No soundtrack to Paris would be complete without at least one song by Édith Piaf, one of France’s greatest songstresses. From “Sous le ciel de Paris” to “La Vie en Rose,” her powerful voice penetrates hearts and souls. This year celebrates the centennial of the birth of “La Môme,” the ideal time to take a journey back to the roots of this immensely talented artist.
Before hitting the streets, a great place to gain insight into the life of the ubiquitous chanteuse is at the special temporary exhibition dedicated to her at the Bibliothèque nationale de France – Francois-Mitterrand. This vast retrospective, on view through August 23, includes hundreds of archival photos, letters, film clips, and music that tell the story of her life and career, shedding light onto her personality, trials, triumphs, and heartbreaks… which was not always la vie en rose.
Now it’s time to travel up to the northeast of Paris. Legend has it that Piaf was born at 72 rue de Belleville, however, her birth certificate lists the nearby Tenon Hospital (4 Rue de la Chine, 75020) as the true birthplace of “Édith Giovanna Gassion,” born into a performing family, her mother a singer and father a traveling acrobat. This connection to le quartiers of Ménilmontant and Belleville is commemorated in Place Édith Piaf (in between rues de Belgrand, du Capitaine-Ferber, and de la Py), a stone’s throw from the hospital. This little square, inaugurated in 2003 on the 40th anniversary of her death, contains a few nods to its namesake in the form of a statue of the singer and the “Bar de la Place.” The working class district hasn’t changed all that much over the last hundred years, a meander through the lively market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings and the narrow neighboring streets help evoke the atmosphere of the area in early 20th century.
Piaf was taken away during WWI to Normandy, where she spent five years with her brothel-owning grandmother, an experience that surely added to her colorful upbringing. As a teen, Piaf sang in an act along with her father, but eventually broke away from his control by moving in with Simone Berteaut, possibly her half-sister, at the Hôtel de l’Avenir (105 rue Orfila, 75020), also in the vicinity of the Tenon hospital. The two of them became very close, performing together in the streets here and in Montmartre. One of the places she’s known to have sung is Aux Folies(8 rue de Belleville, 75020), still one of the area’s most popular watering-holes, attracting both weathered locals and young hipsters.
The artist’s roots in the district are further celebrated at the small Musée Édith Piaf. Opened in 1977 by Bernard Marchois, author of two Piaf biographies, it occupies two rooms in his private apartment and grants visitors q more personal glimpse into Piaf’s world through images, fan letters, posters, and even some of her personal china and clothing. It’s open, by appointment only, 1pm – 6pm Monday to Wednesday (5 rue Crespin du Gast 75011 +33 1 43 55 52 72).
Piaf’s connections to Belleville-Menilmontant come full circle at her final resting place in Père Lachaise Cemetery. On October 10, 1963, the mythical artist passed away in the South of France from cancer at the young age of 47. Her funeral procession amassed hundreds of thousands of mourners, and to this day her modern and rather modest tombstone attracts the love of her fans, adorning it with their flowers and affectionate mementos.
An homage to singer doesn’t have to stop at the cemetery, it carries on in the wonderful tribute to the artist, Hymne à Piaf, by the talented Caroline Nin. She’s wowed and touched audiences the world over with her unique show, a narrative of song and word, weaving together many of Piaf’s most cherished pieces, brought vividly to life by Nin’s passionate and tremendous voice. The show is on through the summer, coinciding with Piaf’s 100th-anniversary and the exhibit at the BnF.