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Legend has it that Edith Piaf was born on 19 December 1915 (as Edith Giovanna Gassion) on a Parisian street corner with two policemen attending. This is not a far-fetched idea, however, and may be true. Edith's mother was an alcoholic Italian street singer and part-time prostitute who neglected her for all of two months and then abandoned her to her father. Edith's father, Jean Gassion, was a famous acrobat who hadn't the time nor the skills to nurture an infant. He dropped the child off with his mother, the madam of a bordello, and she raised Edith through the toddler years.

When Edith was school-aged, her father reclaimed her and made her part of his act, performing in circuses and nightclubs. Although her father’s life was not a stable one, he truly loved Edith and did his best to care for her. By the age of fifteen, though, Edith had had enough of circus life and went back to Paris, where she began singing for money in the streets.

In 1935, Edith was discovered by a nightclub owner named Louis Leplee. Leplee’s establishment was called Gerny’s, and was frequented by the upper and lower classes alike, as many Parisian clubs were in those days. Leplee convinced Edith to sing at Gerny?s despite her extreme nervousness, and gave her the nickname that would stay with her for the rest of her life: Le Mome Piaf (The Little Sparrow). From this she took her stage name. Edith’s specialty was the poignant ballad, and soon all of Paris was talking about the waif with the heartbreaking voice. She began to make friends with famous people, such as the actor Maurice Chevalier and the poet Jaques Borgeat.

In April of 1936 Edith was devastated when her mentor, Louis Leplee, was found murdered in his apartment. She was appalled to be considered a suspect, but knew that her reputation for associating with unsavory characters wasn’t helping her in this situation. It was at this low point that she turned to a businessman named Raymond Asso. Though Asso was married, he helped Edith to straighten things out with the police, and they began a tempestuous affair. She handed the reins of her career over to him, and under his management her star ascended. Soon her shows were selling out and her financial prospects improved dramatically.
In 1939, Edith left Asso for Paul Meurisse, a wealthy singer who offered her a way into sophisticated, upper class Paris. While Edith enjoyed her new lifestyle, the relationship was not a happy one. Both partners were stubborn and temperamental, and their arguments often turned violent. They were befriended by the playwright Jean Cocteau, and he based his play “Le Belle Indifferent” on their twisted love. Edith starred in the first production of the play, in 1940.

By this time, the Germans were threatening invasion. Edith performed in many benefits for the French Army, but knew that hope was slim. Meurisse was called up for duty, and Edith was relieved when he was rejected on medical grounds. The two toured the unoccupied areas of France, but were finally forced to go back to Paris. All artists under the occupation had to have their materialvetted by the Nazis. Some were persecuted more than others, and to many people, it didn’t appear that Edith was persecuted enough. In fact, she performed many times for Nazi parties and banquets. When she moved into an apartment over a bordello, she befriended and entertained members of the Gestapo in her suite. Later she would claim to be a member of the Resistance, but like her friend Maurice Chevalier, she would always be suspect. We do know, however, that she helped at least one Jewish acquaintance, the composer Michael Emer, escape France and death.

During the war, both of Edith’s parents reentered her life. She was happy to see her father, and supported him until he died a few years later. Her mother was another story. Edith would often be called to bars or the police station to pick up her inebriated mother. Though she had her hands full with family matters, the war years were arguably her most creative, and she wrote her signature song, “La Vie en Rose” in the middle of the Occupation. The list of men that Edith went through during this rough time looks like a Parisian phone book, but things weren’t going to get any better.

After the war, Edith toured Europe, the United States, and South America, becoming an internationally known figure. Then, in 1951, tragedy struck. She was in a horrible car accident, breaking an arm and several ribs. The doctors prescribed morphine, and she also began drinking heavily to ease the pain. Soon Edith was recognized cruising the bars of Paris, picking up strange men to assuage her loneliness. In 1952, she settled down a bit when she married songwriter Jaques Pills, but Pills was also an alcoholic, and did nothing to discourage her drinking. He did love her, however, and provided her with the most stable relationship she’d ever known.

In early 1963, Edith recorded her last song, “L’homme de Berlin.” She died on October 11 of that year. Edith Piaf was buried in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery on 14 October.