Born Edith Giovanna Gassion in the Belleville section of Paris in 1915, Piaf's early years were spent in abject poverty. Abandoned by her mother, a failed singer, when she was only a few months old, Piaf spent her early childhood in the care first of her aunt, and then of her paternal grandmother, a cook and housekeeper in a brothel in Bernay. Her father, a circus acrobat, was serving his time in the military. During this period, a severe case of conjunctivitis left the tiny, frail child nearly blind. By the age of seven, she was touring with her father through France and Western Europe, passing the hat for him, and living a life of deprivation. Although in later life, she read avidly in history, philosophy, and literature, she received virtually no formal education.
By the age of eight she was singing as part of her father's act, and by the age of nine, she was singing on her own. As a street singer, she worked the courtyards of fashionable apartment houses, street corners, Metro stations, collecting pennies and sleeping either in alleys, or in a succession of cheap hotels. At the age of nineteen, she was discovered by nightclub impresario Louis Leplée, and because she had been singing a song about a sparrow, he christened her La Môme Piaf, street slang for "Kid Sparrow."
Patrons of Leplée's club Gerny's were astonished by the power and richness of her voice, and by her diminutive size for she was only four feet ten inches tall and weighed probably not much more than eighty pounds. But, her initial success at Gerny's was cut short when Leplée was murdered, probably over money and probably by some young toughs to whom he had been introduced by Piaf. Although she was cleared of any complicity in the murder, the scandal, and her reputation as a friend of most of Paris' pimps, prostitutes, and petty criminals, drove her out of Paris for a time and forced her to perform in provincial movie houses and bistros to keep from starving once again.
By 1937, however, she had returned to Paris and begun, with the help of composer and poet Raymond Asso, to establish her reputation as the most promising new "realist" singer on the French music scene. No longer "la môme" (the kid), she was now simply Edith Piaf. An engagement at the ABC, at the time the most prestigious of the French music halls, and increasingly regular appearances on French radio, kept her name before the public. Her recording career had also begun, though it would be several years before she began recording songs written specifically for her, and tailored to her unique dramatic style.
From 1937 through 1940, she recorded some of her most important early songs, many of them written by Asso, her mentor and lover during these years, and the first of the many gifted composers with whom she was associated during her career.
Piaf's reputation continued to grow during the 1940s; during World War II, she performed regularly for French prisoners of war, and managed not only to refine her style and enhance her popularity, but also to aid the French Resistance. With the Germans' permission, she would have herself photographed with prisoners; these photographs would then be cropped and used as the basis for false identity papers. During a return engagement, she would smuggle the false papers to the soldiers in the photographs. If any of them escaped, these false papers often meant the difference between capture and freedom. She also made two films during these years, and performed to considerable critical acclaim in Paris in the play Le Bel Indifférent , written for her by her close friend Jean Cocteau.
In 1947, she wrote the song that has come to be most closely associated with her, La Vie en Rose , though, ironically, it was another singer who first recorded it. However, Piaf's recording, and a subsequent English-language version, added to her growing international reputation. In 1947, she made her first visit to the United States, traveling with a young singing group, Les Companions de la Chanson, that she had met during the war. The tour began as a success for Les Companions, and a near-disaster for Piaf. American audiences were at first bewildered by this tiny, solemn woman who always dressed in black and sang of death and heartbreak and poverty. It is probable that they were somehow expecting Piaf the great chanteuse to be more "Parisian." An influential article in the New York Herald-Tribune by Virgil Thomson literally scolded American audiences into taking Piaf more seriously. The article led to a subsequent engagement at New York's Cafe Versailles, an engagement that turned into the theatrical event of the season and formed the basis of a continuing love affair between Piaf and America.
Her time in New York was notable for two important encounters. She became great friends with the actor and singer Marlene Dietrich, with whom she remained in contact until the end of her life. But more importantly, she fell deeply in love with boxer Marcel Cerdan. The story of “Le roi de la boxe et la reine de la chanson,” as a number of French tabloids titled it is one of the great romances of the century. Both celebrities at the time, but in completely different domains, Piaf and Cerdan had a relationship without rivalry. With Margueritte Monnot, Piaf wrote for Cerdan L'hymne à l'amour, one of her best-known and most sung songs.
Marcel Cerdan’s sudden death on October 28, 1949 in an airplane accident changed romance into tragedy. Cerdan’s death marked for Piaf the beginning of a long period of depression that she never managed to completely escape.
She was now a headliner in every country she visited, and remained so throughout the remainder of her career. However, her personal life continued to be marked by pain and suffering, a great deal of it self-inflicted. She was profligate with virtually every aspect of her life. As a star, she lavished her money on furs, jewelry, and expensive presents. Her love affairs were painstakingly chronicled by French and American tabloids; her imperiousness with her friends and lovers was legendary. Despite her impressive earnings, she was always in debt. And yet, she remained a child of the slums, believing that bathing was dangerous, that tap water was full of microbes, and that alcohol prevented "worms."
But even so, during these last years, until her death in 1963, she continued to devastate audiences with the astonishing power and dramatic expressiveness of her voice. Contemporary accounts of her concerts repeatedly note that her performances were treated by her fans almost as religious spectacles. Physically weakened by excessive drinking and a growing dependence on morphine, surviving a series of near-fatal automobile accidents, rapidly succumbing to a crippling form of rheumatism, Piaf maintained her position as a consummate artist. Her recordings from this period are among her most moving and memorable.
Nearly unable to stand, Piaf appeared at the Paris Olympia in 1961, an engagement that most critics felt she would never be able to complete, let alone survive. The recording made from these concerts shows her, incredibly, nearly at the top of her form. Within eighteen months, she was dead of cancer. On the day of her death, Jean Cocteau, ill himself, began to write her eulogy; in the midst of writing, he collapsed and died. Her body was transported secretly from the South of France to her apartment in the boulevard Lannes; it was thought more fitting that she should be thought to have died in Paris.
She was forbidden a Mass by the archbishop of Paris, who charged that she "had lived publicly in a state of sin." But, a small ceremony was held at her graveside at Père-Lachaise and forty thousand fans broke through the barriers; a detachment from the Foreign Legion in full uniform, with regimental flag unfurled, stood at attention for the prayers. It was said that, during their departure from Algeria, French forces had sung Non, Je ne Regrette Rien instead of La Marseillaise .
Charles Aznavour recalls that her funeral procession across Paris was the only time since the end of the Second World War that traffic in that busy city came to a complete stop. The day after her burial, three hundred thousand Piaf recordings were sold in Paris.