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Edith Piaf’s loves and lyrics on full display in new bio

Edith Piaf 1947 film 'Neuf garcons un coeur.' MUST CREDIT: CollectiJean Paul Mazillier Anthony Berrot.

Edith Piaf in the 1947 film "Neuf garcons, un coeur." MUST CREDIT: Collection Jean Paul Mazillier and Anthony Berrot.

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By Carolyn Burke

Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $28.95

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Updated: May 4, 2011 12:15AM

Edith Giovanna Gassion wasn’t exactly born in a trunk, but she very easily could have been.

The girl who would become Edith Piaf (“The Little Sparrow”) ­— that iconic chanteuse whose voice, better than anyone else’s, instantly conjures the streets and cafes of Paris, the life of that city’s working class from the 1930s to the 1950s and, above all, the heartache of “l’amour” ­— was the daughter of small time “artistes.” Her French father was an itinerant circus performer. He mother, of Moroccan Berber and Italian descent, was an exotic street singer whose own mother was a sideshow artist with an act that involved a menagerie of trained fleas (you really can’t make this stuff up). From earliest childhood, Piaf knew about abandonment and about the gypsy life, about singing for her supper, about the endless quest for love.

Yet if the tiny, frail street urchin — who was shuttled among relatives, grew up in her paternal grandmother’s brothel and suffered a serious bout of blindness in childhood — knew more than most about deprivation, illness, poverty, war and the pain of a broken heart, she also possessed many gifts: a formidable and mostly instinctive musicality, an impressive ability to learn from her mentors, a voice far more powerful and textured than her birdlike frame might suggest, and a steely determination to live to the fullest, even if she was destined to die at the age of 47.

But “the cliche of Piaf as self-destructive waif is too rigid to allow for her complex humanity,” writes Carolyn Burke in No Regrets, her smart, breezily written biography of the singer-songwriter that includes 32 pages of wonderfully evocative archival photographs from all periods of Piaf’s life. And noting that Piaf’s musicianship and powerful lyric writing often are ignored in favor of more tabloid-like accounts of her romantic liaisons and personal tragedies, Burke (whose two previous biographies were about women who spent much of their lives in Paris — Lee Miller, the American fashion model, photographer and World War II correspondent, and Mina Loy, the London-born modernist poet and all-around bohemian) proceeds to correct the record without sanitizing it. She also deftly positions Piaf in the events of her time.

The book captures the gritty side of Paris and Piaf’s emergence as a teenage street singer in the late 1920s, where she sang in dance halls in the tawdry Pigalle neighborhood. It deftly captures the music business of the mid-1930s, which was being transformed by the availability of records and radio broadcasts. And it notes Piaf’s ability to almost immediately memorize songs by ear (she could not read music). It documents the singer’s “discovery” by Louis Leplee, a savvy showman with underworld connections who knew this “guttersnipe” would electrify audiences. And so she did. As one critic wrote, she is “a singer who lives her songs.”

Composers and lyricists soon found their way to the singer, and helped her, particularly Raymond Asso, who “tamed” her wildness and also taught her “to adapt her diction and phrasing to each song” and build her career with discipline. By her mid-20s, she was becoming a star and Europe was heading into a catastrophic period of war.

Piaf saw to it that pianist Norbert Glanzberg, her lover at the time, and a Jew, was protected or hidden, but she continued to perform throughout the Occupation. Though many performers were subsequently labeled “collaborators,” Piaf escaped sanctions when it was learned she had arranged shelter and financing for Jewish friends. It was at this time she also met Yves Montand, the 23-year-old singer from Marseille whom she mentored, and who briefly became her lover.

And then it was on to New York, where her singing initially failed to translate, with one exception — a review by composer Virgil Thompson in the Herald Tribune who hailed her tremendous power of projection and added: “She is a great artist because she gives you a clear vision of the scene or subject she is depicting with a minimum injection of personality.”

During her stay in New York, Piaf stuck up a friendship with Marlene Dietrich and fell in love with boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, “the great love” of her life, who also happened to be married. He would die in a plane crash just two years later.

Two terrible car accidents, a morphine addiction, a marriage and many more lovers would follow. So would recording triumphs and fabled concerts in Paris and at Carnegie Hall in New York. But the spiral downward was as dramatic as the spin upward to international glory. It all ended in 1963, but of course the voice still sounds.

As Burke recounts, Piaf’s friend, Jean Cocteau, observed that Piaf “burned herself up in the flames of her glory,” while another friend, Charles Aznavour, found in her laugh a boundless joie de vivre. Perhaps both were right.

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