The Avenue MacMahon is one of the dullest of the 12 spokes of the wheel that join at the Arc de Triomphe. For six years, I have walked across the avenue on my way home without giving it a second thought. It turns out that the pavement on the avenue's eastern side, about halfway down, has a noble place in the history of la chanson française (French popular music).
In October 1936, two tiny, undernourished young women in ragged skirts came to the then fashionable Avenue MacMahon from a poor district of north-eastern Paris. One of them began to sing, powerfully and beautifully. An audience gathered, astounded that such a mighty voice could come from such a scrap of a woman. They included a dapper elderly man called Louis Leplée, who owned a cabaret just off the Champs-Elysées.
He invited the singer - Edith Gassion, 20 years old and 4ft 8in tall - to come and see him at his club. He gave her a job but insisted that she must change her stage name to La Môme Piaf (the kid sparrow).
When she died in October 1963 - 40 years ago this month - Edith Piaf (as she eventually came to be known) was known and loved all over the world. A vast, turbulent crowd of Piaf's admirers followed her coffin six miles across Paris, from her home near the Bois de Boulogne to the Père Lachaise cemetery.
She was laid to rest not far from the place where she was supposedly born, at 72 rue de Belleville, in what was still, until recently, one of the roughest areas of Paris but is now becoming rapidly gentrified. According to a legend encouraged by Piaf when she was famous, she was born in the street outside the building in which her parents lodged.
To this day, a plaque on the building (just down the street from a McDonald's) repeats the story. It reads: "On the steps of this building was born, on 19 December 1915, in the greatest possible destitution, EDITH PIAF, whose voice would shake the world."
Edith Gassion's birth certificate says that she was, in fact, born in a hospital nearby - the daughter of a Norman street acrobat and a half-Algerian street singer.
To mark the 40th anniversary of her death next week, the Hôtel de Ville in Paris has organised a free exhibition of photographs, film footage and recordings, which commemorate five Parisian places and periods associated with Edith Piaf's triumph- and disaster-strewn life. The exhibition, "Piaf, la môme de Paris" (Piaf, the Paris kid) starts this Friday and lasts until 31 January.
The anniversary has also brought an explosion of rereleases of her work, including a 20-CD collection of 413 of her songs (six of which have never been released before). There is also a play about Piaf currently on the Paris stage, and a shelf-ful of new and reworked books about her life: her scores of love affairs; her vicious temper; her generosity; her numerous car accidents; her alcoholism and addiction to morphine.
The best account of what an utter monster Piaf could be - and why her friends loved her anyway - is given in a very funny new book by Jean Noli, Piaf Secrète (L'Archipel, €21.50).
He begins with a description of his attempt, as a struggling journalist, to interview Piaf in October 1960; how he waited nine hours in her appartment, by which time a dozen of her friends and senior figures in the Paris music world were also waiting. "Elle exagère," says one. (She has finally gone too far). Piaf eventually emerges from her bedroom in order to say that she is old and sick and will never sing again.
Some of the same company assembles the next day, including a shy young songwriter, Charles Dumont, who knows that Piaf hates him (he is too plump for her taste). He plays his latest song on the piano. Edith adores it. Dumont must never leave her side.
A few weeks later, she is virtually carried on to the stage at L'Olympia. She sings Charles Dumont's song, to thunderous applause. Dumont, exhausted after weeks of dealing with Piaf, is propped up in the wings. She hobbles over to him and says with a sly grin: "Je crois que ça marche." ("It seems to be going down OK.")
The song became her testament and trademark: "Non, je ne regrette rien."
Piaf was the last true French star, says one of her biographers. Afterwards, there came show business.
Depardieu takes on a tasty new role
It is true that among all the synthetic celebrities - "les people", as they are called here - who occupy the columns of French gossip magazines today, there is only one who even begins to resemble La Môme.
Gérard Depardieu, like her, was a street urchin and tearaway, who was saved by a great talent, in his case for acting. He, like her, came to be instantly recognised all over the world. He, like her, has gone through an implausible amount of alcohol, love affairs and road accidents.
There are differences, however. Piaf chose her songs very carefully and took no interest in money. M. Depardieu has never seen a film script, or studio cheque, that he did not like. His estranged son, Guillaume, complained recently in a press interview that his father was driven principally by money.
That might be so, but M. Depardieu's energy is extraordinary. He seems to appear in every second (and second-rate) French movie. He runs a vineyard. He has started a series of public readings of Saint Augustine.
Last week, M. Depardieu and his partner, the actress Carole Bouquet, branched out into yet another business - restaurants. They opened what they hope will be a trendy brasserie, La Fontaine Gaillon, near the Bourse in central Paris (set menu €36). They plan to open similar restaurants in Geneva and London. If the London project goes ahead, M. Depardieu should steal its name from the French bistrot in the Mike Leigh movie, Life is Sweet. It was called Le Regrette Rien.Reuse content