New Paris exhibit celebrates 100 years of Édith Piaf

Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF)

A new exhibition on French diva Édith Piaf opened Tuesday in Paris, offering an in-depth look at the woman who became a postwar star and an enduring national icon.


The exhibit (open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am-7pm until August 23) brings more than 400 different objects from Piaf’s life together under one roof at France’s national library, the BNF (Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the relatively modest black dress that Piaf was known for wearing on stage. "I don't want my appearance to distract from the performance," Piaf once explained. With long sleeves and falling to the knee, it is noticeably small, for the singer was a diminutive 1.47 metres (4 feet, 10 inches) tall.

The BNF exhibit also features movie clips, concert posters, trinkets, and letters and music by Piaf. Visitors can don headphones that play "La Vie en Rose" (Life Through Rose-Tinted Glasses), "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (I regret nothing) and other classics, as well as listen to interviews and narrations.

Known as "The Little Sparrow", Piaf would have turned 100 this year.

From the streets to stardom

Piaf was born Édith Giovanna Gassion on December 19, 1915, in northeast Paris to a family of street performers. Her father, Louis Gassion, was an acrobat and contortionist while her mother, Line Marsa, was a small-time singer. After being abandoned by her mother, Piaf reportedly lived for a time with her grandmother, who ran a brothel.

Piaf first began performing as a young girl, singing in cafés and other public spaces for money. After years spent rambling from one small town to the next with her father, she struck out on her own in the late 1920s, settling once again in Paris.

She worked as a busker in the streets of the capital to earn money. She was barely 20 when her voice caught the attention of Louis Leplée, who owned the popular club Le Gerny. Piaf soon began performing at the venue under the nickname “La Môme Piaf” or “The Little Sparrow”.

As if taking a cue from Piaf's newfound stage name, her career then soared. By the end of the 1930s she had become a household name in France and was highly sought after by musicians and composers alike. “I no longer go to composers, it is they who come to me,” she once famously said.

During World War II and Germany's occupation of France, Piaf’s reputation suffered. She is known to have helped some Jewish friends escape but also played concerts for Gestapo officers. Although initially seen by some as a traitor, she was eventually cleared of being a collaborator.

After the war, a love affair and musical partnership with singer Yves Montand followed and her circle of friends grew along with her fame. She helped several other singers, including Charles Aznavour, and in 1947 made the first of several visits to the United States, which helped make her an international sensation.

She starred in several movies, while the advent of television booster her career further.

Piaf’s life, however, was marked by tragedy. She was left devastated in 1949 after her married lover, world boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, was killed in a plane crash. In 1952 she married her first husband, singer Jacques Pills, but pair divorced five years later.

Piaf caused a scandal in 1962 when she married her second husband at the age of 46, Greek hairdresser and actor Théo Sarapo, who was 20 years her junior.

Piaf died of liver cancer the following year and is buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)


An Edith Piaf retrospective at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF)

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