When World War II broke out, Édith Piaf‘s career in Paris was just taking off; she had played in the play Le Bel Indifferent by Jean Cocteau (they share a birthday today) at Les Bouffes Parisiens to great acclaim. On May 9, 1940, four days before the French government abandoned Paris, she participated in a performance with Maurice Chevalier for the Red Cross. To avoid the advance of the Nazis, Piaf left Paris. But, once the armistice was signed and France was occupied and annexed, Piaf returned to Paris.
Occupied Paris was not so different from the one Piaf had left, except that she had to register with the German Propaganda Department and agree to have her lyrics reviewed, but the Nazis loved her and looked the other way. She took some risks that could have brought some serious trouble: in 1940, she recorded the song Où Sont-ils, Tous Mes Copains?, a song about French friends who went to war, and during a performance, she draped herself in the French flag. A radio show also caused problems by accidentally playing the wrong side of Piaf’s record, the 1936 song ‘Ill Is Not Distingue with the words: Me Hitler J’l have in blair (I cannot stand Hitler) and a lyric that translated as: “…the Nazis seem to forget that we were the people who slammed them in war”. She was also involved in Georges Lacombe‘s patriotic film Montmatre-Rur-Sein (1941), starring and helping to write songs for the score. In all three cases, Piaf was left alone by those nasty Nazis.
Piaf used her popularity with the Nazis to help people in trouble. When the war started, she had just started a professional partnership with Michel Emer, a Jewish musician whose song L’Aacordeoniste became one of her great successes. Piaf was able to help Emer find a way to unoccupied France, where he lived hidden until the Liberation.
She also helped the Jewish pianist Norbert Glanzberg, who became her lover. Glanzberg worked with Django Reinhardt in the mid-1930s in Paris and later became involved in The Resistance.
She helped composer Georges Auric hide until 1944, and after the Liberation, Glanzberg returned the favor by helping to secure Chevalier’s release from jail and defending actor and singer Mistinguett, at one time the highest-paid female entertainer in the world, when she and Chevalier were both tried for collaboration with the Nazis.
Piaf spent part of the war in a home owned by a brothel owner who hid Jews and members of the Resistance. The secretary of the owner of the brothel, moved into one of the rooms Piaf rented under the pretext of helping with the mail from her fans, while secretly writing letters of Resistance. Piaf held rehearsals in her flat that allowed those in hiding to hear music.
Piaf was congratulated and criticized for her performances in front of French prisoners in Germany. She went on a tour that was clandestinely part of the Resistance effort, carrying out remarkable covert operations, transforming her photographs with the prisoners into fake passport photos and preparing false papers, allowing some prisoners to escape. On the other hand, the tour also ensured Piaf’s popularity with the occupation forces and advanced her career.
Her career had always been her priority, and she clearly felt compassion for the Nazis, who had been her most enthusiastic fans, but she was also a dedicated Resistance fighter. Yet, according to Yves Montand, with whom she had an affair towards the end of the war, she once assisted a Resistance fighter in detonating a line of tanks carrying German soldiers to the Liberation of Paris.
She also seemed, like many others, to have been unaware of the true atrocities of war. Montand wrote that she showed a real shock and distress when seeing the first photographs of the death camps in 1945. Piaf took advantage of the war, not allowing it to encroach on her career, while still being able to help the cause. For Christmas 1944, she went on stage to perform for allied forces in Marseille.
In 1946-47, Piaf toured the United States where she took the country by storm. She befriended celebrities such as Orson Welles, Judy Garland, and Marlene Dietrich, who was a friend and lover for life.
Despite her problems, Piaf continued her career throughout the 1950s. Although she collapsed on stage several times, she also gave many stunning performances. She also continued her long string of love affairs. Even as her health failed, Piaf refused to give up on love or give up her work.
Piaf took her final bow in 1963, taken by liver failure. She was only 47 years old. She died the day before the death of her friend Cocteau. Her last words were:
“Everything you do in this life, you have to pay.”
She was denied a funeral mass by the Catholic Church because of her lifestyle. His funeral procession attracted 100,000 people in the streets of Paris. Charles Aznavour wrote that Piaf’s funeral procession was the only time since the end of the war that he saw the Parisian traffic stop completely.
Piaf always had devoted gay male fans who both admired her glamour and identified with the pathos and resilience she embodied, offering them a tough-as-nails persona they could assume during difficult times.