Brothel raised to singing icon

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Shombit Sengupta | Updated: Dec 9 2012, 06:05am hrs
Like a high-speed machine gun, she throws unlimited emotion in song to the public. Its a trait she sharpened when singing with her father in street acrobatics performances all across France from age seven. Shed become street-smart on how to instantly engage passers-by to stop, see, listen and pay. Her skill of loudly throwing her voice, with no boundary, no accompaniment and no defect got thronging crowds to provide for their livelihood.

Her public-performance heritage came from her alcoholic, drug addict mother, a caf singer, who abandoned her soon after giving birth in 1915 in the working-class neighbourhood of Belleville. I remember when I arrived penniless in Paris 39 years ago, I made every effort to avoid living in Belleville. Its the immigrant district; Greeks, Jews and Armenians came in 1920s, then North and Sub-Saharan Africans and Chinese. I could have saved a lot of money holing up there with struggling artists and illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. But having escaped a refugee colony in India, I totally shunned landing in another neglected, crowded locale. Fighting poverty initially, I somehow always lived in Paris 14th district. Even visiting Belleville upto 1990 was a cultural shock from typical Parisian life.

Her father snatched away this Belleville born from her maternal grandmother who rarely fed or washed her, instead put her to sleep with wine whenever she cried. He sent his daughter to be raised by his mother. This paternal grandmother ran a brothel in Normandy, northern France. So the singer who later became Frances celebrated superstar an icon for passion and tenacity, spent her childhood being the obsession of prostitutes. They showered all their yearning emotions on her. According to her biographer, as keratitis blinded her from age three to seven, the prostitutes pooled money, took her on a religious pilgrimage venerating Saint Thrse of Lisieux, and this led to miraculous restoration of her vision.

As a teenager, she left her father and teamed up with Simone Berteaut, whom she dubbed ma mauvause genie (my evil spirit). They sang in the raunchy, red-light quarter of Pigalle. Quite inevitably, she got mixed up with Paris cabaret and club mafia. Several such gangster protectors demanded returns in kind, in addition, dipped into her small take-home tips. As biographer Carolyn Burke points out, Her life with her father had predisposed her to having a boss who took her earnings and dictated her behavior. At age 17, she bore a child who died of meningitis two years later.

On a Pigalle street is where Louis Leple, the proprietor of the swanky Club Le Gernys, discovered her. He dubbed her Piaf meaning sparrow; she stood just 4ft 10inches tall. This name and the simple black dress Leple chose for her became the signature personality of Edith Piaf. Aside from innumerable original songs, shes acted in nine films, in a play by Jean Cocteau and wrote her autobiography. Few entertainers, other than Piaf, have been the prime subject of 14 musical plays, six films and eight books; her songs still reverberate radio waves and are recompiled periodically.

Edith Piafs meteoric ascent started with her first recording within a few months at Le Gernys. Suddenly in 1936, Leplee was murdered by street ruffians whod earlier been associated with her. She was devastated. Her picture was splashed in every newspaper as a suspect. She escaped to the suburbs, then Belgium, and returned only after she was proved innocent. Paradoxically, her career peaked when World War II began. During the German occupation of France, Piaf secretly symbolised the French Resistance although she performed for the Germans at the top luxury brothel called One Two Two Club. To boost prisoner morale, the Germans allowed Piaf to pose for photographs with French war prisoners, who subsequently managed to cut out their own images to forge identity papers and escape.

After the war, commercial success came with European and US tours. Her first international hit La Vie en Rose in 1946 was followed by Non, je ne regrette rien, Milord, Padam Padam, among numerous others. The lyrical magic that Edith Piafs voice pelts out resonates the agony of her initial parental rejection, the violence of being used by hooligans on Paris streets, and utter helplessness in losing her child. Her rise from a street urchin to concert singer is as melodramatic as her unstoppable search for love.

Her tempestuous love life included lyricist Raymond Asso, who taught her to see another world beyond prostitutes and pimps, cured me of Pigalle, of my chaotic childhood to become a woman and a star instead of a phenomenon with a voice shown as a rare animal at a fair. Her insatiable thirst for amour embroiled famous names like composer Norbert Glanzburg, singer and actor Yves Montand, whose career she keenly promoted, movie star John Garfield, performer Eddie Constantine, bicycle champion Andr Pousse, lyricist Jo Moustaki, and two short-stint husbands, singer Jacques Pills and hairdresser-turned-actor-singer Thophanos Lamboukas, who was gay and 20 years her junior. Her torrid true love romance with boxing champion Marcel Cerdan ended tragically when he died in a plane crash enroute to her.

One of my lifes biggest regrets is that I could not see Edith Piafs stage performance. She died in 1963, ten years before I arrived in Paris. Her example of how an underprivileged, brothel-raised street girl can fight the tyrannical world of sexual abuse women are subjected to, and emerge a glorious singing sensation is astounding. She battled pathetic health issues and morphine painkiller dependency after three major car accidents, but made a triumphant 1960 come-back concert at Pariss Olympia Theatre. This pinnacle of all-time success has proved that women with gumption can establish themselves in their own right. The French sky cannot exist without Edith Piaf, her voice is embedded in me too.

Continuing my courageous women series, watch out for more who made a difference in patriarchal society.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at