The discovery that Edith Piaf spent part of her childhood in Bernay touched a vintage postcard of a street in an ordinary Normandy town with some much needed last century glamour.
What we didn’t expect was to fall into a rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland proportions. Our research left us reeling in a mire of contradictory stories; what was real and what wasn’t?
Three Edith Piaf facts
We can be sure of just three things; 1. Edith Piaf was born in Paris and spent some years as a child in Bernay. 2. She became a famous singer – you may recall the song “Non, je ne regrette rien” ? That’s one of hers. 3. Edith Piaf was a shocking liar.
So to start at the beginning… It is 15 December 1915 in the shabby 20th Arrondissment of Paris, on rue de Belleville.
At the beginning of the 20th century Belleville was on a good day a lively working class district of Paris. On a bad day Belleville was a slum inhabited by criminals and the desperately poor, all barely scraping a living. Cheap booze and drunks were rife, helping people forget their meagre lives.
Love in a cold climate
A young couple of entertainers, Annetta Giovanna Margherita Maillard, 21, and her husband Louis Gassion, 35, live in a cramped apartment at no. 72 rue de Belleville. They have been married for just over a year. Annetta comes from a travelling circus family and met Louis while selling nougat at the Paris Fair. She now sings as ‘Line Marsa’ on the streets and in Paris café’s.
Diminutive Louis Gassion is by choice an acrobat contortionist but was until recently a soldier in the Great War. Invalided out due to illness (either his lungs or stomach, it isn’t clear) Louis spent some weeks recuperating in a military hospital before returning to Paris.
On that chill December day in 1915 Annetta is due to give birth. Édith would later say;
“Her pains announcing the event as imminent, my mother sat down on the doorstep to watch the ambulance that my father had fetched but I had already made my entry into this world when the car arrived. So I can say I was born in the street….”
She arrived into the world, protected from the rough stones of rue de Belleville by a policeman’s cape. And so the myth of Édith Piaf, born in the street, began.
Fairytales and dry Paris bureaucracy
Except of course it is nonsense. Dry Paris bureaucracy records the birth of Édith Giovanna Gassion in the local Hôpital Tenon on Rue de la Chine. A fact Maurice Chevalier chose to ignore when years later he inaugurated a plaque for Edith at number 72. It states:
“On the steps of this house was born Dec. 19, 1915 in the greatest destitution Edith Piaf, whose voice would later overturn the world”. He probably didn’t care if it was true or not, that wasn’t the point of Edith. The plaque is still there if you would like to take a look.
Édith inherited her dainty size (full grown she was 4’8”) from her father. From her mother she received a fine voice, probably alcoholism and not a lot else. The showmanship was a gift from them both.
They left the hospital on Christmas Eve.
“My mother left me shortly after my birth…”
It is interesting that Édith focusses on her mother, her father was the first to disappear.
By March 1916 Louis Gassion was considered fit enough to return to the trenches. He did not. The authorities gave him a few weeks to sort himself out and return but when there was no sign of him by 29 April 1916 he was declared a deserter. A terrible, unpatriotic, crime.
Where he was and what he was doing for the next four and a half months is not clear, but on 12 September 1916 Luis Gassion presented himself at the army recruitment office in Marseilles. Nearly 800 km away from Paris.
“My mother left me …”
Annette, alone with a baby and unreliable or non-existent financial support from Louis, was quickly back at work. She did leave Édith, with her mother Emma (known as Aicha) Mohamed Ben Said, in rue de Rébeval a short walk from rue de Belleville, while she sang to pay for their supper.
As ‘Line Marsa’ Annetta prefers to wear a simple black dress and sings dark stories of broken hearts the lightest comedy. It was a truth perhaps from Édith when she said “I’ve always thought that Fate led me to the very career that my mother dreamed of but could never manage, not through any lack of talent but because luck wasn’t on her side.”
Aicha cleaned apartments for a living, better than she cleaned the child and although just 39 looked decades older after a lifetime of warming her soul with cheap spirits.
Something very wrong
The small family is perhaps together again for Édith’s baptism on 16 December 1917 at the church of Saint Jean Baptiste de Belleville. Both names are recorded on the certificate.
But when Louis returned from war just months later in 1918, his wife had left him and there was something very wrong with his daughter.
“I was weaned on red wine”
Édith would claim she was weaned on red wine and there is a horrible possibility it is true. Her grandmother was a slattern and renowned drunk. Frequently leaving the baby so she could drink in the cafes of Belleville, red wine in her milk would have quietened the lonely, scared infant.
Edith would hate to fall asleep for the rest of her life comparing it with death.
A place of safety
The daughter Louis returned to in 1918 was malnourished, wriggling with vermin and oddly quiet. He was due to return to his old life of travelling entertainer, the only way he knew to making a living. There was no room for an infant. So he took Édith to a place of safety, somewhere she would be clean, fed and perhaps shown a little love. He took her to Normandy and the home of his mother, Maman Tine, in Bernay.
Routine, respectability and tolerance, in Bernay
Bernay was, as it is now, a polite sleepy Norman town on the Charentonne river in the Eure. Back at the beginning of the last century this country town came to life on market days and holidays for the saints. There was routine, respectability, but also tolerance.
A maison de tolerance to be exact, a licensed brothel run by Louis’ mother with a rod of iron. Maman Tine understood human nature better than most from a lifetime with travelling circuses. She insisted on discipline, how else would she have survived as mother to 15. And she kept a clean, regulated house.
The arrival of her granddaughter, dark eyed like her mother, was an unwelcome addition to her ordered life.
Tough love for Edith
Small, grubby, encrusted with lice and exhibiting all the unpleasant social skills of the neglected, Edith was a challenge. Louis soon left for work and Maman Tine set to work on Edith.
She was cleaned. More than Edith thought absolutely necessary. She was put into fresh, not always comfortable but very respectable clothing.
And she was taught basic manners; no more pushing rare food into her gaping mouth with a small dirty hand. That would result in smack with a spoon from Maman Tine and anyway food was now appearing with pleasing regularity. She quickly got to grips with knife, fork and spoon but there were a bewildering number of rules for a child born in a Paris slum.
Of course Normandy butter and cheese helped put a little covering on her sharp bones. Apples added colour in her cheeks and clean air dried up her snotty nose. However Edith would never be a plump and pink Normandy girl like her cousins Marcelline & Mauricette, the sort of girl Maman Tine approved of.
Sometimes Edith sang. Loudly. Snippets of songs she had heard from birth sung by that distant creature her mother. The woman who had sometimes stopped her hungry crying with bawdy drinking songs and sent her to sleep with sad laments of the broken hearted. Maman Tine was aghast at the noise. She was a respectable woman.
Les filles perdu
It was Maman Tine’s respectability that ensured the prosperity and existence of the maison de tolerance on rue Saint- Michel, a central but quiet street in Bernay. The purpose of the house was advertised quietly by an enlarged house number – 7 – and a lantern by the door. Half a dozen girls were in residence, the number rising to a dozen on market days and during local fairs.
The girls, those filles perdu (lost girls) were a mix of long term residents and some passing through. When they joined they took on new, soft pretty names that highlighted their youth and submissiveness; Violette, Blondette, Odette, Yvette… Les filles were regularly checked by the local doctor and the priest.
Tuesday was the girl’s day off. Dressed in their best they would parade into Bernay to visit the haberdasher, the hairdresser, the boulangerie. Always attracting disapproval and fascination. Edith may have accompanied these trips and there are many stories that say the girls loved and petted her when they could.
A Normandy life, of sorts
Officials regularly checked the house was following regulations and sometimes returned after hours to investigate further. The building had been divided to give Maman Tine and her silent husband privacy. M. Gassion was old before his time. An acrobat who worked with horses he had half a century of injuries to pain him.
It was a separate flat but the smell of cigars, the sound of laughter and the piano, all this would drift through the walls to Edith’s room.
On Sundays Maman Tine would take Edith to the church on rue Thiers. L’église Sainte-Croix is magnificent but it wasn’t these weekly calls for God’s forgiveness that gave Edith her lifetime of love for the catholic church. Her full conversion took place on 25 August 1921 when she became a miracle child. Or so she said.
“I lived in a world of sounds and words”
Edith had suffered from eye problems since her arrival in Normandy. Her eyes were frequently red and the lids swollen, often glued together with a foul smelling goo. During a particularly bad attack the doctor was called. He feared Keratisis, inflammation of the cornea. Edith’s eyes would have to be bound while she healed or her sight could be lost forever.
Weeks, or according to Edith, years passed with her living as a little blind girl. Perhaps during quiet times she was allowed to visit more with the girls in the other side of the house as there was no fear she would see anything untoward.
Edith would say ““I had become used to walking with my hands in front of me to protect me. I banged everywhere. My fingers, my hands became sensitive, I recognized the touch fabrics, skins too. I could say that’s Carmen, that’s Rose … I lived in a world of sounds and words … “
A cure beyond kindness
Maman Tine may not have been affectionate but of course she cared. She had tried everything in her power to help Edith, but the little girl’s eyes failed to heal. Just one possibility was left to them. Maman Tine arranged for the household to take a day off to visit the grave of Saint Thérèse, the ‘Little Flower’ of Lisieux, to pray for Edith’s recovery.
They left Bernay early on the morning of 15 August, by train, a rare treat. The walk with perhaps hundreds of pilgrims, silent or praying, to Saint Thérèse resting place in the Carmelite plot of the municipal cemetery, would have been a strange, dramatic experience for them all.
Maman Tine, her husband, the girls and Edith all prayed at the flower covered grave of this Saint who believed in a simple, good life and who died in agony of tuberculosis age just 24.
10 days later on 25 August, Saint Louis day (conveniently the name of her father) Edith announced that she could see for the first time in years.
Of course the household was in uproar “Saint Thérèse performed a miracle for you!” She was miraculée, touched by a miracle. A miracle child.
Which is a lovely story. Except Thérèse of Lisieux did not become a saint until 1925.
A wish to believe, in all things
By 1921 the story of Thérèse and her beliefs were becoming famous and a pilgrimage by the household to Lisieux did take place, but only after hefty amounts of modern medicine and time had done their work. The pilgrimage was to give thanks for the return of Edith’s sight, after a few weeks of blindness.
This smaller story did not interest Edith. For ever more she recalled how Saint Thérèse had chosen her. She was special.
When asked about her earliest happy memory would say “The day I regained my eyesight”.
The impact of those weeks living in darkness did give her an unexpected gift that she revealed many years later “when I wanted to understand, to ‘see’ a song, I would close my eyes”…
After Lisieux faith was important to Edith for the rest of her life. Some say she kept a glass statue of the Saint next to her bed until she died, too young aged just 47.
Life in Bernay
Madame Taillère, who tackled the mountains of laundry generated by the maison de tolerance recalled that although her sight returned “Edith’s eyes were never wide open like yours or mine”. The girls would buy their miraculée little gifts to make her smile.
Madame Taillère doted on the tiny dark eyed girl, happy for her to visit across the road and play with her children, or to accompany her to the lavoir, the communal wash house. Maman Tine scolded Edith for distracting her washerwoman.
Now six Edith attended the local Bernay school for perhaps a year or two. Thanks to Ms Laperruque she learnt to spell, some basic maths and grammar.
Cruelty of youth
Fellow pupils of course remembered her years later when she became famous. It has been hard not to notice the child whose Grandmother ran the local brothel, small towns are not good at keeping secrets like that. They remembered other children saying Edith was ‘the child of the devil’s house’ and throwing stones at the odd little girl from Paris.
Edith stayed in Normandy until she was 7 or 8. Her father visited when he could and their weekends would be spent with family in Falaise. Like part-time parents before and since Louis would take Edith for a walk about the town and for a meal of the local speciality pancakes. In the summer they would visit cousins in Luc-sur-Mer.
Time to leave Normandy
When cousin Marcelline spent Sundays in Bernay the little girls would try to sneak past Maman Tine to visit the working girls. Marcelline says “we wanted to see them of course, but she would send us back to the kitchen”.
It was the curé who noticed the girls’ curiosity and he was right, they were learning some confusing lessons. Edith once said “I just thought when a man put out his hand you had to go with him…”
The curé warned her father that it was time to take Edith away from the brothel. So he did, in 1922. Edith was seven and Louis was content to add her big eyed charm to his repertoire. She could pass around the hat and make herself useful looking after him.
Louis borrowed money from his mother to buy a caravan and signed up to Caroli Circus for a tour of Belgium. As far as we know Edith never went back to Normandy.
Hard lessons and hard work
The next few years would not be easy. Louis’ temper shaped their world as he quarrelled with bosses, losing jobs and sometimes taking out his frustrations on Edith. But she also learnt from him how to manage a crowd, pull them into a world you created, reach in to their hearts and make them want more.
Her father would say she sang “loud enough to drown out the lions” but it wasn’t until he was ill one day that she took to the street to sing to earn money for his medicine, that her future looked a little clearer. In just a few years she would be famous across France and the world as “La Mome Piaf,” or “The Little Sparrow.”