Long live the little sparrow
The streets of Paris still resonate with the songs and stories of Edith Piaf
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 Menilmontant,’’ 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.
Just over 50 years ago, on October 11, 1963, the original singer of that song, Edith Piaf, died. She was the most popular, and perhaps the greatest, singer France has known. Her funeral procession was attended by more than 100,000 people and stopped the traffic across Paris. Tonight her songs and her story are being revived by jazz singer Caroline Nin in the kind of dimly lit boite 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 the 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 with mirrors and photos of the musicians and artists who made it 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. 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 cafe singer of Berber origins who left when Piaf was two.
She was brought up by her grandparents, who ran a brothel. There she caught an eye disease that nearly blinded her. At 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.
Piaf 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 establishment on the Left Bank that was actually a brothel around the time 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 Toulouse-Lautrec — plum velvet curtains and gilded chandeliers, green silk wallpaper, and deep chaiseslongue. 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 Cafe 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 Cambodia’s 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 Piaf singing Hymne a l’amour.
I stumble out at 1am, into the dark of the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. 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 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 Leplee took her on, trained her up, and gave her a nickname — Piaf, or sparrow, because she looked so frail. She was 20.
Near here, too, in a cafe on the Avenue des ChampsElysees 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 made it soar.
Next morning, later than planned, I walk the streets of Belleville and Menilmontant, looking for Piaf landmarks. It’s still a rundown area, with a market selling second-hand goods off rue des Pyrenees. 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 it was the local hospital. In a back street nearby is
Clockwise fr Images of th Musee Edith Au Lapin Ag La Coupole a glimpse of S Coeur from streets of Mo