According to legend, French singer Edith Piaf (1915-1963) was born on a sidewalk in Paris. True or not, she was the daughter of circus acrobat Jean Gassion and street singer and part-time prostitute Annetta Maillard. Neither Gassion nor Maillard were able to care for the child, so the infant Edith was given to Gassion's mother, a brothel-keeper, to raise. As soon as she reached childhood Gassion trained Edith as an acrobat, and for several years she worked with him as a circus acrobat.
By the 1930s Edith Gassion left the circus and returned to Paris, where she sang for pennies on street corners and (according to some biographers) also worked as a prostitute. In 1935 she was discovered by nightclub owner Louis Leplee, who starred her at the popular Parisian nightspot "Gernys" as "Le Mome Piaf" (The Little Sparrow.) A tiny woman standing 4'8", she had a powerful, unique voice and a world-weary but passionate image and she soon took Paris by storm. She soon dropped the surname Gassion in favor the stage name Piaf.
Piaf would prove as famous for her scandals as for her talents. Louis Leplee was murdered, and for a time she was considered a suspect in his death; she had notorious affairs with such well-known men as business leader Raymond Asso, singer Paul Meurisse, and artist Jean Cocteau, to name but a few. During World War II, she was a frequent performer at Nazi social gatherings in occupied France, and many considered her a traitor; following the war she claimed to have been working for the French resistance. While there is no evidence of this per se, it does seem to be true that she was instrumental in helping a number of individuals (including at least one Jew) escape Nazi persecution. Throughout it all, amazingly, she remained a national and international favorite.
Although she continued to work until near the end of her life, her final years were marked by tragedy. In 1951 she was seriously injured in a car crash; already a heavy drinker, she turned first to morphine and later to heroin to relieve the pain and was soon addicted. She died of cancer in Paris in 1963.