No Regrets: the Life of Édith Piaf

A visceral and uncompromising singer, a drug addict, a promiscuous lover and an icon of war-torn France: Édith Piaf exerted a fascination over audiences which is easy to understand. It is also partly why her music is still enduringly popular. Her life story is red-blooded and rich in contradiction - the result of myths spun by Piaf about her lovers, her family and even her "miraculous" cure from blindness, allegedly by her patron saint.

Carolyn Burke's meticulous biography tells the true story of Piaf, a tale of a street-smart performer packed to the gills with grit. Piaf did not so much sing her songs as hurl them at her audience, each number as much a musical challenge as a seduction. In a century that celebrated ugly-beautiful voices - from Maria Callas to Bob Dylan - Piaf's tones rang out with a plangent, raucous smokiness. As the writer Auguste le Breton observed, her voice "gave off the odour of the street, of poverty, hunger, suicide". Through her songs she communicated life's pains and humiliations, its disappointments and losses. For her, singing was not an expression of delicacy or beauty; it was a defiant challenge to life.

And life was undeniably hard. Piaf's father was an itinerant acrobat and serial womaniser, her mother abandoned her, and the young girl grew up in a brothel where her grandmother was the madam. There she learned how women and men behaved towards each other. "I thought that if a man held out his hand to a woman, she had to accept and go with him," she said later. She was then brought up by a succession of her father's girlfriends, some of whom beat her, as did he. Her absent mother, who sang on the streets and in cafés, reappeared from time to time - but only to extort money from her daughter as she prospered.

Despite Piaf's subsequent success in America and beyond, the city of Paris was where she always returned, and its arrondissements, each with its own associations of class and money, became her markers of success. She was born in 1915 in the hilltop slum of Belleville - allegedly on a doorstep, delivered by two policemen. As a teenager, she moved up into the marginally less insalubrious lesbian clubs of the Pigalle district, singing for prostitutes, gamblers and crooks. Then it was onwards to fashionable nightspots such as Le Gerny's cabaret, off the Champs-Élysées, as well as appearing on the radio, where fans could lap up her songs of "real life", delivered in the working-class accent of a "titi-Parisienne". Always on the sidelines were the strings of lovers, hangers-on and moneygrubbers. Always in the background was the booze, and later crippling arthritis, addiction to painkillers and liver damage.

Burke is well placed to investigate this tortuous life and career. Her previous books on the photographer Lee Miller and the poet Mina Loy dug deep into the lives of two of the most alluring and complex women who lived in the 20th century. No Regrets also employs painstaking research in an effort to re-create the milieu in which Piaf lived. The picture Burke builds belies the standard image of the singer as a fragile sparrow governed by her passions and foibles. What we get instead is a portrait of an artist in complete creative control.

Far from being buffeted by her lovers or her dysfunctional family, Piaf had an iron will and she worked hard - on her songs, her image and her career. She was willing to ditch boyfriends and break friendships if that allowed her to take a step closer to fame and further away from the slums of her youth. Burke also shifts the focus on to less-known parts of Piaf's life. In August 1943, for example, the singer was invited to perform for French soldiers imprisoned in Germany. While in the prison camps, Piaf illicitly passed identity cards, maps and compasses over to them, one of her efforts on behalf of the Resistance. When escapees followed her tour party, she passed them off to the Nazis as musicians in her band.

All this colour and detail embeds Piaf in her time and place. What seems more elusive is the essence of her personality and what it was that made her more than just another talented singer who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Here Burke's biography falters somewhat: how, one wants to know, did that carnal, feral knowledge of Parisian lowlife get turned into music? How did those dashed hopes and bitter experiences become burned into Piaf's body, colouring her voice and turning it into something distinctive? In short, how was all this tantalising biography transmuted into art? Disappointingly, No Regrets does not tell us.

What the book does deliver is a clear-eyed portrait of an unflinching artist. From the loss of her infant daughter when Piaf was just 18 and the death in a plane crash of her great love, the Algerian-born boxer Marcel Cerdan, to her many illnesses, dependencies and affairs, Piaf wrung out songs, drop by drop. She understood instinctively that three minutes of music could hold within them worlds peopled by characters who sprang to life. Quite how she did this with such unerring power and what drove her to keep singing despite life's miseries remains, however, an enigma. l

Suzy Klein is a presenter for BBC Radio 3

No Regrets: the Life of Édith Piaf
Carolyn Burke
Bloomsbury, 304pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm