Edith Piaf, the “Little Sparrow” in America

Edith Piaf was France’s undisputed national chanteuse during the 1950s, while simultaneously leading a successful career in the United States. With her little black dress, intense stare, and vocals wracked with sobs, the singer has long epitomized France in the eyes of the Americans. Much like Josephine Baker, Piaf had “two loves”: Paris, where she was born, and New York City, where she took cabaret stages and Carnegie Hall by storm. The Big Apple has certainly not forgotten the singer, famed for her rendition of "La Vie en rose," who passed away 60 years ago on October 10, 1963.
Edith Piaf, ca. 1955. © Gaston Paris/Galerie Roger-Viollet

Edith Piaf’s life was a blend of joy and disaster, and her time in New York City was no different. It was in this city that she married the singer Jacques Pills on July 29, 1952. She regularly performed at the Playhouse Theater, at the Versailles and of course at the legendary Carnegie Hall. She recorded three of her finest songs – “Soudain une vallée”, “Avant nous” and “Les Amants d’un jour” – at Capitol Studios in the 1950s. And it was also in New York that she learned of the death of French boxer Marcel Cerdan in 1949, the love of her life who was flying from Paris to meet her.

Piaf stepped off the transatlantic liner Queen Elizabeth into Manhattan on October 1, 1947, ready to begin her American tour. When asked by a journalist who she wanted to meet first, she replied brazenly: “Einstein, but I don’t have his telephone number.” It didn’t take long for the singer to cancel large parts of her U.S. tour, and her singing contract. The long voyage across the Atlantic had been grueling, and upon arriving in New York she discovered how different the American public’s expectations were from her own. On the evening of her first show at the Playhouse cabaret on 48th Street, on October 30, 1947, the tour got off to a flying start with a performance by Les Compagnons de la Chanson.

Unfortunately, however, Piaf and the audience did not get along quite so well. The American public had come expecting to see “the little woman from Paris with tail feathers,” similar to Zizi Jeanmaire, in a Broadway-style show with glitz and glam. They were unsettled upon seeing the tiny singer (Piaf was no taller than 4 feet, 7 inches!), wearing a sober black dress and singing melancholic songs in French they didn’t understand whatsoever. “The Americans don’t like me, they find me depressing,” she said after the concert. It wasn’t until the critic Virgil Thompson published an enthusiastic review praising “the Piaf phenomenon” in The New York Herald Tribune on November 2, 1947, that the initial fiasco was heralded as a triumph.

One theory suggests that Thompson recommended that Piaf take English classes. While never proved, Piaf did start singing in English after studying at the Maison Française of Columbia University. This decision appeared to be the right one, as she then went on to sign a contract for several months’ work at the Versailles, the leader in chic New York cabarets on 50th Street. Her show was an unbridled success. As Thompson put it: “The crowd got up on the tables to applaud.” As the months went by, Piaf gained in confidence and developed her style, combining an intense on-stage presence with an inimitable emotional power that resonated with the misery of the world, starting with her own. Thompson, who had “launched” Piaf’s media presence in the United States, once said: “Every time she sings you have the feeling she’s wrenching her soul from her body for the last time.”

Edith Piaf arriving in New York City aboard the Queen Elizabeth, 1947. © Keystone-France
Edith Piaf with Marlene Dietrich in the dressing room of the Versailles, New York City, 1952. © Everett Collection

This may be because all her songs deal with the same subject: a bitter end to love. Americans were soon hooked on her songs, such as “La Vie en rose” (1946). The instant success of this particular song saw Piaf invited onto the media scene, including 8 times to the renowned TV program The Ed Sullivan Show. It was here that she met a number of celebrities, including the titan of American cinema Orson Welles, the singer Judy Garland, and of course the actress Marlene Dietrich, with whom she forged a close friendship. It was during this time, at the height of her career, that Piaf began seeing Marcel Cerdan. Nicknamed “the Moroccan Bomber” (despite actually being born in Algeria), this star of the ring in France and Europe began taking on the leading names in American boxing. And in September 1948, he won the middleweight world championship by beating Tony Zale in New York!

After recognizing the singer’s name on a street poster, the boxing champion decided to go and watch her perform at the Versailles. He actually contacted her beforehand, saying: “We are two French people in the United States. Let’s go to dinner together.” According to biographer Robert Belleret, in his work Piaf, un mythe français (2013), “they met at a restaurant in a New York suburb, and Edith was instantly enchanted; they became lovers in October 1947.” The romance between “the king of the ring and the queen of chanson” was immediate and intense. Piaf wrote him passionate love letters, such as the following from May 27, 1949: “My darling, how I love you… My love, you could never imagine how strong my love is for you […]. I only wish to live through you, the one I adore, you, my love, me.”

It was for him that she wrote a song that went on to be an incredible success, “Hymne à l’amour” (1948), set to music by Marguerite Monnot: “If one day you should ever disappear / Always remember these words / If one day we had to say goodbye / And our love should fade away and die / In my heart you’ll remain here / And I’ll sing a hymn to love.” She also dedicated the chorus from “La Vie en rose” to him: “Hold me close and hold me fast / This magic spell you cast / I see la vie en rose…”

But Piaf’s happiness was always fleeting. Cerdan lost his world champion title to Jake LaMotta in New York on June 22, 1949. Piaf was not with him, but the rematch was programed for September 28 and she made arrangements to perform at the nearby Versailles. Despite their best-laid plans, the fight was postponed and Cerdan stayed in France to keep training. Alone in New York, Piaf begged him to take an earlier plane instead of the boat so they would be reunited as soon as possible. While Cerdan was terrified of flying, he mustered the courage to take a Paris-New York flight with Air France on October 27, 1949. The Lockheed Constellation aircraft crashed mid-flight over the Azores archipelago, on Mount Pico, on Saô Miguel Island. There were no survivors, and the renowned violinist Ginette Neveu was also among the 47 passengers killed.

Edith Piaf with her lover, boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, and French-American singer Irène Hilda (right), in front of the poster for her gala in Paris, 1948. © AFP/Getty Images

When her impresario Louis Barrier woke her with the tragic news, Piaf almost went mad. She began rehearsing and screaming his name as if possessed. Despite her anguish, she insisted on continuing her tour and performing as planned at the Versailles that evening. Shattered by the emotion, she struggled on stage and announced to the audience: “I will now sing a song just for Marcel Cerdan.” This “Hymne à l’amour” rang out that evening like never before. While wracked with sobs, her voice was tremendous. At the end of the song, overcome with emotion, Piaf collapsed on stage.

Inconsolable, Piaf cut her hair in a sign of mourning and called on a medium to try and contact her departed lover. She never found love in the same way again, despite being with a succession of men in the years that followed. She married French singer Jacques Pills in 1952 at the French church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in the New York neighborhood of Chelsea (which closed on Sunday, January 6, 2013). He wrote her the song “Je t’ai dans la peau,” although this declaration of love didn’t stop her divorcing him four years later. And when her new lover, Charles Dumont, composed the accompanying music for “La belle histoire d’amour” in December 1960, based on one of Piaf’s texts, it was in homage to Marcel Cerdan.

Piaf was a star in the United States at the end of the 1950s, and often compared to Billie Holiday and Judy Garland. She performed her final American tour in January 1957, selling out Carnegie Hall. But with her health deteriorating rapidly from alcohol and morphine abuse, her hands deformed by rheumatism, and her face swollen from cortisone, singing had become an agony. Undeterred, she continued her tour in New York in 1959, although she collapsed several times on stage. She passed away following a ruptured aneurism on October 10, 1963, at the age of 47, in Grasse, in Provence. Her funeral service inspired enormous numbers of people to walk through the streets of Paris.

An immense procession accompanied her coffin to the Père Lachaise cemetery, where some 40,000 people paid their final respects. Among them were her lifelong friend Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Aznavour (discovered in 1946 by Piaf, who brought him along on her American tours, even before he wrote her songs such as “Plus bleu que tes yeux”), as well as Gilbert Bécaud, Georges Moustaki, and Simone Signoret. And the ceremony was not without drama. Jostled by the crowds, Bruno Coquatrix, director of the Olympia musical hall, even fell into the grave! Hugo Vassal, Piaf’s official photographer, captured the scene on camera while remarking: “She’s done it again!”

“La Vie en rose”

Along with the baguette, the Eiffel Tower, and the accordion, “La Vie en rose” is an integral part of the French cultural image. Recorded on October 9, 1946, this ballad is still often heard on radio stations and in French restaurants the world over. Piaf personally wrote the lyrics, and charged her accompanist, the pianist Louiguy, with setting it to music. Disappointed with the resulting arrangement, she kept it in a drawer and only brought it out again to entrust it to her friend, the singer Marianne Michel, who was the first to sing it in the cabarets of Paris. The song became so popular that Piaf decided to record it herself, leading to the success it enjoys today. Many others have since tried their hand at the iconic ballad, from Yves Montand (Piaf’s partner at the time) to Louis Armstrong, who recorded an English version of the song on June 26, 1950 in New York with Sy Oliver and his orchestra (at the same time as he recorded “C’est si bon”). The lyrics for Armstrong’s version were written by Mack David.

Michel Legrand released an instrumental version in 1959, Grace Jones created a disco revisit in 1977, Iggy Pop drew inspiration from Armstrong’s version for the music while retaining the French lyrics for a cover on his 2012 album Après, Patricia Kaas performed it the same year at the Town Hall as part of her Kaas Sings Piaf tour to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Piaf’s death, and the French-American jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux continues to perform the French standard in venues across the United States. The song itself won a Grammy Award in 1998, and was the most popular song in the U.S.A. for many years after. It is also worth noting that Olivier Dahan’s 2007 biographical film on Piaf’s life starring Marion Cotillard was released in the United States under the title La Vie en rose. But the original French film was actually called La Môme (“The Kid”), an affectionate nickname given to Piaf by the French. Cotillard won an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance, and quickly became a new icon of French cinema.

Article published in the January 2017 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.