Edith Piaf: Love Conquers All

November 9, 2009

piaf_cerdan“Love conquers all” is one of the mottoes Edith Piaf lived by, and has anyone ever had a more pathetic life story? Born under a lamp-post at three in the morning, cared for by a grandma who put red wine in her baby bottle, as a child she went blind and lived in a whorehouse. On August 19, the proprietress of this institution hung a “closed” sign on the door, mustered all the girls and the 7-year-old child, and led them and to the shrine of St. Theresa of Lisieux where they prayed and burned candles all day. The madame promised to donate ten thousand francs to the church if Edith were cured on August 25. On the appointed day, the little girl regained her sight, which caused the village priest to decree that now, being able to see the disgraceful goings-on, she could no longer live in the brothel. Or maybe he figured the saint would disapprove.

For Edith, it was “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” By 1930, she was a seasoned street performer, successful enough to rescue her half-sister, Simone Berteaut, from their negligent mother. When Edith got pregnant, she and her 14-year-old sister were sharing quarters, and they were both so distracted, nobody thought to prepare for the event with so much as a diaper. They didn’t know how to do laundry, so clothes were worn until they got too rank, and thrown away. Edith was singing in a dive, and the two sisters would leave the baby asleep in their room while they went to work. Sometimes they would rent a room for 12 hours, and spend the other 12 hours out on the streets. It was cheaper than maintaining a continuous residence someplace. There were stretches as long as a week when even that minimal amount of shelter couldn’t be had. Eventually, the baby’s father showed up and appropriated her. The little girl died of meningitis at age two and a half, and Edith turned her first trick to pay for the burial.

A club owner was murdered, and Simone was sent to a detention center for a couple of months. The press went wild connecting Edith with the case, and her career began with shady notoriety. People would come to hear her sing just so they could boo her for being connected with a suspicious death. She took up with American sailors, allegedly locking three or four men in different rooms while she went to work, to be assured of finding them when she returned. She was proud of being able to drink any man under the table.

Simone ran a dry hustle where she’d show some man a photo of her “sick little brother,” or tell him the concierge was holding the child hostage for non-payment of rent. After taking the mark’s money, she would promise to come back and give him a happy ending as soon as the baby got its medicine or the rent was paid. The sisters always lived on the edge, in chaos and squalor. At one point, Edith moved a nine-man singing group into their place. She is said to have invited several former lovers over on the same evening, and they all showed up wearing blue suits she had bought for them. Edith liked to see her men wearing blue. (But come to think of it, those two stories might be the same story. Maybe the sisters were extending hospitality to a whole band, and they wore blue uniforms. So somebody made up this story about the party for the ex-lovers. The gutter press was around in those days, as always. You never know, with these things.)

A boyfriend introduced Edith to an invention called the toothbrush, which was a blessing, since her favorite snack was pickled herring with onions. This same guy was too polite and gentlemanly for Edith’s standards, so she plotted how to get him to hit her. Eventually, a character named Raymond Asso took the songstress in hand to teach her how to act civilized, stop hanging around with whores and pimps, and become a professional with an actual career. He thought Simone was a leech, and forced Edith to abandon her sister and move in with him.

During the war, the Germans who occupied France liked Edith Piaf. She would perform for them, but she also got them to pay for shows in the stalags, and then she’d turn over her fee to the prisoners of war. Visiting a POW camp, the sweet little wren would pose for a photo with a group of prisoners – just a sentimental keepsake for her scrapbook, of course. The pictures then went to the French Resistance, so fake IDs could be made to help Allied POWs escape. Apparently, Edith got away with this more than once.

Edith in love was a fearsome sight – jealous, possessive, demanding, and prone to howling fits. She was lover and mentor to Yves Montand, who was five or six years younger, and already had a wife and children. The pair of them would have monumental physical battles, and scream at each other till they were hoarse, then gargle the hoarseness out of their throats and go onstage. The demands of their respective careers took these lovers away from each other.

When Edith was enmeshed in an affair with boxer Marcel Cerdan, she and Simone sneaked into the training camp and lived in an unused bungalow so the affair could continue. Marcel brought them sandwiches once a day, and they had only tap water to drink. It was, needless to say, a great sacrifice for Edith to drink nothing but water. This, more than anything, proved her devotion.

Ever since becoming her sister’s sidekick again, Simone was the all-purpose gofer and ultimate personal assistant. They’d pick up a couple of men and take them home. Edith always got the better-looking one, and Simone’s role was to take the other guy into another room and keep him there, so he wouldn’t be in the way while Edith seduced the man of her choice. Her whole concept of sex was much closer to the typical masculine attitude. Men existed for her to judge, pick, use, discard, or fall madly in love with. A man was something to enslave, or to be enslaved by.

When Edith found a new sweetheart, she would go broke buying him fancy clothes and pricey watches and cufflinks and so on. There was always a stack of unpaid bills. Her philosophy was, as long as she earned money, she was entitled to spend money, and if the numbers didn’t match up, she didn’t want to hear about it. At a friend’s suggestion, Edith once bought a farm for the sake of the healthy country air. She reportedly paid 15 million francs for the real estate, and another 10 million on renovations, never even spent three weekends there, and ended up selling the place for 6 million francs. Dining in a restaurant with a large party, Edith would pick up the check – but since she was paying, she decided what everyone would eat. She’d buy a man a nice pair of alligator shoes, but a size too small, because she didn’t like big feet.

Marcel took the sisters to New York. Simone was ordered to sample the man’s meals before he ate, because Edith was afraid his opponent would try to poison him. Marcel won the fight and became the new world champion. Soon the lovers were both back in Europe; Edith in Paris, and Marcel in Casablanca. They both had careers, after all. Edith didn’t trust the mail service, or indeed any strangers, with her love letters to Marcel. Guess who wound up flying back and forth three times a week to deliver the letters? Simone, of course.

Then, the tragedy. Edith was in New York working, and Marcel was going to join her. He intended to travel by ship, but she asked him to take a plane because she couldn’t wait. The plane crashed and he was killed. Edith stopped eating, and was only able to fulfill her contractual obligations and sing her songs with the aid of powerful drugs. Marcel’s ghost visited her. She held seances, sitting around a table all night while the spirit of Marcel wrote songs for her. The seances went on for three years, and Edith befriended Marcel’s widow and kids.

If Edith wanted to stay up all night, Simone had to stay up all night too. The singer exercised parental control over her wayward sister for 30 years, supplied her basic needs and put money in the bank for her, and didn’t let her take sugar in her coffee. Edith loved certain movies, and Simone had to accompany her to see The Third Man nineteen times. When Simone got pregnant, Edith felt her trust was betrayed. Simone wasn’t supposed to have anyone in her life more important than Edith. With her substance abuse problems, extensively documented elsewhere, Edith needed a lot of looking after. With the opiates and the alcohol, there was a “nightmare that lasted four years,” during which she got married and divorced and also tried to kill herself.piaf_ Sarapo

The traumatized Edith couldn’t stand to be alone, not even in the bathroom. Somebody had to be with her all the time, man or woman, didn’t matter. She saw spiders and mice that other people couldn’t see. Just before starting a nearly year-long tour of the United States, she was hospitalized for more than month. The tour was the longest and most lucrative of her career, and at the time she was, after Crosby and Sinatra, the best-paid star in the world.

Her third car accident didn’t seem to do too much damage, only some cuts, but a few months later Edith collapsed onstage and vomited blood from a stomach ulcer. By then she weighed about 75 pounds. She was operated on for pancreatitis, diagnosed with cancer, and hospitalized again in a hepatic coma. She resumed touring, but then had two more surgeries for intestinal constrictions. At age 47 she was a wreck.

So, what did Edith Piaf do next? What any celebrity diva would do. She married the beautiful Theo Sarapo, who was 26 when they met, or approximately 20 years younger. Everyone thought he married her for money, but he was truly devoted to Edith, as far as anyone could tell. She came down with double pneumonia, then pulmonary edema. Emerging from another coma, of five days’ duration this time, she suffered “a fit of true madness that lasted two weeks,” which Theo nursed her through. When Edith died, the poor guy didn’t inherit anything but 45 million francs worth of debt. Jean Cocteau died the same day, just when he was getting ready to read a funeral eulogy for Edith Piaf over the radio.




  1. You sound like quite a “hater.” Not once did you mention her glorious voice and the range of emotions she instilled in millions of hearts and minds around the world. Such a one-sided recount. Shame on you.

  2. Everybody already knows about Piaf’s talent and abilities. Her name is synonymous with “great vocalist” just like Picasso is synonymous with “great painter.” No need to belabor the point.
    The context here is, a series about famous women who favored younger men.

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