born Édith Giovanna Gassion (December 19, 1915 – October 11, 1963), was a French singer and cultural icon who became universally regarded as France's greatest popular singer." Her singing reflected her life, with her specialty being ballads. Among her songs are "La Vie en Rose" (1946), "Hymne à l'Amour" (1949), "Milord" (1959), "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (1960), "l'Accordéoniste" (1955), "Padam... Padam..." (1951), and "La Foule" (1957).
Despite numerous biographies, much of Piaf's life is shrouded in mystery. She was born Édith Giovanna Gassion in Belleville, Paris, a high-immigration district. Legend has it that she was born on the pavement of Rue de Belleville 72, but her birth certificate cites the Hôpital Tenon, the hospital for the 20th arrondissement of which Belleville is part.
She was named Édith after the World War I British nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed for helping French soldiers escape from German captivity. Piaf—a Francilien colloquialism for "sparrow"—was a nickname she would receive 20 years later.
Her mother, Annetta Giovanna Maillard (1895–1945), was of French-Italian descent on her father's side and of Moroccan Berber origin on her mother's. She was a native of Livorno, a port city on the western edge of Tuscany, Italy. She worked as a café singer under the name Line Marsa.
Louis-Alphonse Gassion (1881–1944), Édith's father, was a Norman street acrobat with a past in the theatre. Édith's parents soon abandoned her, and she lived for a short time with her maternal grandmother, Emma (Aïcha) Saïd ben Mohammed (1876–1930). Before he enlisted with the French Army in 1916 to fight in World War I, her father took her to his mother, who ran a brothel in Normandy. There, prostitutes helped look after Piaf.
From the age of three to seven, Piaf was allegedly blind as a result of keratitis. According to one of her biographies, she recovered her sight after her grandmother's prostitutes pooled money to send her on a pilgrimage honoring Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, resulting in a miraculous healing.
In 1929, at 14, she joined her father in his acrobatic street performances all over France, where she first sang in public.
She took a room at Grand Hôtel de Clermont (18 rue Veron, Paris 18ème) and separated from him, going her own way as a street singer in Pigalle, Ménilmontant, and the Paris suburbs (cf. the song "Elle fréquentait la Rue Pigalle").
She joined her friend Simone Berteaut ("Mômone") in this endeavor, and the two became lifelong partners in mischief. She was about 16 when she fell in love with Louis Dupont, a delivery boy.
At 17, she had her only child, a girl named Marcelle, who died of meningitis at age two. Like her mother, Piaf found it difficult to care for a child while living a life of the streets, so she often left Marcelle behind while she was away, and Dupont raised her until her death.
Piaf's next boyfriend was a pimp named Albert who took a commission from the money she made singing in exchange for not forcing her into prostitution. One of her friends, a girl named Nadia, killed herself when faced with the thought of becoming a prostitute, and Albert nearly shot Piaf when she ended the relationship in reaction to Nadia's death.