phenomenal success was based not only on her prodigious talent but also on her carefully managed public image and  prevailing myths about her life that persist to this day.

After she died, Vassal worked with a who's who of the French stars that followed in her wake, including Charles Aznavour, Serge Gainsbourg and Johnny Hallyday.

Robert Belleret, author of the just-published "Piaf, a French Myth", said the star was born Edith Gassion at a hospital in Paris's working-class 20th district on December 15, 1915.

The book draws on scores of unpublished letters written by Piaf to her confidant, poet Jacques Bourgeat, among other personal papers and correspondence.

"She had an incredible magnetism," Belleret said in an interview with AFP.

And the Piaf myth continues to influence modern artists.

Marc Jacobs, the US designer who modernised Louis Vuitton into a global fashion giant, cited Piaf among his inspirations in dedicating his final show for the Parisian luxury brand last week to "the women who inspire me and the showgirl in every one of them".

Jacobs listed Edith Piaf among his greatest inspirations, which included Jane Birkin, Betty Catroux and Catherine Deneuve.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)


Date created : 2013-10-08


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