The Nights of Edith Piaf

April 5th, 2011 in Archive by 0 Comments

We just reviewed No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf, a new biography by Carolyn Burke, for the What We’re Reading column on NPR.org. Read our review here or see it below.

We thought we would post this story we produced in 1994, The Nights of Edith Piaf, because she is in the news and in our hearts.

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No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf

by Carolyn Burke

Edith Piaf’s story is bulletproof. Tell the facts and the myths and voila — a book you can’t put down. Her father was an itinerant contortionist, her mother a drug addict who abandoned her. Raised for a time in her grandmother’s brothel, she grew up in a world of pimps, prostitutes, petty thieves and sailors. Discovered singing on the streets of Paris at 18 and christened la mome piaf (kid sparrow), she rose to become France’s greatest star. “The hardest working 97 pounds in show business” Ed Sullivan said as he introduced the diminutive star on his show. Her “coiled vibrato,” as Burke so beautifully captures it, sold more records than any other artist in her time and filled concert halls around the world. All the stars of her day crowded to see this tiny woman with “the voice of life itself” — Charlie Chaplin, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Jean Cocteau, Yves Montand (her protégé and one of her legion of lovers). In this vivid work, Carolyn Burke paints a picture of a woman passionate, driven, funny, haunted. Piaf rose every day at dusk, wrote, rehearsed, commanded, took pills and drank and sang until dawn. When she died in 1963, at age 47, some 40,000 people came to her funeral at Pere Lachaise cemetery, where to this day she outdraws Jim Morrison, who is also buried there.

Carolyn Burke is the author of two other women’s biographies, Lee Miller: A Lifeand Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. Titled in homage to Piaf’s iconic song, “Non, je ne regrette rien,” No Regrets is a biography and a kind of history of 20th century France. As Edith buries her young daughter in 1935, Hitler’s Brown Shirts are on the horizon. As she struggles for her health and life in the early 60′s, Algeria struggles for its independence. The stories travel in parallel. Burke’s research is meticulous; she interviews neighbours, dredges up documents and photographs, finds Edith’s birth certificate with proof that she was born in a hospital rather than on the street as legend has it. She sets forth differing accounts – was it “La Marseillaise” Edith sang the first time she performed for a street crowd or was it “L’Internationale”? Often interesting, these details sometimes stop the action and distance the reader. In the end, however, the facts and the myths reinforce one another, coming together to create an intricate portrait of this tiny yet larger-than-life chanteuse.

— The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva)

Hardcover, 304 pages; Knopf; list price, $27.95; publication date, March 22

 

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