Wednesday June 20, 2007
Turbulent... Marion Cotillard stars as Piaf in La Vie en Rose
No one knew Edith Piaf like Ginou Richer. "I was only 16 when I met Edith," she says. "It was 1948, and she was already a big star. My boyfriend was part of a group called Les Compagnons de la Chanson who toured with Edith and, against her wishes, he smuggled me along. When my presence was discovered, the great lady came along to throw me out of the hotel - but we instantly hit it off."
Piaf is currently being rediscovered by a new generation in France. Richer's memoir of the 15 turbulent years she spent as a companion to the country's beloved "Sparrow" has just been published, and she also acted as script consultant on the new movie La Vie en Rose, a colourful and dramatic tribute to the life of the great singer and songwriter, best remembered for emotional renditions of songs such as Je Ne Regrette Rien, L'Hymne à l'Amour and the song that gave the film its title.
Out on Friday, the film portrays Piaf's brief life - she died in 1963 at the age of 47 - as an extraordinary kaleidoscope of rags to riches, passion and misfortune. And, according to Richer, the actress Marion Cotillard doesn't just play Piaf but becomes her: "Marion has it exactly, the way she walks, talks, her way of laughing. The hardest part for her was lip-synching the songs, but really, you'd say it was Edith singing." Richer, too, is portrayed in the film, as a devoted member of Piaf's entourage, but her memoir, Piaf, Mon Amie, recalls a friendship that was as intense and rewarding as any of Piaf's many love affairs. "I ended up becoming her companion. I did everything for her, her hair, clothes, makeup, but I never received a salary. We lived together as a couple. She always referred to 'our' house or 'our' car."
When Piaf and the Compagnons parted company, Richer chose to stay with Piaf. "There were nearly 20 years between us but it didn't make any difference," she says. "We exchanged roles - sometimes she'd mother me, sometimes I'd mother her. Most of the time, we were just children together. When we were on tour and there was no man in her life, I slept with her in the same bed; and when she had a lover, I slept elsewhere. But there was no ambiguity to our relationship - we never as much as touched toes. Edith loved men! We were soulmates: I was from the backstreets of Paris, like her."
The public loved Piaf for her vulnerability as much as for her ebullience; she often encouraged journalists to write fiction rather than fact, realising the power of her own mythology. In private, her love of life, her energy and strong character made her a demanding companion. "She could be tyrannical," says Richer. "She had such high expectations of herself that she expected the same of everyone. With me, she simply demanded that I was present all the time. She always liked to know where I was. When I went out without her, she'd give me her car and driver so she'd be able to keep track of me. But I accepted her tyranny - it was proof of her love.
"She was the same with everyone. I remember how she insisted that Charles [Aznavour] and I accompany her to A Streetcar Named Desire a dozen times because she'd fallen in love with Marlon Brando. When she decided to eat steak tartare every evening, she expected me to do the same."
But Piaf's tyranny was not always affectionate. Richer remembers how one weekend, Piaf locked her in her townhouse without food or company because Richer was too ill to accompany Piaf on a weekend jaunt to the countryside: "She punished me because she didn't believe I was ill, even though I'd just come out of hospital. She thought I wouldn't accompany her because I wanted to sneak off to see a boyfriend, and she was furious at being thwarted."
When it was Piaf's turn to be nursed, after one of her many car accidents, Richer soon encountered a mystery: when she kept vigil at Piaf's bed, the singer didn't sleep - yet when the night nurse was there, she slept like a baby. "I eventually found out that the nurse was increasing her dose of morphine rather than reducing it - just to ensure that she had a quiet night. For me, that was when Edith's dependency truly began."
Rumours of alcoholism and drug addiction clung to Piaf and if, in later life, the drugs became necessary to combat the pain of rheumatism and other ailments, their use was initially exacerbated by Piaf grappling with heartbreak. When her lover, the French world champion boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash, the singer's grief was such that Richer says she never fully recovered. "When he won the title, Piaf and I had been to Lisieux to pray to St Thérèse for him. She was sure he would win because that night we smelt roses in her room [a symbol of that saint]. After he died, she tried to contact him through various mediums. It reached worrying heights."
On other occasions, Piaf's demands had graver consequences. After having a son by her first husband, Richer - on Piaf's advice - gave him to her parents to bring up. "I was very young," she says, "and it was as though somebody had handed me a toy, a beautiful baby to play with. Edith used to say that just because you became a parent didn't mean you'd be any good at it."
That was a lesson Piaf had learned the hard way. Abandoned by her parents, a street singer and an acrobat, she spent her early childhood in the care of her grandmother, who ran a brothel in Normandy. Afflicted by bouts of blindness in childhood, Piaf was reclaimed by her father to become his working companion on the streets of Paris, where she would probably have met with the same fate as her mother - drunken destitution - had she not been spotted by cabaret owner Louis Leplée (played with insalubrious charm by Gérard Depardieu in the film), who gave her her first break and her first stage name, La Môme Piaf, The Sparrow Kid.
Richer says her time with Piaf was like living in a gilded cage, but when she finally left to live with her second husband in Cannes, she didn't experience it as a liberation. "She taught me how to enjoy life, how to make the most of it. We spent so much time laughing. I didn't want to leave her, but I was pregnant with my second son. I felt she was in good hands. She was with her last husband [Theo Sarapo], who I felt loved her as I loved her and would take care of her."
Piaf spent her last years in a villa in the Midi. "I saw her almost every day," says Richer, "but I still couldn't accept that she was as ill as everybody said she was. With me, she never showed any sadness or despair. She was always bright and optimistic - because that was how we'd always been together."
· La Vie en Rose opens this Friday.
· Piaf, Mon Amie by Ginou Richer is published in France by Editions Denoël.
What do you know about Edith Piaf?
A humdrum telling of Piaf's extraordinary life