French singer Edith Piaf was born on December 19, 1915. Ahead of her 100th anniversary, here's a celebration of a life forever associated with Paris.
Only a couple of wilted carnations in a black vase point the way. "EP" stands in golden lettering on the marble vessel: Edith Piaf. The grave of the legendary singer is difficult to find in the huge Père Lachaise cemetery of Paris. "We visited it last year, as well as the grave of Jim Morrison," a Canadian tourist says, referring to the 1960s American rock singer, who also is buried here. Piaf and Morrison - just two among 70,000 monumental grave sites that each year attract two million visitors. The search is slightly easier if one knows that the grave of Piaf is number 71 in the cemetery's 97th division.
Eternal French chanson
On a recent day, several travel groups had found their way to stand in front of the black slab which is headed with the inscription "Famille Gassion-Piaf." Nothing comparable to the tens of thousands who crowded the cemetery on October 14, 1963, to pay their final respects to "the sparrow of Paris." The Parisians were in deep mourning for the singer, dead at the age of 47, who embodied the city like no one else.
Stations of a career
Even if she did spend her final years living in the smart 16th district, Edith Piaf remained to the end a child of the poorer neighbourhoods of northern Paris.
Barely two kilometers from Père Lachaise cemetery, Edith Gassion saw the first light of day in the Rue Belleville street - so legend has it. In her birth certificate it says she was born in nearby Tenon Hospital. Above the entrance to a house at Rue Belleville 72, there is a nondescript-looking stone plate with this inscription: "On the steps of this house was born on December 19, 1915 in bitter poverty Edith Piaf, whose voice would later move the world." The street, running for more than two kilometres, is the central artery of what was once the village of Belleville, today the 19th and 20th districts of Paris. A five-minute walk from her birthplace is the Buttes-Chaumont Park, one of the largest parks in Paris. In good weather, both Parisians and tourists alike come here to take in the sun or look at its artificial grottoes.
Back in the 1930s, things in what was then a workers' quarter were less idyllic than now. At the age of 15, the daughter of Louis Gassion, a circus artist, and coffee house singer Anetta Maillard was out on the streets singing for small change and fending for herself. In the years before her breakthrough, the petite - she was just 1.47 metres tall - woman with the powerful voice lived about a kilometre distant from her birthplace, in the Rue Crespin du Gast.
It was a quiet side street of the Rue Oberkampf which is lively with its bars and restaurants. Today, in a brick house at Rue Crespin du Gast 5, the Friends of Edith Piaf Association runs a small private museum, one that can be visited by advance appointment only. Bernard Marchois, in his apartment consisting of two rooms totally overflowing with mementos, shows visitors around. Marchois was personally acquainted with the Grand Lady of Chanson and began showing his mementos in 1977. There are photographs, concert posters, LPs, and letters, including some written to Edith's sister Denise. Marchois also shows a cocktail party dress with a white fur stole which the singer wore when appearing with the boxer Marcel Cerdan. Marchois has retained the famous boxing gloves of Cerdan, who was the great love of Piaf's life and who was killed in an airplane crash in 1949. He was also often in the audience when the tiny singer would appear in the Olympia concert hall, performing such classics as "Hymne à l'amour" or "Milord."
There is one special story linking the Olympia, which is located on the smart Boulevard des Capucines, with Edith Piaf. Out of friendship with Olympia owner Bruno Coquatrix, she appeared there nightly for three straight months in 1961 while donating all the proceeds to the concert house to ward off it going bankrupt. It is thanks to her that the Olympia is to this day a venue for the top names in music from around the world. And it was on December 30, 1960, that Piaf, already seriously ill, sang the song that would become her legacy: "Je ne regrette rien."