She had been singing for her supper on the streets for most of her life. But as far as France was concerned, La Mome Piaf (”Kid Sparrow”) was born anew in 1935, nicknamed by a Parisian cabaret owner when she sang onstage for the first time, in his club the Gerny. An enormous voice, deep and raw, searching and soulful, welled up from the hollows of this tiny gamine with huge, hungry eyes. When she finished, there was silence and then thunderous applause.
Maurice Chevalier was in the audience that night. ”That kid,” he said after the performance, ”she’s got it inside.”
But it was what she didn’t have inside that made Edith Giovanna Gassion beloved. Born in the doorway of a Parisian tenement, she lived for years in a brothel run by her grandmother. By the time she was ”discovered” at the age of 19, she had survived blindness (she was healed, she said, by a religious miracle) and the death of her daughter.
Over the next 25 years, Piaf toured Europe and the U.S. singing about tragic love: love lost, love unrequited, love for sale. It was her own ”La Vie en Rose,” a song celebrating the ”rosiness” of a life that seemed to elude her, which became Piaf’s signature — and France’s second national anthem.
By the time she reached her 40s, Piaf — intent on living her lyrics — had become almost as famous for her excesses, scandalous love affairs, and illnesses as for her music. She died of cirrhosis on Oct. 11, 1963, at the age of 47. When she was buried, 15,000 Parisians stood at her grave site, while 40,000 more lined the streets outside the Pere Lachaise cemetery.
Devotees can hear her songs on The Voice of the Sparrow: The Very Best of Edith Piaf and Edith Piaf at Carnegie Hall January 13, 1957. Play Piaf when you want to hurt a little: ”Pain,” she once said, ”is an obligation.”
Oct. 11, 1963
America watched Lassie come home every week on television, while crooner Bobby Vinton sang ”Blue Velvet.” Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group ushered in a new era in female bonding, and the movie Tom Jones brought new meaning to the idea of finger food.