Bohemian rhapsodizing: Edith Piaf’s biography

Eiffel Tower in Paris

Anybody want to go and be a famous singer here in Paris? Nice work if you can get it! Eiffel Tower image courtesy of Schnuffel, Morguefile.

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 theΒ 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? πŸ˜‰

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Bohemian rhapsodizing: Edith Piaf’s biography

  1. Great post. πŸ™‚

    I watched the movie — La Vie En Rose and I was blown away. Later, I listened to her songs at a class where I learn French; mesmerized is the apt word. The movie is really good, do give it a watch if you haven’t as yet. πŸ™‚

  2. Cannot turn down chocolate. I am in. Also not a regular biography reader, but for some reason I loved Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. One of those airport purchases where its cover grabs your attention…but ended up loving it! She really was the stuff of legend.

  3. Great. Now I know more about Edith. You learn something every day. Personally, I would rather do without fame, especially in today’s world.

    • I don’t know if I’d want to be famous either. Famous people have to put up with a lot of ugliness, but at the same time, they can do a lot of good. Example: actor Christian Bale taking the trouble to personally visit the Aurora victims after the shooting. Very classy thing to do.

  4. A supreme entertainer who was introduced to me by my parents as soon as I came out of the womb! This is a book I must read.

  5. The movie was good, but not very true to life. It glamorized her love affair with one man, when in fact there were probably hundreds. I have read a biography, which was less than flattering about her friendliness and skills as a parent. She could certainly sing.

  6. Najwa

    So glad to meet you and discover your blog. Enjoyed your scholarly musings. Ahh, Edith Piaf, so soulful — thanks for sharing the song clip. I have many memories of Paris — mostly work but fun too, Le Marais 2 days before 911 — a walk which inspired amateur poetry, a minimalist Tosca at the “new” Opera — Bastille and Giselle at the original Palais Garnier in all its opulence.

    Have you read any Margaret George? It’s fictional biography yes, but I enjoyed her books about Mary Magdalene and Cleopatra. Giants are David McCullough on John Adams or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln (despite the unfortunate flap of a writer’s license error…that too passed)…Now, I am reminded that I have not read Gore Vidal’s work –controversial yes, but he was also a Lincoln admirer. Well, I could go on but must wrap now….Look forward to your blogs.

  7. I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies. I’m fascinated at the gap between public and private personae, particularly because my husband was a public person for many years. Privately shy and somewhat socially awkward, but if you stood him in front of a TV camera, you could watch him transform into that other guy. When the camera turned off, so did he. Public personalities are often “split.” Maybe that’s why the rich and famous often seem to have miserable personal lives. It isn’t easy being several people. I have trouble being one.

    • Fame does take its toll — on the self, on relationships, on privacy, and so on — even though it comes with rewards. And I think that toll is now magnified with social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, which spread a famous person’s blunders or good acts around the world in a heartbeat. I’m thinking that the key is to prepare for fame when it happens, keep your relationships strong and maintain your integrity.

      Oprah Winfrey had a great quote about being famous. Something about the only difference about being famous and not being famous is the number of people who know your name.

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