Edith Piaf's Paris: In search of La Vie en Rose

The singer died 50 years ago this week. Jonathan Lorie pays homage in the place of her birth

In a cellar theatre in an alley in Paris, the singer steps up to the microphone and steadies herself. She's wearing a short black dress and very high heels. "Let me take you to a place not far from here, to Ménilmontant," she whispers, "let me tell you the story." As the piano rolls a thunderous refrain, she clasps her hands in prayer and hurls out a song that captures all the longing and loss of a desperate life.

"Mon Dieu," she roars at the bare ceiling, "leave him with me a little longer – one day, two days – to fill my life a little, to begin or to end, to brighten or to suffer …." With the piano pounding behind her, she belts out the final plea of a broken woman – "Even if I'm wrong, leave him with me a little longer" – and steps out of the spotlight, exhausted.

Fifty years ago, on 11 October 1963, the original singer of that song, Edith Piaf, died. She was the most popular – and perhaps the greatest – singer France has ever known. Her funeral procession in 1963 was attended by more than 100,000 people and stopped the traffic across Paris. Tonight her songs and her story are being revived by the jazz singer Caroline Nin, in the kind of dim-lit boîte where Piaf might have sung. Every song is an anthem of heartbreak and hope, of an era and a spirit in this city. And I've come here to discover Piaf's life and her Paris.

I step into her world next morning at La Coupole, the great Art Deco brasserie where Piaf sang in 1934, aged just 19. It's a glittering palace of the period with walls lined by mirrors and photos of the musicians and artists who made its great. Here Kiki de Montparnasse bathed naked in the central basin, Josephine Baker brought a cheetah to the table, and Giacometti sketched on the tablecloths.

These days it's a more restrained affair, where waiters carry trays of lobster and langoustine on crushed ice. I order lunch, an elegant sequence of champagne, poached salmon and peach salad – classic French cuisine, delicately done. Wondering where Piaf actually performed, I head downstairs and find a 1920s ballroom, complete with pillars carved like palm trees and a bar long enough to keep any party going.

But her life wasn't always glamorous. She was born in 1915, so legend says, in a doorway in Belleville, a rough part of town where her father was a busking acrobat. Her mother was a café singer of Berber origins who left when she was two. She was brought up by her grandparents, who ran a brothel. There she caught an eye disease that nearly blinded her. At the age of seven she was singing in the streets in her father's act – and earning more than him. The power and pathos of her voice always drew a crowd.

By her teens she was singing at the sleazy cabarets of Montmartre and Pigalle – such places as the Moulin Rouge, whose libertine atmosphere had been caught 20 years before by Toulouse Lautrec. She lived with a pimp, who tried to shoot her when she left him: the bullet grazed her neck. The pain in her songs starts somewhere in all this.

There's a choice of ways to get a sense of such things today. One of the nicest is to stay at l'Hotel, a boutique hotel on the Left Bank that was actually a brothel around the time when Piaf was born. Today, it's one of the finest hotels in Paris, with a Michelin-starred restaurant, but its Belle Epoque style is straight out of Lautrec – plum velvet drapes and gilded chandeliers, green silk wallpaper, and deep chaises longues. The music in the bar is Piaf.

In the brothel days, Oscar Wilde stayed here – and died in room 16. His still unpaid bill is framed on the wall, but the wallpaper he detested has been changed. Further along is the Mistinguett Room, dedicated to the cabaret singer whose legs were insured for 500,000 francs in 1919. It's a shrine to Art Deco, with her mirrored bedhead and dressing table, and lively posters of her shows at the Café de Paris and the Lido. In one she perches on a stool, wearing little beyond a string of pearls.

Intrigued by this, I head out in the evening to the Lido, one of the great cabarets of Paris. It seems a bolder way to enter Piaf's world. I don't quite know the form in such a place, but they seat me at a private table above the stage and produce an ice bucket of champagne, and I don't ask too many questions. There are 1930s lamps and a red beaded curtain across the stage. And then the show begins.

A giant egg festooned in purple feathers descends through the air and pops open to reveal a singer. Hordes of women dance synchronised numbers in fabulous costumes that seem to stop just below the bust. An acrobat does impossible twists on a length of white cotton dangling from the ceiling. The main temple of Angkor Wat rises through the stage and its stone dancers come to life. A mechanical elephant rolls into view. At the finale, those strings of pearls make their strategic appearance, and then the entire cast turns towards a screen at the back, where a film shows Edith Piaf singing "Hymne à l'amour".

I stumble out at 1 am, into the dark of the Champs-Elysées. Car lights spin around the Arc de Triomphe. I circle it to Avenue Mac-Mahon and turn off. At a junction with Rue Troyon, there's a triangle of pavement. Here Piaf was busking in October 1935, when a well-dressed man emerged from the crowd and gave her his card. You'll ruin your voice if you sing like this, he said, and asked her to audition at his nightclub. It was the break that changed her life. Louis Leplée took her on, trained her up, and gave her a nickname – Piaf, or sparrow, because she looked so frail. She was just 20.

Near here, too, in a café on the Champs-Elysées 10 years later, she wrote on a tablecloth the song that became her signature tune: "La Vie en Rose". Countless stars and films have used it since, but it was her vision of the highs and lows of life, from the gutter to the glitter, that make it soar.

Next morning, later than planned, I walk the streets of Belleville and Ménilmontant, looking for Piaf landmarks. It's still a run-down area, with a market selling second-hand goods off Rue des Pyrénées. I order coffee at the bar Aux Follies, where she sang before her break. It is wonderfully intact. Swirling neon lights announce its name across the white ceiling and walls, a cubist mosaic decorates the floor, and little iron pillars are plastered with ancient playbills.

Further uphill is a plaque marking the doorway where she was said to have been born – though more likely this was in the local hospital. In a backstreet nearby is the Musée Edith Piaf, in a two-roomed flat where she once lived. The displays include her black dress and the boxing gloves of her great love, Marcel Cerdan, who died in a plane crash in 1949. His death triggered a decade of alcoholism and drug addiction that wrecked her health. On the night after he died, she insisted on going onstage and singing "Hymne à l'amour", an ecstatic song she had written for him: she collapsed as she reached the chorus. Beyond here is the cemetery of Père Lachaise, where fans still lay flowers on her black granite grave.

For one last glimpse into Piaf's world, I go that night to the oldest cabaret in Paris, Au Lapin Agile. This tiny one-room club perches on a cobbled street in Montmartre, and has hosted singers since 1860. The Impressionists drank and danced here, and little has changed in the dark wooden room with its clutter of benches and paintings.

"Yes, Piaf sang here before she was famous," says Yves Mathieu, the 85-year-old owner. "She lived in the next street." His blue eyes go misty. "I met her. She was very natural, very open, and she did a lot to help others. People loved her because she was very French, very Paris, very street."

There's a hush in the club and a young woman steps into the spotlight. Malaurie Duffaud has dark hair and big eyes, a splash of red lipstick and a little black dress. She raises a finger and launches into a chanson of romantic defiance, "Je M'en Fous Pas Mal" (I Don't Give A Damn). It's a classic Piaf number, ending with anguish at the loss of a lover. As Malaurie croaks out the final notes, the room is silent and her eyes brim with real tears. She is living this song. She holds our silence for 10 more seconds. Then the audience goes wild.

It's the closest I'll get to how Piaf must have been. I slip out and wander across the ancient cobbles, to Sacré Coeur with its glittering view of the city in the night. An accordionist starts to play a haunting refrain. It is "La Vie en Rose".

Travel essentials

Getting there

Jonathan Lorie travelled as a guest of Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. Return fares from £69.

Staying there

He stayed courtesy of l'Hotel (00 33 1 44 41 99 00; www.l-hotel.com), which offers doubles from €295 (£246), room only; and of Le Burgundy (00 33 1 42 60 34 12; leburgundy.com), which has doubles from €420 (£350), room only

Eating there

La Coupole (00 33 1 43 20 14 20; lacoupole-paris.com). Prestige menu, €56pp (£47), including a glass of champagne.

Visiting there

Carolyn Nin's show Hymn A Piaf is at the Théâtre de l'Essaïon in Paris until 9 November It then transfers to London's Hippodrome on 15 November (carolinenin.com).

Au Lapin Agile (00 33 1 46 06 85 87; au-lapin-agile.com). Admission €24 (£20), including a drink.

Le Lido (00 33 1 40 76 56 10; lido.fr/us).

Admission €95 (£79) for show and champagne.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - York

    £18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - Y...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us