Much has been written about the singer Edith Piaf, France's "Little Sparrow" who was famed for her impoverished childhood, her doomed love affairs, her illnesses and addictions and her mastery of la chanson réaliste. Along with books (including Piaf's rather selective memoir The Wheel of Fortune) there have been various biopics, most recently Olivier Dahan's La Vie En Rose, for which Marion Cotillard won an Oscar. So what can there possibly be left to say?
In No Regrets, Carolyn Burke attempts to tackle this problem by puncturing the myths that have surrounded the singer, most notably her enduring depiction as a waifish victim rather than, as the author sees it, the tough, boisterous figure who propelled herself from the filthy streets of Pigalle to become France's most celebrated female singer. The half-truths that have grown up around Piaf seem to apply in particular to her early years.
She was, legend has it, born on the street in Belleville, her birth shielded from astonished onlookers by the cape of a passing policeman. The truth, as revealed by a document made available by the City Hall, is less dramatic. While her mother was probably found in the advanced stages of labour on the street, Piaf was born in hospital, her arrival assisted by three perfectly qualified nurses.
Other seemingly outlandish chapters hold more true, including the early years spent in a brothel in Normandy and the blindness which had afflicted her since she as three and ended inexplicably four years later, and for which Piaf credited Saint Therese. While Piaf's mother, who abandoned her as a baby, gets short shrift here, Burke offers a more sympathetic view of her father Louis Gassion, an acrobat whose affection for his daughter outlasted those of her many stepmothers, and whom Edith would join on tour as a singer, swiftly doubling his earnings.
Singing on the streets of Pigalle for small change in her teens, Piaf' with her plaintive vibrato caught the attention of passing musicians, composers and impresarios. She attached herself to a series of father figures, each of whom had their own views about how her career should progress, and whose advice she heeded. Among her more significant lovers was Louis Leplée, the owner of Le Gerny, a nightclub off the Champs Elysées, who came up with the name Piaf (slang for "sparrow"), taught her how to dress and carry herself on stage. In 1936, when he was shot dead in his apartment by mobsters, Piaf was arrested and accused as an accessory. The charges were dropped, though it was a major blow to her burgeoning reputation.
The book draws heavily on previously published books and interviews. Burke has one or two new sources, including correspondence between Piaf and one of her mentors, the poet and lyricist Jacques Bourgeat, but none prompts any great revelations. Even so, the author's dedication to detail and accuracy is impressive. The word "perhaps" is used frequently, separating fact from conjecture and weeding out reliable accounts from apocryphal tales.
If Burke's prose lacks the poetry to describe her subject's voice and presence, she happily defers to others to pin them down. Perhaps the most eloquent description comes from Piaf's friend Jean Cocteau who, watching her perform, reflected upon "this astonishing little person... her eyes like those of a blind person trying to see. A voice rises up from deep within, a voice that inhabits her from head to toe, unfolding like a wave of warm black velvet to submerge us... There is just her gaze, her pale hands, her waxen forehead catching the light, and the voice that swells... and gradually replaces her."