French singer Edith Piaf always sang with a hint of melancholy, her voice catching the sadness in each phrase. It’s not surprising that she would capture those dark corners with her voice; her life was as tinged with sadness as the songs she sang. Tucked away in two rooms in a fourth-floor apartment where the singer briefly lived, the Musée Edith Piaf in Paris lets visitors reflect on the life and career of this legendary singer.
Dubbed “the Little Sparrow” for having a commanding voice despite her small stature, Piaf’s life took her from humble beginnings to worldwide phenomenon. Born to a traveling acrobat father and aspiring singer mother in 1915, young Edith was pulled out of school in 1922 and joined her father’s act where she first began singing on stage, and by the time she’d turned 15, her singing was the main draw.
Her life for the next five years was a blur of pregnancy, bad relationships, and an attempt on her life by a spurned lover. But a chance meeting of a local cabaret owner saw her life change for the better. With his help, Piaf launched her career as the cabaret’s star attraction. Outfitted in what would become her signature black dresses, Piaf’s performances drew celebrities, praise, and the attention of major record labels. She recorded her first album in 1936 and went on become an international sensation (with some pretty significant bumps along the way—alcohol and drug addiction; several deaths of loved ones, including the cabaret owner who launched her career; and a number of health concerns).
Paris’ Edith Piaf museum is less a biography of her life, however. This is her life told in objects, mannequins dressed in Piaf’s signature black dresses, letters, photographs, shoes, gloves.
“Piaf’s life story is assumed to be known by the visitor,” a reporter writing for The Paris Review noted. The museum creator and docent Bernard Marchois told The Paris Review, “We did not want to make a traditional museum.”
Marchois met Piaf when he was a teenager and she was in her forties at a party at Piaf’s home. He became the singer’s fan and friend, and created the museum in 1967 in an apartment adjoining his own. The apartment was also briefly home for a pre-fame Piaf in 1933. He tells visitors (in French only) about his times with Piaf and even announces when he feels the spirit of the singer entering the room. Marchois’ mission is to ensure that the singer’s legacy is never forgotten, “Piaf must not die a second death,” he says.
Know Before You Go
Admission is free, but the museum is only open by appointment, 1:00-6:00 PM, Monday through Wednesday. Your French will need to be more than passable, as the docent only speaks French. Photography is not allowed.