Another sharp, culturally resonant biography from Burke (Lee Miller, 2005, etc.)—this one an empathetic depiction of the French chanteuse as famed for her love affairs as for songs like “La vie en rose.”
Edith Piaf’s life (1915–63) was as turbulent as the gritty existences she chronicled in such early songs as “L’Accordéoniste.” She was raised for a time in a brothel managed by her paternal grandmother, and she began singing as a girl on the road with her father, an itinerant acrobat. Burke evocatively re-creates the raffish milieu of Piaf’s youth, particularly the Paris quarter of Pigalle, where she sang on the streets and in seedy music halls. Her lovers were often crooks, and her lifestyle was dissolute. Yet Piaf’s steely ambition led her to a series of mentors who improved her diction, gave her books to read and helped hone her craft so that her wholehearted emotional delivery gained the sophistication required to move into better clubs and recording studios. Though she took the traditional la chanson réaliste to a new level of complexity in such mature works as “La Foule,” the public displayed special fondness for songs that reflected her personal experiences. As is almost inevitable in the biography of a performer, the book’s second half is mostly a catalogue of concerts and recordings, along with the health crises and romances that earned Piaf an American reputation as the French Judy Garland. Burke demonstrates that she was a lot tougher than Garland, but was also careless of being surrounded by spongers who happily spent her hard-earned money and helped themselves to her belongings.
Though Piaf ruined her health and died young, this lucid, unsentimental appraisal suggests that she had the life she wanted, filled with “hectic drama” fueled by the singer’s “boundless joie de vivre.”