Long live the lit­tle spar­row

The streets of Paris still res­onate with the songs and sto­ries of Edith Piaf

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - JONATHAN LORIE

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

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