COLUMN: Chansons

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COLUMN: Chansons

The little-known history of Edith Piaf in La La Land

Who exactly was Edith Piaf? Truthfully we can never really know, because this legendary French chanteuse was invented from the very beginning. That invention is a tale of two cities: Paris and New York. Less talked about but just as crucial is a third: Los Angeles. French music stars have always dreamed of Hollywood. For Piaf, the dream came true, thanks to heroic coast-to-coast touring, TV appearances and recording in English. She arrived in the land of the free in October 1947, with a booking at New York’s Playhouse, near Broadway. In France she was a wartime symbol. She spoke to her compatriots’ unvoiced feelings during the German occupation—melancholy, separation, loss—but also to the nation’s self-image of spirited resilience. But none of this meant much to hardnosed New Yorkers. Her Playhouse audiences were expecting a seductive Parisienne. What they got was a short, pale, bewildered-looking woman in a plain black dress, counting her sorrows. She didn’t exactly flop at the Playhouse. Critics simply didn’t know how to take her, until a shrewd article by the composer Virgil Thomson provided a kind of instruction manual. She got a new booking at a midtown nightclub, The Versailles, and her luck changed. Soon, celebrities were bribing the doorman to get a table.

It wasn’t, however, till 1952 that she went West. On December 23, she opened at the Mocambo nightclub on Sunset Boulevard, where the solo Sinatra had made his L.A. debut. She also played San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Miami, before returning to L.A. to rest up and make contacts. Her next trip west was March 1955, at the Biltmore Theatre. Her ‘continental revue’ then toured widely before returning to Hollywood in June, where she put up at the famous Chateau Marmont for another month-long residency at the Mocambo. This stay in the US was her longest, lasting 14 months to May 1956. And yet she was back by September for another tough 11-month tour, taking in Cuba, Mexico, and Rio, as well as her regular slot at The Versailles and her first booking at Carnegie Hall, which was a sellout. By December 1956, she was back at the Mocambo.

These two frenetic tours, 25 months in all, provided her richest experience of Hollywood. Her hero Charlie Chaplin came to see her at the Mocambo and invited her over. Marlon Brando followed suit. She cooked for Ginger Rogers. She also recorded some of her catalogue in English for Capitol Records. And on New Year’s Eve, a dazzling gala was held in her honor at the famous Romanoff’s Restaurant in Beverley Hills. All Hollywood was there, and the restaurant was decorated for the occasion. Piaf sang only five songs but was paid handsomely. After her fourth Mocambo show the following July, she swore she’d be back. Her health, however, was failing: addiction, car crashes, rheumatism, and total exhaustion from the US tours. She finally came back in January 1959 for another huge tour but got no further than Montreal. She left America that June and never returned. She died in October 1963 at the age of 47.

So what exactly did Hollywood do for her? The Romanoff bash was her US apotheosis. By then she was the highest paid singer in the world after Sinatra and Crosby. The singer who landed in New York back in 1947 at the age of 31 was still imagined as the ‘Little Sparrow’ that she and her team had invented a decade earlier by building on the French ‘realist’ tradition of the torch-song: a child-like young woman victimized by men, misfortune and the mean streets of Paris, wide-eyed and sexually vulnerable. The French specificity of this character explains the bewilderment of her Playhouse audiences. But it was actually a long way from the powerful, dominant professional she’d become, and she was keen to re-invent herself. Still little known on the West Coast, neither her first Mocambo show nor her appearances in Vegas seem to have created a stir, probably for the same reasons as in New York. Her Biltmore residency three years later was much more successful, though even then a Las Vegas booking was cancelled when an embarrassed hotel manager set eyes on her and realized she really wasn’t right for his well-heeled clientele. Still, Hollywood did finally get her. And her wily frequenting of movie greats—Joan Crawford, Bogart, Dietrich, Brando, Chaplin—paid off, sprinkling her with stardust. Of her encounter with Chaplin, she once revealed: ‘the evening brought me the consecration I had always dreamt of without realizing it.’

The song everyone liked best was “La vie en rose,” which became her signature piece. The French lyrics, which she penned herself, are touchingly simple: she now sees life through rose-tinted spectacles thanks to a successful romance with a guy she ‘belongs’ to. Upbeat numbers like “La Goualante du Pauvre Jean” (“The Poor People of Paris”) and “Milord” also proved popular. Yet Piaf’s brooding Frenchness wasn’t forgotten; it was just inflected by a reassuring American positivity, which matched her new status as Hollywood star—a patina of glamour, global celebrity and even happiness. It wasn’t so much her repertoire that was Hollywoodized as her image.

For the French sociologist Edgar Morin, Hollywood actors become stars when a delicate balance is struck between humanity and divinity. The star is born from the interpenetration of the heroic screen role and the actor playing it. Piaf, whose whole public self was created by conflating life with song, lent herself perfectly to this kind of transfiguration. Although the French press liked to remind her that she was no Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood nevertheless gave her the gloss of iconicity.

Did she give Hollywood anything in return? Conceivably, yes. She deposited in Tinseltown’s collective imagination a new image of Paris, French women, and Frenchness generally that survives today from West Coast to East. Since her death, in fact, she’s become a free-floating signifier. She lives on not as a memory but a metaphor, invested with our own meanings. Hence all the tribute shows, documentaries, films and even songs about her. Last year, Lady Gaga interpreted “La Vie En Rose” at the Hollywood Bowl, while at the American Music Awards, Céline Dion honored the victims of the Paris terror attacks with a moving rendition of “Hymne à l’amour.” Hence too, the use of her recordings as soundtracks in an impressive list of Hollywood movies, and of course in Olivier Dahan’s Oscar-winning film about her, La Vie En Rose (2007). Dahan doesn’t try to uncover a new Piaf. He simply re-tells her story, like a folk tale. He prints the legend.

So what of those recent renditions by the likes of Gaga and Dion? Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, and Piaf are the great archetypal divas: talented, flawed, vulnerable, and ultimately destroyed, a popular reconfiguration of the classical tragic heroine. In the L.A. Times, Ernest Hardy contrasts them with today’s divas, such as Beyoncé and Madonna. The difference, he argues, is ‘between women who bleed for their art and those who merely sweat for it.’ But my hunch is that those women who interpret Piaf bleed vicariously and are gilded by the diva trope. Like Elvis and Marilyn, Edith belongs among the great signifying myths of global culture, to which we turn to give our lives meaning. And she’s one of very few French nationals to achieve this standing. She did so through her immense talent, of course, the resonant circumstances of her life, and the narratives she developed about them. But also by going in search of Hollywood—the place to turn those narratives into stardust.

Written by David Looseley

Image: Still from French Cancan (1954) directed by Jean Renoir

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