Raquel Bitton - Edith Piaf
The Making of the Nights of Edith Piaf
This "Thing" about Edith Piaf, deep down, I always knew what it was...I call it a "coup de theatre". I am confortable with the character-it's dramatic, it's intense-and she echoes my emotions.
I always knew what I was doe-eyed about: The songs, each one of them. They grab you and never let you go. It's all in the text, not to mention her voice...we all know what it still does to us. When I dug into her repertoire, she had recorded hundreds of songs. It became obvious to me that her life was in her song, and my passion grew deeper with every tune.
At times, I tried to get away from the subject of Piaf (after all, my taste in music is diversified. I like blues, Jazz, Rock, and country .Creating a concept and scenario for a ballet ("Hearts") with her early songs allowed me to sing with a full symphony after years in Cabarets, but the best was yet to come and that's what I wanted to share with you.
Remember Hurricane Andrew? What does that have to do with Piaf? Right you are to ask! Well, mean old Hurricane Andrew blew over the house of the producer in charge of a two hour documentary on the life and songs of Edith Piaf. The research team was scheduled to leave for France for two weeks when that disaster happened in Miami, and the producer could not possibly join them. Somehow, someone at Lucas Films, maybe the receptionist, heard of me and recommended me (merci, cher coeur). To make a long story short, I left stocks, locks and bagels and flew to Paris on a short notice to conduct interviews with the composers who wrote for Piaf, the same ones I had adored silently through the years. Little did I know then that someday I would be in their houses, seated on their couches, shooting the breeze about Piaf...no time to faint, I assure you...
We arrived late in Paris: Mr Druker, Ms Nelson and I. There was no time to check the hotel. I've been to Paris many times before, but somehow it seemed to take a long time to reach our destination. Of course, I couldn't sleep and waited eagerly for morning, so that I could start this incredible adventure. To our amazement, the "Best western " hotel we were booked in was in the midst of the most colorful of neighborhoods. I couldn't make out right away if it was Istambul, Tunisia or brooklyn, with the commotion, exotic middle Eastern foods,a nd the Kosher restaurants, but I'm not complaining. I am so happy to be here, I'll gladly eat Baklava and Couscous for breakfast!!
Over a cafe and croissant,we began our journey: by the way, Mr Druker insisted on driving in Paris. Around and around we made all the "Rondpoints", and by mi-week, Ms Nelson and I were ready to strangle him, as it took us religiously two hours everyday to turn a corner and get back on the right street. But Mr Druker is such a lovable guy, we spared his life. After all, he brought us to Paris (to get lost?)!
The list of people we would see include Charles Anavour, Georges Moustaki (who wrote Milord), Francis Lai (famous for having written "A man and a woman", after Piaf died, Charles Dumont (who had written Piaf's signature song "No regrets", and Monsieur Henri Contet, who wrote Piaf's early material like "Padam Padam "and "Le vieux Piano" (my favorite).
From reading numerous books on Piaf, I had found out that Henri Contet was once her lover. He was the first classy man she had ever met. He was well educated, tall, handsome and well- mannered. He stood up for her, opened her car door, kissed her hand, Oh! just the things that gentlemen would do for the ladies!. What a change for Piaf, after all the pimps and hoodlums she had known!. I have to say this to you, our appointment with Monsieur Contet was scheduled on a Friday afternoon, and in my excitement we showed up a day early! How gauche that must have looked. I would have camped out in the elevator, but we came back on Friday, as if we never left!
Henri Contet was now a distinguished gentleman of 82, grayish and handsome. He received us in his "Robe de chambre" and slippers, how cozy. I felt like making tea and talking about old times, times I had known only in my dreams. He spoke of Piaf with much love and admiration and told us that after their love affair was over, Piaf sent him a letter, which he read to us, pleading with him to remain her freind, as he was the most stable man she had ever met.
I was most fascinated with the older composers, the ones that had paved her way to stardom, and we met Michel Rivgauche, composer of many of Piaf's hits like "La Foule", Les blouses blanches" and the title of my Ballet"Hearts..Le Ballet es d". I had met him the year before at a luncheon given by "Les Amis d'Edith Piaf," and its President Bernard Marchois at a restaurant in the corner of Pere La Chaise cemetery. My first thought was, "How can anyone eat so close to a cemetery?" but not only do they eat, they also drink! The place was filled with people that had known Piaf really well..Bernard Marchois, Madame Chauvigny, wife of Piaf's musical director for 25 years, Robert chauvigny. I was in heave, so to speak! They served me Ricard, to welcome me, but no one told me that I had to mix it with water, and it took me 45 minutes to focus. No wonder the cemetery is so close by, one would think the're preparing you for it!. So when you go to Paris pour some water in your Ricard!
After the lucheon, Mr Rivgauche and I and Bernard squeezed into a tiny Renaud and made our way through the cemetery to a small chapel, followed by a procession of cars, weegling their way through the "Streets" of Pere la Chaise.. I remember that in the Chapel there were twenty of us, on a crisp december day, and at that moment I fully realized that she was really gone...She seemed so alive through her songs. We were all waiting for the priest: behind us the door opened, and in came an old woman carrying a brown paper bag, she looked as if she was en route to shop at a market. She made her way up to the altar, reached in her bag and took out a portrait of Piaf in a small frame; she placed it on a chair facing us. She sat in a corner, never looking at anyone. The priest came in. I had an eerie feeling then that Piaf was trapped within those walls and that she did not like being gone.
As the Priest cleared his voice, another diversion: someone was tampering with a cassette player. Suddenly..a crackling..then the voice of Piaf came out soaring from the boom box, and I looked around. There were tears around me-the song was written by Michel Emer, the church-like"Et moi, pauvre de moi "(and me, helpless me? followed by "Mon Dieu" and finally "No regrets". We were all choked up by the simplicity and the power of the emotions displayed. The Priest spoke as if she had only left us a week ago: the service was brief, but intense. It also paid homage to Michel Emer, who had written so many of Piaf's most successful songs. After the service, the old woman reached back for her picture and put it in her back...Until next year, I was sure.
We, "Les amis d'Edith Piaf," went on to her grave to place flowers. If you've never been to Pere La Chaise cemetery, let me share with you that it has to be the eeriest place on earth. Some people call it beautiful; I call it scary. I had never seen anything like it. It's like a city of tombs within a city of life and the number of tourists is incredible, everyone with his map, little street signs everywhere. Once has to climb on one grave to get to another. The big fuss is always around Piaf's grave and that of Jim Morrisson, which is not too far, one general, two counts, a poet, a painter and a pauper down that way. Ah! yes, and Yves Montand, he is right across from Piaf, not too close, just like it was in real life. And just like out of a Fellini movie, in came Monsieur Martini. Monsieur Martini is a little dapper French man with a croupier like outlook, a red jacket, black slacks, a bow tie and a sleek and distinguished moustache. Monsieur Martini has dedicated his entire life to shining and cleaning Piaf's grave. He also collects memorabilia and notes people leave behind. Sometimes, he says, he answers a few notes himself. I would give anything to go to his house and see what he has accumulated in all these years. Monsieur Martini talks about a stranger, who comes either from America or England, who brings her flowers every year, and he sits by her grave for a half an hour and leaves. Who is this man?
After placing the flowers, and a brief prayer, in which the priest mentioned my name, thanking me for coming all the way from America to be in Paris, the whole gang went on to drink the afternoon away at a bar called "Bar Edith Piaf". There were marvelous stories exchanged, and I stood in the middle of it all,absorbing every word. We drank a lot of red wine, just like Edith would have wanted. Even the wine that was being served had her picture on the label,special vintage, "Le vin Piaf". Of course I took back the empty back to the US "Un coup d'rouge a la sante de Piaf!."......That was December 1991, and now it was September 1992 and I was sitting at Monsieur Rivgauche's desk and he loved to talk to us about his life with Piaf.
When I took them back to Pere La Chaise, Monsieur Martini was still there, affable as ever, hair slick and all. At that point, a bus load of swiss tourists gathered around Piaf's grave, taking pictures. Their guide started his narration about Piaf, (her childhood, her stardom, etc..) and we noticed Monsieur Martini eager to put in his "Two cents worth." Every time the guide would exaggerate a story or when his facts were not ight, Monsieur Martini would yell "Ah Non!","Ah! mais non!," "Faut pas exagerer!." to the delight of our producer. At this point, something came over me. I looked around at the crowd and they did not want to leave yet. I asked the woman if she knew any Piaf song and there response was so enthusiastic that I felt among friends, so I asked the crowd if they would join me with a verse of "La vie en rose". I began the first words, and suddenly I found myself conducting the "Pere La Chaise" choir, sixty people around her grave singing out loud. I looked at Mr Druker and Ms Nelson, they were in heaven, taping away. It was beautiful and impromptu. Two American Rockers visiting Jim Morrisson's grave came to check out what was going on, commenting "Man, far out, what's happenin', cool..."