Fifty years after the death of Edith Piaf, the “Little Sparrow,” crowds packed into a church in a working-class district of Paris to mark the enduring legacy of the French singer.
The congregation at the memorial service in Belleville included busloads of Japanese tourists, bearing witness to the singing legend’s global appeal.
“She’s the only French singer I’ve ever heard of,” said Italian student Antonello Pistritto, at the St Jean-Baptiste de Belleville church, where Piaf was baptised Edith Giovanna Gassion in 1917.
Belleville, with its bustling Chinese community, has been transformed since Piaf was raised in the gritty neighbourhood. After being taken on tour to the provinces by her contortionist father, she moved to Montmartre, where she eked out a living from singing on street corners before being discovered by cabaret owner Louis Leplée in 1935.
Her songs of love and pain are haunting, from “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” and “La Vie en Rose” to “Milord” and “L’Accordéoniste”. The surviving footage of her concerts shows her passionate delivery, standing in her trademark black dress. Among her many lovers was the Yves Montand, the actor.
But Piaf was a tragic figure who was broken by the plane crash death of her great love, the (married) French boxing champion Marcel Cerdan as he was on his way to see her triumph in New York.
Her only child, a daughter born when she was 17, died from meningitis aged two. When Piaf succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 47, her health had already been destroyed by her addiction to alcohol and morphine, the drugs having been prescribed after a car crash in 1951.
Piaf has inspired an industry of books and films since her death. Marion Cotillard starred in a moving 2007 bio-pic, distributed in the UK under the title of Piaf’s best-loved song, “La Vie en Rose”.
French people of all ages rose to the challenge of singing their favourite Piaf number at the foot of her statue.
The 50th anniversary of her death is being marked by four days of celebrations. The memorial service opened with a chant based on the words of St Thérèse of Lisieux, to whom Piaf was devoted. The festival includes a walking tour, a treasure hunt and concerts.
Piaf is buried in nearby Père Lachaise cemetery.