Fifty years after the death of Edith Piaf, crowds of people packed a church in a working-class district of Paris yesterday to mark the enduring legacy of the diminutive Frenchwoman affectionately known as “la Môme”, the little sparrow.
The diverse congregation at the memorial in Belleville, which included busloads of Japanese tourists, bore witness to the French singing legend’s global appeal. Crowds gathered at St Jean-Baptiste de Belleville church where Piaf was baptised Edith Giovanna Gassion in 1917. Others visited her final resting place in the Père Lachaise cemetery (pictured).
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 “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 actor Yves Montand.
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. 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 alcohol and morphine, the drugs having been prescribed after a car crash in 1951.
Piaf has inspired an industry of books and films. Marion Cotillard starred in a moving 2007 biopic, La Vie en Rose.