Every generation has its louche popular singers, from Jim Morrison to Amy Winehouse, whose private lives threaten to overshadow their work. Yet none can match Edith Piaf – “the little sparrow” – whose home in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb to the west of Paris, has come on the market.
Piaf’s life story is the stuff of fiction. She was born in 1915 in a slum on the outskirts of Paris. Her father, Louis Gassion, was a 5ft-tall trapeze artist; her mother, Annetta, a street singer and drug addict, soon abandoned her. Raised by prostitutes in her paternal grandmother’s brothel, her first audiences were in bars, when she would stand on tables and sing for coins. Encouraged by the applause she received, her father took her on the road with him when she was aged just seven and she was soon belting out ballads in the circus. As a teenager she roamed the Pigalle, where she got mixed up with le milieu, the mafia that ran much of Paris’s cabaret scene. She took and abandoned lovers with alarming velocity and had a child, Marcelle, who later died, when she was 18. Then, one October day in 1935 at the corner of rue Troyon and avenue Mac-Mahon, her luck changed. Edith was spotted by Louis Leplée, proprietor of the club Le Gerny, and he took her from singing on the streets to the stage. Leplée chose the right songs for her and picked out the little black dress that would become her stage uniform. She made hit records and moved into cinema and theatre, where Jean Cocteau made her his darling in Le Bel Indifférent. Soon her fees reached stratospheric heights. Her romantic life remained frenetic. Then, in 1947, having recently split up from the singer Yves Montand, she fell in love with the world middleweight boxing champion, Marcel Cerdan, a married man. She bought the five-floor house in Boulogne-Billancourt in 1949, for 19 million francs, as a love nest – somewhere to meet Cerdan away from the prying lenses of the press. “At that time Boulogne-Billancourt was a fashionable area, yet it was far enough from the centre of Paris for them to retain their privacy,” says Inés Lucas, the Winkworth associate who is selling the house. “Cerdan would hide on the back seat of Piaf’s car if they went out, to keep their affair secret. In the house, Piaf had a ring installed so that he could spar there, without having to leave the building.” It was at this time that Piaf wrote a number of songs to Cerdan, including the most famous – Hymne à l’amour. Then tragedy struck: Piaf arranged to meet Cerdan in New York, where she was performing, and persuaded him to make the journey from France by air, not sea, so that they could have more time together. The Lockheed Constellation on which he was travelling crashed in the Azores, killing all its passengers. The singer was bereft, blaming herself for Cerdan’s death. She returned to the Boulogne house and brought her entourage to live there as a kind of replacement family. Piaf herself moved into the ground-floor rooms intended for the concierge; her secretary, Dédée Bigard, worked in an office on the same floor and Charles Aznavour, later a famous singer and songwriter in his own right, but then her chauffeur and lighting man, occupied one of the maid’s rooms in the attic. Still grieving, Piaf would sometimes gather this group around a small pedestal table for seances as she tried to contact Cerdan in the spirit world. Today the Art Deco house is rather different. The basement has a games room, kitchen and lavatory and on the ground floor there is a studio apartment and an office. On the floor above, where once stood Cerdan’s boxing ring, is the showpiece drawing room, with its four giant pillars and five-metre-high ceiling, leading on to the terrace. The master bedroom is on the second floor and the top floor has another two attic bedrooms and a bathroom. Another of Piaf’s homes, a large stone bastide with five acres, between Nice and Cannes, where she lived until she died in 1963, recently failed to sell at €5.6 million, having been reduced from €8.5 million. Lucas is, nevertheless, confident that this house will find a buyer at €3.8 million (£3.28 million). “Although the property market has been plagued by uncertainty following the recent change of government, there has been more interest in expensive houses recently,” she says. “This house was designed by Emilio Terry, a very famous and sought-after architect in France, and its terrace was created by Camille Muller, a noted landscape gardener. It is in a very desirable district – popular with families – only a short distance from Paris. It has changed little since Piaf’s day.” Piaf’s former home in rue Gambetta, Boulogne-Billancourt North, is for sale with Winkworth International; 020 7870 7181 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/internationalproperty/10181985/For-sale-Edith-Piafs-hideaway-home.html