Dear friends and readers,
It is Piaf’s 100th birthday: she was born in 1915, to two people who lived on the streets of Paris, her father an acrobat, her mother a singer. Her mother abandoned her (it’s said) early on, but she survived somehow and by her early teens sang on the streets (illegally) where she learned how to attract and hold the attention of a crowd (“la foule”). She was for a while as a child hysterically blind. Her song, “The Crowd” reflects her inner deep self behind as she made her way through the crowds all around her. She is baring her soul, her body is enacting the experience of great suffering and powerful endurance. I did not know she was but 4 feet 8 inches high (or long). Imagine how little she got to eat as a child.
Tonight I went to the Ripley Center at the Smithsonian site where there is a group of museums located in the National Mall park. This was my third time at this place: the first was for my first Book History conference one July 2011 (see a series of reports); the second was for “Castles, Country Houses, and Cottages,” a lecture by Bill Keene, an independent scholar, remarkably knowledgably, with countless slides (Inner and outer life at odds).
This third time I came for Joan Keefe, a scholar of French literature, the language and culture from American University, for a lecture on Piaf’s life and art, accompanied by slides, music, and glasses of wine. I liked Keefe’s lecture better than Keene’s because despite her attempts to be maudlin, or somehow popularly exciting, her content was more inward and she focused on specific events in Piaf’s life and carer. Paradoxically, she was less tolerant of questions afterward: Keene melodramatized less (to his credit) and he was willing to engage with his audience much more.
If you listened to Keefe’s accounts of the stages of Piaf’s life, her discussion of this woman revealed the traumas and sicknesses and triumphs of a talent that others would pay to connect to (how rejuvenating is this thought). Keefe’s talk was especially worth coming for because of her collection of clips. I’ve never seen so many and they were all revealing of aspects of Piaf’s inner life and the state of her body at the time; you could also glimpse the stage of her career from the place she was singing in or who singing for.
So, we saw filmed Edith Piaf in stages of her life (mostly from the later 1940s on) in all her strong suffering, but there were some of the early years of her first successes in Paris, lifted from the streets to clubs catering to the elite of Parisian taste. “L’accordeonist” from her early years when her voice is resonantly strong – and incidently showing one instrument and kind of song she was familiar with from French streets:
We heard of her clinging to the world she knew after her first success while tutored by people from that elite. So her first marriage was to an employed construction worker by whom she had a child, a baby girl at this early time of success. The child died in early infancy; the birth had been very difficult (possibly she had bad treatment where she was) and she could never have another. But there were several marriages, and she developed two real or lasting women friends: Margaret Monet her collaborator; and Marlene Dietrich. By the later 1940s she allowed herself to be surrounded by an entourage of hangers-on (1940s to 50s, these included her parents to whom she sent regular checks). She coped with World War Two and the Vichy regime as best she could: she had to placate the Nazis and was lucky not to be interned and killed .She sang in German prisoner of war camps to French soldiers it’s said. She then had an unusually strong depressive period (the 1950s). Her sleeping patterns became unconventional: she slept most of the day, woke say at 2 and then was up until the following morning. These later years she was deep in debt from lavish spending on herself, her clothes, all her “friends.” She drove herself when she was already very ill to pay what debts she could (monetarily she died a bankrupt). She died in 1962, relatively young (47), weakened and ill from her use of alcohol, drugs, and many ailments (for example, she had had arthritis in her hands from her mid-20s).
I realize the song she is most remembered for is her Je ne regrette rien
But I much prefer the sound and meaning of “Les amants du jour:” how wonderful “d’etre deux” to the very young:
Her best years seem to have been five when she was married to Jacques Pilles who was strong enough to make her follow a stable life; during these five years she made (although she could not read music she did write her own lyrics and managed to convey the music she wanted to sing to others and they wrote it down) and performed her most famous songs for the first time. Keefe traced Piaf’s ability to project what she had experienced of life within the context of lyrics that told romantic stories performed before an audience in a black dress or skirt and blouse, standing quite still but for her hands.
I was deeply stirred, rejuvenated to stay true to what I felt Jim and I lived out during his lifetime. Jim loved the chanteuse French music hall tradition, and I own CDs of male and female voices of her followers and those influenced by Piaf (Barbara, Ives Montand, Charles Aznavour, my favorite Jacques Brel). I used to love to listen to CDs of Piaf in my car as I returned home from teaching.
Personally, Piaf speaks to my heart. I was touched by how her face so early on looked so aged. Her skin. Her Milord I used to like to listen to not because I thought it captured Jim (he was working class sent to elite institutions because of his high intelligence) but as a kind of joke projecting compassion for a socially awkward man trying to hide it or himself.
I want to emphasize two general aspects of my experience tonight: the curiosity of this place: the Ripley Center is deep in the bowels of earth: either you talk an elevator, walk down several flights or take an elevator and then a long escalator. You find yourself in a hall where there are displayed modern exhibits of art, and are rooms in which classes, lectures and musical events occur. The preponderance of people are women, sometimes in groups and sometimes alone. I was cheered because a couple (there are plenty of heterosexual pairs) talked to me while the wine reception was going on the basis of how small I am. I am 5 feet but now that I’ve gone to my natural thinness I give an impression of smallness.
The other is that there is in the world an audience for decent intelligent entertainment, who appreciate good information, perceptive entertainment. It’s large enough to create these kinds of institutions (the OLLIs I’m teaching at are this type of experience), but the people who come are not themselves rich enough to maintain them. This is another argument for the importance of making equality of income levels central to a good life experience for us all. We need to have many people with enough income to go to such events.