Finding Edith Piaf

Finding Edith Piaf

Read the intimate discovery by George Hruby of French Performer, Edith Piaf.

 

In his own words ….

 

Sometimes, we meet someone in the most peculiar way.  Thus, it was for me in meeting Edith Piaf.  Her beauty, her eyes, her voice …. still seductive over half-a-century later.  Across oceans her voice came till it one day found me.

Like millions of Americans growing up in the United States in my generation, I had never heard of the French singer, Edith Piaf.  I had not a clue as to who she was at all.  However, that all changed one summer day in 2007.

Living in Southern California at the time, I owned a small production company called Manorge Productions.  I often wrote, directed and produced video productions.  By 2007, I had written, directed, and produced my first full length movie which was released across the United States at the time, to a score of Film Festivals.  But it was the commercial and corporate accounts that paid the bills.

So, in 2007, my production company had been contracted by Harley Davidson Motorcycles of Riverside, to shoot and create a souvenir DVD of a 6000-motorcycle ride event called “West Coast Thunder VIII.”  It was an annual Memorial Day event commemorating the fallen American soldiers who had died in wars fighting for their country.

 

Director and Producer, George Hruby (L) with assistant, shooting “West Coast Thunder VIII” in 2007 in Riverside, California

 

One of the fun things about the film business is that every film project is something new and usually completely different from anything you have done before.  Thus, each new film project is always a new adventure and challenge.  This time was no different as I had never shot a moving motorcycle event before.  To make matters even more precarious, the Harley Davidson dealership that contracted us, did so only 15 days before the event.  It was a tremendous challenge to put together a crew and the equipment needed with only a two-week warning.

In the course of this film project, we had to put together a soundtrack.  For this end of it, I had brought onto the project, a young woman from Scotland who at the time was an exchange-student from a nearby university.  She was placed in charge of all music for the production.

The DVD was originally an hour long before being cut down to about 40 minutes.  Several scenes in the video involved shooting at the Riverside National Cemetery, where thousands of veterans had been laid to rest.  One moving scene captured in the production involved a camera moving slowly along on a road, at sunrise, with a fogbank that seem to hover just above the grave stones.  From studying the gravestones of those laid to rest there, they had been soldiers from the late 1800’s, all the way to the present, that were interred there.  The white gravestones seemed to be endless across a non-ending field of green.

I thought it would be unique to have the camera move across a couple hundred gravestones while the audience experienced songs from across the different era’s represented by the soldiers buried there.  Songs that were very popular during the many wars, from the late 1800’s to present.  It was ‘their’ music being heard once again as we filmed passed row-after-row of hundreds of gravestones.

When it came time to represent a piece of music that the American soldiers would have heard being played in France during WWII after D-Day, the young intern played several possibilities for me to consider.  It was one of those songs that just stopped me in my tracks.  It was a woman singing and her voice and passion was unlike anything I had ever heard before.  It was like listening to a beautiful songbird.

She was singing in a foreign language that I did not understand.  Despite this, her voice was enchanting, enticing, seductive, and passionate … all at the same time.  I immediately asked, “Who is this?”

She replied that it was Edith Piaf.  Coming from Europe, she was shocked that I had never heard of her.  When I told her ‘no,’ she told me that she had been one of the biggest performers in Europe throughout WWII into the 1950’s.  She was French, as was her music.

Of course, I had to put a song of hers into my film project for Harley Davidson, but the entire scene would eventually be cut in editing.  This, however, did not stop me from falling under the spell of her voice as if she was a siren from Greek mythology.  I went out and found, bought, and brought back to the studio, CD collections of every single song she had ever recorded.

To her voice, I listened, and listened, and listened.  I could never tire or get enough of this beautiful voice.  So full of love and yet at times, so full of sadness and loss.  All this, despite I did not understand a single word she was singing.  I did not speak French.

I became so deeply moved by this woman and her voice, her passion, and how she could pull your heart strings one way or another with a voice unlike any other I had ever heard.  I began to translate her songs from French to English.  Then, I began research into who this person, Edith Piaf, was.

While I am not here to give you the life history of Edith Piaf, in 2007, this was the sum of what I knew about her.

She was born Edith Giovanna Gassion on December 19th, 1915, in a poor section of Paris called Belleville.  Her father was French and her mother Italian.  Her mother abandoned her at birth and with her father off to fight in WWI, she was raised in a brothel by prostitutes.

 

Edith Piaf as a Child – Archive Photograph

 

By 14 years of age, she was already preforming on the streets in Paris as a singer.  She soon was nick-named “La Môme Piaf” or the ‘Little Sparrow.”  Her name was later changed to simply, “Edith Piaf.”  Indeed, her singing would eventually get her discovered and from then on, her life was what movies are made of.

 

Edith Piaf in 1930’s – Archive Photo

 

 

She would become known as one of France’s most renown cabaret performers, a film actress, song writer, and vocalist.  She would be known in France as a National Chanteuse or International Star.

 

Seen later in Life, Edith Piaf with her good friend, Marlene Dietrich – Archive Photo

 

 

Edith stood only 4’8 (four foot, eight inches) (142 centimeters).  She was tiny.

By the end of 2007, the Great Depression of the 21st Century had hit the United States.  It would be the second time in U.S. history for such an economic collapse of the country.  Due to a new term created in America referred to as “political correctness,” it could not be called a “Depression” and was therefore officially called the “Great Recession.”  While it sent a financial tsunami around the world, it had already slammed hard into California.  No one was safe from it.

Even the four big Hollywood Studios were hit hard and finding investors for any projects had become more trying than ever.  My production company, along with over a thousand crashed during the Great Recession.  The new kids on the block like me just did not stand a chance.  The oldest and few remaining production companies in Los Angeles survived.

Living on savings and borrowed time, I found myself a frequent visitor to a place called Block Buster Video.  It was a DVD rental store.  In those days, there was no such thing as “streaming videos.”  You had to go to a DVD rental store to buy or rent the latest movies that had come out on DVD.  One day, while thumbing through the foreign film section of the local Block Buster, I was shocked.  I saw a foreign film called “La Vie en Rose.”  It was a French film about none other than – Edith Piaf.  They carried only two copies of it.

I could not believe that this person, whom I grew up my entire life not knowing the slightest thing about till just the previous year, I now stumbled across a new movie made about her.  Of course, I rented it and took it home immediately to watch.  Edith’s character was brilliantly played by French Actress, Marion Cotillard and, it was brilliantly directed and co-written by French Film Director and Screenwriter, Olivier Dahan.

The film being in French and about a French performer, and with only two copies in the store, I figured that not many Americans would fancy watching it at all.  However, I loved Edith.  Her music and her life story seem to overwhelm me.  I now did even more research on her, including watching as much original film footage of her performances, interviews, and candid film capturing her coming and going, to and from places.  I was infatuated with her.

However, thoughts of Edith faded away.  My own reality in the Great American Depression of the 21st Century, continued to devastate and terrorize my life with homelessness as it did tens of millions of Americans at the time.  By the end of 2009, and desperate for a job, I started looking for employment in Europe.  I was eventually hired and left the U.S. as a permanent resident forever.  By sheer circumstance, I ended up moving to France.

For any American, and perhaps anyone in the world, moving to France to live can be quite a culture shock indeed.  However, for me, it was not as much a “shock” as it was being in a complete wonderland of history, nostalgia, and romance.

My first residence in Paris was in the 11th arrondissement on a street called Rue Crespin du Gast.  It was a small apartment on the top floor of a 6th story building.  The building, built in the late 1700’s or early 1800’s, still contained no elevator.  So everyday found me having to climb six floors worth of stairs to get to my apartment.

My apartment was actually part of the original attic. In the 1700’s and 1800’s, the attic was where the hired help was lodged for the nobleman and his family residing in the building.  So, my small apartment, complete with the original fireplace that was no longer in use, would have been the quarters for maybe a valet, maid servant, etc.  I often enjoyed just gazing out of my window across Paris at various sites.

It was a couple of weeks of coming and going, to and from my apartment, when I noticed half way down my street, a building.  It was on the opposite side of the street that had a marker/plaque attached to the wall near its entrance.  Curious, I crossed the street and began reading it.  Although it was in French, and I, at the time, could not yet read French, saw a name.  It was hers.  Edith Piaf.

I was in shock over the coincidence.  As it would turn out, I had moved into an apartment that was just a few houses away from where Edith had once lived.  It had now been turned into the Edith Piaf Museum.  Somehow, out of a city that spanned over 33.5 square miles (86.7 square kilometers) and contained over two-million people, I had managed to lodge myself just a few houses away from where she had once lived.  It was as if she had found me once again.

I, of course visited her old apartment, now the Edith Piaf Museum.  It was an average, small two-bedroom apartment.  It was empty except for being filled with scores of Edith Piaf memobilia of every type.  An old man who ran it, showed people around the apartment/museum.  No doubt, he was a die-hard fan.

Being that I am a research-historian, the truth of the Edith Museum was this.  She only lived there for approximately a year when she was eighteen years old.  She had given birth to a daughter just the year before but who died of meningitis just two years later.

 

Edith Piaf at the age of 20 in 1936 – Archive Photo

 

 

By now, she was already becoming very popular as a young entertainer in Paris.  She was often playing gigs in the Pigalle area, where the Moulin Rouge was at, along with many brothels, clubs, and sex shops.

 

 

George Hruby in front of the Moulin Rouge where Edith Piaf once performed at.

 

However, this was also during a difficult period in her life where she moved several times across a three-year period.  This tiny apartment, now a museum commemorating her, was one of those locations during this short period.

I used to sometimes hang out at my window overlooking my street.  I would take in the powerful colors presented across the rooftops of Paris.  The sometimes, dark and foreboding massive storms that crept across the Parisian sky.  I would find myself looking down my street at her apartment building.  I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have looked like in 1934, watching a teenage Edith Piaf leaving her apartment building and, headed off to work for the night somewhere in Paris?

 

Photograph taken by George Hruby outside his apartment in Paris. Edith Piaf’s apartment building is approximately where the small, white light is seen on the right, along the sidewalk.

 

The street was empty now as I looked down.  Quiet … and empty.  No people.   No cars.  Nothing but silence, thoughts, and wonder.  Though she had left us all a long time ago, to some degree, Edith had never left at all.  She was here.

Living in Paris and often bored, I would get lost exploring places throughout the city.  Sometimes our best discoveries and adventures are made when we get lost.  When we have no itinerary at all.  Just simply wandering.

Thus, I decided one day to hangout in Bellville.  It was now known as a place where the immigrant population lived, worked, and hung out.  I wanted to hang out in Bellville because I knew it was where Edith had been born and raised as a child.  It was where she grew up, in-part, in a brothel and where her father, after WWI, would perform acrobatics on the street for money.  It was where little Edith, first began singing on the streets in Paris.  I wanted to get a sense, a feel, of where she had grown up at.  Ironically, in her days, Bellville was also known as where the poor, and immigrants lived, worked, and hung out too.  Though nothing lasts forever, sometimes, …. nothing seems to ever change either.

Another thing that Bellville is still known for today is where many of Paris’ budding new artists are found.  They often can be seen displaying their works there.

 

A building in Belleville displays a giant art creation featuring two dressed mannequins appearing to be lowering a huge slate down the side of the building. It reads, “Beware of the Words.”

 

It was while I was busy exploring all this one day, that I saw a plaque hanging off of the wall at a building.  I had been wandering down Rue de Belleville.  I, of course went right over to it to read it and guess whose name was on it?  Edith Piaf.

Turns out, I was standing right in front of 72 Rue de Belleville.  According to Parisian urban legend, Edith Piaf was born, literally, on a street in Bellville.  The plaque I was reading marked the location on the exact street where this event supposedly occurred.  However, today we know she was born at the nearby “Hôpital Tenon.”  Rue de Belleville runs the borderline between the 19th and the 20th arrondissements where the hospital was located.

 

George Hruby hanging out in front of 72 Rue de Belleville, in Paris, where legend has it that Edith Piaf was born at on the street in 1915

 

Indeed, somehow, Edith seem to be all around me here. This, long after she found me years before in Southern California.  Now I was in her world – Paris.  It was here where she was growing up, … would eventually become friends with Chevalier, have a love affair with Yves Montand in the Moulin Rouge, and hang out with poets like Jacques Bourgeat.

 

Edith Piaf in Paris – Photo Courtesy of National Library of France

 

 

She would eventually become an international singing sensation across the world, including appearing in the United States on the Ed Sullivan show eight times.  She gave numerous concerts in New York City and loved Southern California where I was from.

In the movie, La Vie En Rose, there is a scene where she is interviewed in her later years by a journalist. The journalist finds her sitting alone on Malibu Beach, kitting a sweater.  While the interview actually did occur on the beach with her, exactly what was asked and what the interview consisted of is up to speculation.  However, the movie version of the interview was created in a beautiful way, grasping Edith’s true personality in how she would have probably answered such questions given her.  Here is the interview as it was in the movie “La Vie En Rose”:

 

American Journalist: Hello, they said you were on the beach. Thank you for granting this interview.

Edith Piaf: My pleasure.

American Journalist: It’s odd to see you so far from Paris.

Edith Piaf: I’m never far from Paris.

American Journalist: I’ve a list of questions. Answer whatever comes to mind. Well…what’s you favorite color?

Edith Piaf: Blue

American Journalist: What’s your favorite dish?

Edith Piaf: Pot Roast.

American Journalist: Would you agree to live a sensible life?

Edith Piaf: It is already the case

American Journalist: Who are your most faithful friends?

Edith Piaf: My true friends are my most faithful.

American Journalist: If you could no longer sing…?

Edith Piaf: …I could no longer live.

American Journalist: Are you afraid of death?

Edith Piaf: Less than solitude.

American Journalist: Do you pray?

Edith Piaf: Yes, because I believe in love.

American Journalist: What is your fondest career memory?

Edith Piaf: Every time the curtain goes up

American Journalist: Your fondest memory as a woman?

Edith Piaf: The first kiss

American Journalist: Do you like night time?

Edith Piaf: Yes, with lots of light.

American Journalist: Dawn?

Edith Piaf: With a piano and friends.

American Journalist: The evening?

Edith Piaf: For us, it’s dawn.

American Journalist: If you were to give advice to a woman, what would it be?

Edith Piaf: Love

American Journalist: To a young girl?

Edith Piaf: Love

American Journalist: To a child?

Edith Piaf: Love.

American Journalist: Who are you knitting for?

Edith Piaf: Whoever will wear my sweater.

 

Living in Paris, I got to be completely emerged into her world.  Some of the places she performed are still here today.  Many of the streets and buildings have not changed at all.  You can still get a sense of her life as it would have been here.

She was an avid drinker of alcohol and eventual user of drugs.  She suffered three near-fatal car accidents in her life.  She died on October 10th, 1963, at the age of 47.  The official cause of death was liver cancer.  Her years of fighting alcohol and drug addictions, along with being an avid cigarette smoker finally took its toll on her.  The 47-year-old Edith, shockingly, looked like an old woman in her sixties or seventies at the time of her death.

 

George Hruby at the grave site of Edith Piaf in Cimetière du Père Lachaise, Paris, France

 

She came from nothing but broken fragments of survival as a child.  Her life journey took her hard and fast, on many twists and turns, often laced with tragedy, loss, and sadness.  Despite it all, she remained the outstanding performer that she had always been. Perhaps, it was all that she ever knew.  Her music was indeed parts of her broken but always optimistic life with such songs as “La Vie en rose” (Life in Pink), “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I do not Regret Anything), and “Padam, Padam.”

With her music still being played and sold, and movies of her life continuing to be made for the silver screen, perhaps the little sparrow is with us still.  Perhaps she never really left.  Forever will she sing for us all.

 

Edith Piaf walking in Paris – Archive Photo

 

George Hruby

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