By Deborah Straw
Edith Piaf has always had a cult following. A voice like hers comes along perhaps once in a century. Her sad and valiant life story steals hearts.
She was born Edith Giovanna Gassion outside 72 rue de Belleville in 1915. Abandoned by her mother, a street singer, the girl was first taken care of by her aunt and her Moroccan paternal grandmother. By the age of seven, she was touring with her father, a circus acrobat, throughout Western Europe. She received little formal education.
By the age of eight, Gassion sang with her father’s act, and by nine, she sang (at first, the “Marseillaise”) on her own. In her early teens, she lived with her possible half-sister, Simone Bertaut, working as a street singer, sleeping in alleys or in cheap hotels. When she was nineteen, nightclub impressario, Louis Leplee, discovered her. He was responsible for her nickname, “Kid Sparrow,” and her stage name, Edith Piaf.
Her life was brief, her fame international. In 1961, though nearly unable to stand, Piaf appeared at the Paris Olympia, and within eighteen months (1963), she was dead of cancer. Although she died in the South of France, her body was transported secretly to her apartment at 67 Boulevard Lannes so her fans would believe she had died in Paris.
She was forbidden a Mass by the archbishop of Paris (because of her lifestyle), yet her ceremony at Pere-Lachaise was bombarded by forty thousand fans. Charles Aznavour, whom she helped launch in show business, recalled that Piaf’s funeral procession was the only time, since the end of World War II, that Parisian traffic came to a complete stop.
A museum dedicated to this French icon’s memory is tucked in a slightly seedy quarter of Paris, which is housed in a fervent fan’s apartment. Menilmontant may be an up-and-coming area, but it’s still ascending. Edith Piaf never lived in this neighborhood as an adult, but she spent time here in her childhood. The area is working class and immigrant, not highly frequented by tourists.
On rue Crespin du Gast, the Musee Edith Piaf is a bit hard to find. It is listed in few guidebooks. The tiny plaque on the building’s facade says “Les Amis de Edith Piaf,” indicating only the fan club, with six thousand members worldwide.
You will need to make an appointment to visit the apartment museum, which was founded in 1977. Its director, Bernard Marchois, will give you directions to the building and an access code which will allow you to enter through first door, then a second. You will need to climb four winding flights of stairs (no elevator), and meet Marchois, author of two of a multitude of Piaf biographies. He escorts you into the small, cluttered space, as does his low-slung dog. They live in this shrine to Piaf’s memory . In his early childhood, Marchois knew Piaf slightly: “Between 1958 and 1963, I went to Boulevard Lannes (her last address) many times,” he states quietly.
The museum is two small rooms, quirky and very much a labor of love. You are free to look around on your own; Marchois will gladly answer questions but is not inclined to lengthy conversations. He’d prefer you seep yourself in the atmosphere of Piaf’s trophies–gold records and one platinum, countless paintings and photographs–some excellent, some tacky–and see her collections of dishes, clothing, furniture. A lifesize cardboard image of Piaf, dressed in a black dress “from her good days,” stands near a seated life-sized teddy bear, a present from her dear Theo (husband number two). Her voice is constantly singing in the background as you explore.
Aside from Piaf’s trophies and artwork, you will see tiny dresses, mostly form-fitting black but one a surprising bright red; clutch bags; a pair of her open-toed pumps (size 34); souvenir glasses from grand concerts in Paris and New York; letters to her from the likes of Maurice Chevalier (who once called her “a little bantamweight champion”); Marcel Cerdan’s (a boyfriend, considered a husband) boxing gloves; and the bear, who seems like a guardian angel. You can buy C.D.s, videos, books, and key rings. There is no admission charge. At the Musee Edith Piaf, you feel almost as if you’ve seen The Little Sparrow on stage. Almost.
Musee Edith Piaf, 5, rue Crespin du Gast, 75011 Paris. 01-43-55-52-72. Open Monday through Thursday afternoons, by appointment only.