“My lifestyle was such in [the 1940s] that I ended up being taken as an easy lay. Amongst my entourage I was the good time had by all. Men treated me like some territory which had to be conquered, even though deep inside I still felt pure and desperate.”
The subtitle, “A Passionate Life,” epitomizes everything Edith Piaf believed in and stood for. Perhaps because of her impoverished childhood, in which even a small kindness meant everything, Piaf grew up craving attention and love. Abandoned by her mother, she grew up in Pigalle, doing whatever she could to stay alive and find happiness, however fleeting. If that meant doing a quick trick to get enough money to eat, she did that. If she could get enough money singing on a corner, she did that instead. Uneducated and unloved, she developed few, if any, inner resources, intellectually or emotionally, to deal with the fame that was to become her fate, and with her need for love, she was fair game for every manipulator, sleazy operator, and parasite who came her way. “What is so utterly remarkable,” Bret notes, “is that she hardly ever seemed to mind, so long as she was getting something in return.”
Author David Bret spends little time on Piaf’s childhood, concentrating instead on her career from its beginning in the 1930s until her death on Oct. 10, 1963. When she was still a teenager, Louis LePlee, a sixty-year-old gangster and pervert who peddled drugs and flesh, invited her to try out at his nightclub and he quickly signed her to her first real job. When he was shot dead not long afterward, however, Piaf herself became a suspect and was interviewed at length by the police. It was not until the public intervention by a friendly journalist, who wrote an article attacking the scandal-mongers, that she was able to escape from the publicity, with her reputation, such as it was, in tatters. She was then mentored by Raymond Asso, whom she ordered to leave his common-law wife–or else. Their affair was, not surprisingly, a wild one. “She was short-tempered, vulgar, loudmouthed, but above all, exceptionally gifted…He was impatient, sometimes violent, and stubborn.” When this affair, like her many subsequent affairs, broke off, she immediately found a replacement, always with someone who could advance her career, either as a songwriter or as a promoter. It was love at first sight (again) when she met Paul Meurisse, though their physical altercations (“Edith never had any respect for a man until he slapped her.”) were legendary. Eventually, Edith became part of the theatre crowd which included Jean Cocteau, who adored her, and she acted in several plays and films.