Edith Piaf

Edith Piaf is hailed in France as a national treasure. Fears that her image could be tainted with charges of collaboration during World War II have generally led to the subject being ignored, as in the 2007 film La Vie en Rose. In reality, she probably deserves neither fears nor fawning. Like many musicians during wartime, she seems to have been focused on her own career and rather ambivalent to the political situation. Nevertheless, her wartime escapades provide an intriguing window onto resistance activities under the Nazi occupation.

When war broke out, Piaf's career in Paris was just taking off: she was starring in Cocteau's play Le Bel Indifferent (The Beautiful Irrelevant) at the Bouffes Parisiens. Her first engagement with politics came on 9 May 1940, four days before the French government abandoned Paris, when she joined a performance with stars Maurice Chevalier and Johnny Hess for the Red Cross in support of the war effort. In an attempt to avoid the advancing Nazis, Piaf left Paris shortly afterwards to undertake a tour of Toulouse. But once the Armistice had been signed and France occupied and annexed, Piaf deemed it safe to return to Paris.

Occupied Paris was not all that different from the one Piaf had left. She had to register with the German Propaganda department and agree to have her song lyrics vetted, but the Nazis liked her and she was encouraged in her work. She took some liberties that could have landed her in serious trouble: in 1940, for example, she recorded the song ‘Ou sont'ils mes petits copains?’ (Where are my boyfriends?) about friends who had gone to war singing, and during one performance she draped herself in the French flag. The radio presenter Pierre Hiegel also caused problems by accidentally playing the wrong side of Piaf's record live on his show: the 1936 song ‘Il n'est pas distingué’ (It is not distinguished) sounded out with the words 'Moi Hitler j'l'ai dans l'blair/ Et je peux pas l'renifler/ Les nazis ont l'ait d'oublier/ Qu'c'est nous dans la bagarre qu'on les a zigouillés' (I can't stand Hitler, the Nazis seem to forget that we were the people who slammed them in the [first world] war). She also became involved in Georges Lacombe's film Montmartre-sur-Seine (Montmartre-on-the-River-Seine) in 1941, helping to write some of the jazz songs in the score. In all three cases Piaf was left untouched, and in the end Lacombe’s film was not released until 1946.

Piaf used her popularity with the Nazis to help those in difficulty. At the outbreak of war she had recently embarked on a professional partnership with Michel Emer, a Jewish musician whose song ‘L'Accordéoniste’ (The accordion player) became one of her big hits. Piaf was able to pay his way into unoccupied France, where he lived in hiding until the liberation. She also helped Jewish pianist Norbert Glanzberg, who became her lover for a time. Glanzberg had worked as a jazz musician with Django Reinhardt in the mid-1930s in Paris and later became involved with the Resistance. The composer Georges Auric helped hide him until 1944 in unoccupied France, and after the liberation Glanzberg returned the favour by helping to release Maurice Chevalier and defending the French actress Mistinguett (originally Jeanne Bourgeois) in trial.

Piaf’s involvement with the Resistance does not seem to have gone much further than these personal favours. She was certainly aware of other activities, but there is little evidence to suggest she took part in them. For example, she spent part of the war living in lodgings owned by Madame Billy, a brothel owner, who hid a number of Jews and Resistance members in her house. Madame Billy’s secretary, Andrée Bigard, moved into one of Piaf’s rooms under the pretext of helping with fan mail, while secretly writing Resistance letters. However, whilst Piaf kept the secret, she gave rehearsals from these lodgings that she allowed anyone to listen to, including Nazis.

Similarly, Piaf has been praised as well as criticised for her performances before French prisoners in Germany. On the one hand, her tour formed part of a resistance effort: Andrée Bigard went with her and carried out a remarkable clandestine operation, turning the photographs of Piaf with the prisoners into fake passport photographs and preparing 120 false papers, enabling many of the prisoners to escape. On the other hand, the tour was a means for Piaf to assure her popularity with the occupying forces and further her career. She continued to sing at prison camps at her own initiative even when resistance activities were not being carried out, and it will never be quite clear whose morale (the Nazis’ or the prisoners') she was hoping to boost.

Piaf was not a devoted Resistance fighter. Her career was always her first priority, and she clearly felt some compassion towards the Nazis, who had been some of her most enthusiastic fans. According to Yves Montand, with whom she had a relationship towards the end of the war, she even stopped a Resistance fighter from blowing up a line of tanks transporting German soldiers at the liberation of Paris. She also appears, like many, to have been oblivious to wartime war atrocities: Montand records in his autobiography her genuine distress upon seeing the first photos of the camps in 1945. All in all, it seems that Piaf made the most of the war situation, not allowing it to infringe on her music and taking any opportunities it presented.

By Daisy Fancourt


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