I often wonder how people become famous. It seems like famous people get that way for multiple reasons. Some deliberately strive for it or commit infamous deeds to “be somebody,” while others have fame come to them as a by-product (like writers David Baldacci or Clive Cussler) or they’re born to famous people (such as Michael Jackson’s kids or Princes William and Harry).
Still other people are around when something historic is happening, like Captain Rostron of the Carpathia saving the passengers and crew of the Titanic after the Titanic sank. And let’s not forget the chance meeting — a movie producer and a writer (David Heyman and Steve Kloves) discover a budding star (Daniel Radcliffe of the Harry Potter set of movies) when they all happened to be sitting in the same theater.
Biographies are not my favorite genre, but I read them on occasion if I find the famous person interesting enough and want to know just how they became famous. In this case, it was No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf by Carolyn Burke. Edith Piaf was a charismatic and talented French singer who rose to fame in the 1930s and became one of France’s national icons. Her nickname was “the little sparrow” (due to her lack of height — she was under five feet tall — and her talent as a songbird).
Edith had a long singing career and wrote over 100 songs. She is best known for “La Vie en Rose” (Life in pink) and “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I don’t regret anything). Edith was a master of emotional impact and could completely mesmerize an audience. Even though you may not understand French, these songs still get to you because you understand what she’s conveying. For me and others, “La Vie en Rose” is always associated with Paris (!), and “Non, je ne regrette rien” is the ultimate song of defiance (according to my sources, the French Foreign Legion still uses it).
I first became aware of “Non, je ne regrette rien” when I was watching a wacky German movie called “Keiner liebt mich” (Nobody loves me). It’s also used in a terrific Hallmark movie called “One Against the Wind,” a true story of British countess Mary Linden helping soldiers escape from occupied France during World War II. I looked up the singer of this song and then when I saw the biography sitting on the library shelf this past week, it sang to me.
Burke’s book covers Edith Piaf’s life between 1915 and 1963. She grew up in a bohemian way in some of the not-so-nice sections of France, had great street sense and had a cheeky sense of humor. Edith went through various struggles in her life, such as illnesses and divorce from several husbands, often due to her way of living. To her credit, she was also a mentor to younger singers such as Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour.
Edith did a lot for music in France and many people are still performing her songs today. I guess that’s the most anyone can ask for, famous or not — to live a life with few regrets and to have future generations enjoy your legacy.
Edith herself said it the best. Burke starts the book with Edith’s quote: “My songs are my life. I don’t want to be nothing but a memory.”
Here’s a YouTube clip of Edith performing the catchy “La foule” (The Crowd) and illustrated with some photos of her life. Enjoy! And if you’re in the mood to go to Paris afterward, feel free to invite me. I’ll bring the croissants and the chocolate eclairs. Can you really turn down chocolate?