It was hard not to hear that unmistakeable sound on Thursday as radio stations marked the anniversary by playing her most famous recordings, filling the capital’s cafes and bistros with a throaty voice that has lost none of its power to move with the passage of time.
It was a day for remembering Piaf the woman, as well as the performer, with hundreds of fans making a pilgrimage to Belleville, the still down-at-heel Paris neighbourhood where she was born Edith Giovanna Gassain to a singer mother who was soon to abandon her.
On the front of 72 Rue de Belleville, there is a plaque that solemnly declares: “On the steps of this house Edith Piaf, whose voice would later move the entire world, was born into utter destitution on December 19, 1915.” She was actually born four days earlier and in a hospital round the corner: the idea that Piaf literally entered the world via the streets of Paris was one of the many myths she cultivated about herself, most of which have been debunked by recent biographies.
Even as she lay dying from liver cancer in the southern French town of Grasse, she was planning the way her death would be presented, leaving precise instructions for her body to be whisked up to Paris and for the world to be told she had died in the city where she was born, and which inspired many of her songs.
Interred in Pere Lachaise, the cemetery that is the final resting place of dozens of celebrated artists from Oscar Wilde to Jim Morrison, Piaf’s funeral cortege was followed by more than 100,000 people.
The turnout was testimony to the extent to which the singer, who had narrowly and perhaps undeservedly escaped the ignominy of being branded a collaborator after Paris’s liberation from the Nazis, had won the hearts of a nation.
The Catholic Church, at the time, was less forgiving, the Archbishop of Paris decreeing that there would be no funeral mass for a divorcee who had, in the words of the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, lived her life in a perpetual “state of public sin”.
It was a judgement that reflected Catholic doctrine at the time, and, in today’s more forgiving climate, the Church prefers to celebrate the power of Piaf’s art to move the human spirit. Memorial masses were due to take place later in the day Thursday, in Belleville at the parish church where the singer was baptised, and in Nice, close to the home she lived in at the time of her death.
Not everyone however is ready to forgive Piaf’s capricious ways. Even half a century on, her fellow singing icon, Juliette Greco, still bears the psychological scars inflicted on her as a teenager by Piaf’s sharp tongue.
“She could not stand other women who sang, she was regal and fragile at the same time,” Greco, now 86, told Le Parisien newspaper.
“She’d say I was badly dressed, ugly, with hair like a drowned rat. I was only 19, just starting out.” But Charles Dumont, the composer who wrote 29 of Piaf’s recorded songs, including the one that defines her — “Je ne regrette rien” — remembers a different woman, one who was fiercely protective of, and endlessly generous to, those who were close to her.
“How could you not like a person like that?” Dumont said. “When you worked for her, she’d do everything she could to give you anything that you wanted.” Dumont, 84, also recalled the unerring ear for a hit that was such an important element of the alchemy that made Piaf a global star.
“The first time I played ‘Je ne regrette rien,’ to her she went ‘Was it really you who wrote that?’ “Then she said, ‘You’ve nothing more to worry about, this song will go round the world and it will follow you to the end of your days.'”