A new biography of Edith Piaf debunks several myths about the doyenne of post-war French music, including claims she was born on the streets, suffered from blindness and helped prisoners during World War II.
“Piaf, a French Myth”, which hits the bookstands this week, draws on scores of unpublished letters written by Piaf to her confidant, poet Jacques Bourgeat, among other personal papers and correspondence.
Author Robert Belleret said painstaking research had shown that several falsehoods about the “little sparrow” were perpetuated by her and her entourage.
The aim was to “feed the myth” of Piaf, said Belleret, a former journalist at France’s Le Monde newspaper who has also written an acclaimed biography of French singer Leo Ferre.
Belleret’s book shows that Piaf, who was born Edith Gassion, did not come into the world on the streets as widely claimed but at a hospital in the 20th arrondissement of Paris on December 15, 1915.
While one biographer said she was cured of childhood blindness after a pilgrimage and Piaf spoke of a miraculous healing, the new book says she did not suffer from keratitis, a condition that inflames the the corneas, between the ages of three and seven.
Piaf’s childhood was difficult, with her mother — a singer — abandoning her. She was brought up by her grandmothers but was not weaned on red wine as was widely reported.
Belleret also says the iconic singer had no political conscience and dismisses her claim that she passed on fake papers to prisoners in German camps during World War II.
Rather, she moved house in 1942 to an area close to the Gestapo headquarters in German-occupied Paris.
The singer, who died nearly 50 years ago, was a prolific songwriter who wrote the lyrics to some of France’s best-known songs, including “La Vie En Rose” and “Je Ne Regrette Rien”.
But Belleret says her letters were poorly written, with spelling and grammatical mistakes.
A 2007 French biographical film about her life, directed by Olivier Dahan and titled “La Vie En Rose”, earned the actress Marion Cotillard an Oscar for her portrayal of Piaf.
A great quality was her ability to spot talent, Belleret said. Piaf launched the careers of international stars such as Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour and Georges Moustaki.