The Life of Edith Piaf
By Carolyn Burke
Alfred A. Knopf. 284 pp. $27.95
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Reviewed by Steven Rea
'Just look at her. How can such a big voice belong to such a tiny woman?"
That's Marcel Cerdan, the '40s French boxing champ, marveling at the mighty intonations emanating from the street urchin-turned-chanteuse Edith Piaf. That the two became lovers, carrying on a lengthy transcontinental affair while he clobbered opponents in the ring and she floored audiences in clubs and concert halls, came as no surprise to intimates of Piaf - she was drawn to men of strength and character. The relationship ended when a plane carrying Cerdan from Paris to New York - where she waited - crashed in the Azores. No survivors.
Piaf, the child of a circus acrobat and a singer, raised in gritty poverty - and, for a time, in a brothel - never got over the loss. It was 1949. Piaf was 33. She died at 48 after a life full of doom and tragedy, and full of songs - street songs, defiant songs, songs of love and broken dreams - that tore at the soul, and inspired a nation.
No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf is essential reading for Piaf fans, and they are legion, still - witness the success of La Vie en Rose, the 2007 Oscar-winning biopic with Marion Cotillard as "the little sparrow." Carolyn Burke, a rigorous researcher and a Francophone (she's Australian, and learned the language in part by singing along to Piaf discs in a Paris garret), has expanded on previous Piaf biographies, debunking myths and misconceptions and getting at the heart of the matter.
And the heart of the matter when it comes to Piaf is just that: her heart. Passion, pluck, the pursuit of love, and lovers (John Garfield, Yves Montand, the list goes on and on) . . . the diminutive entertainer with the "assaultive vibrato" wore her heart on her sleeve, as a scrawny teen singing for change on Pigalle corners, and as a global star spreading her hands out in the sweep of a theater's spotlight.
Burke - whose books include Lee Miller: A Life, the riveting biography of another strong-willed woman, the American model-turned-photographer and artist's muse - takes a straightforward chronological tack with Piaf. If the author's writing can sometimes be dry, her observations are astute, and her skills as a biographer daunting. Burke is determined to honor her subject without resorting to stereotypes or recycling the apocryphal. "The cliche of Piaf as self-destructive waif is too rigid to allow for her complex humanity," Burke writes in her introduction. Working from interviews with Piaf friends and colleagues, from letters and journals, films and recordings, and from previous Piaf books, Burke explores those complexities - taking the reader through five storm-tossed decades: the remarkable rise from guttersnipe warbler to the darling of Paris nightlife; her collaborations with songwriters and lyricists; her mentorship of artists such as Montand and Charles Aznavour, and her work, and friendship, with Jean Cocteau (he wrote a play for her to star in - which she did, atremble with stage fright).
And, like something out of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, there was her involvement with the Resistance: Piaf fearlessly smuggled fake identification cards, maps, and compasses to French citizens forced to work in German factories and camps during World War II. Her cover story: She was there to entertain the French laborers, a move that put her at risk of appearing in collusion with the enemy. And perform she did, serenading reed-thin Frenchmen in the stalags - and secretly facilitating their escapes.
Often, in pursuit of obscure facts and intimate details, a biographer can overlook, or simply take for granted, the big stuff - the essence of the subject. Happily, with No Regrets, this is anything but the case. Throughout her book, Burke draws the connections between Piaf's life and her songs (offering deft translations of key lyrics), linking the artist with her art, the lover with the thing she loved most - her music.
Piaf was, as Burke notes toward the close of this eloquent and enlightening story, "a people's diva whose courage matched her extraordinary gifts, a soul who gave of herself until there was nothing left but her voice and the echo of her laughter."