Beware the women of Paris. They will chew you like a baguette, and down you with a sip of wine.
Formed by a hard childhood in poverty and wartime France, these two self-made women Coco Chanel, legendary house founder of Chanel, and Edith Piaf, “the little songbird” (at 4 feet 10 inches) exercised a severe dedication to their arts that led to international success and renown. Despite personal problems and society’s moral approbation, the designer and the singer fashioned themselves into the top people in their profession, in a style that was wholly their own.
I watched La Vie En Rose last night, a 2007 movie telling the tempestuous life of French singer Edith Piaf starring the excellent Marion Cotillard. The movie switches poetically between scenes of her childhood and her early death from liver cancer at 48 years of age, and I recommend seeing it. Born in 1915 to a mother who sang on the streets and later deserted her and a circus performer father who left her in a brothel where prostitutes cared for her until he took her to sing on the streets at 14, Edith had small prospects and no education. A club owner recognized the talent in the starving street urchin at age 20, and her fortunes begin to change. Along with success came tragic love affairs and morphine and alcohol addiction. The movie paints her as the ‘artiste’ throwing temper tantrums, and she retains a coarseness throughout her life. Edith was not always a pleasant person, but then neither was Coco when something blocked her shrewd plans (albeit Coco exhibited great self-control).
Perhaps this temperamental street brat doesn’t seem similar to Coco Chanel, educated in a convent and now the epitome of elegance? Yet the two aren’t linked merely by coming into the height of their power around the WWII, worldwide success and a close identification with that French je ne sais quoi.
As women, they overcame the social stigma of their origins, had affairs with rich and successful men and were left brokenhearted, and surpassed who they were as individuals by creating something bigger than themselves, seen today in their fascinating legends. In an age where women weren’t praised for grit or business acumen or unfailing dedication to art over home and family, these were women to be reckoned with. They weathered changing fortune not with happiness so much as triumph.
WWII found Paris overrun with Nazis. Coco had closed her shops in 1939 and took up residence in the Hôtel Ritz Paris, where she stayed through the Nazi occupation of Paris. During that time she was criticized for having an affair with a German officer/Nazi spy who arranged for her to remain in the hotel. The French despised her after that liaison. What did she do? Come out with a collection after the war the was a sensational hit in America.
Edith was a frequent performer at German Forces social gatherings in occupied France, and many people considered her a traitor. Following the war she claimed to have been working for the French resistance, but then she, and Coco, often lied about themselves. Despite the negative stigma, she remained a national and international favorite.
Small women of bad family and little education, they became enigmatic French icons. They became such with panache. It makes me want to stroll the banks of the Seine in Chanel humming Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and nursing heartbreak with cigarettes and wine.