Voice quavering, the diminutive singer stumbled through the opening bars of the song, her smeared trademark red lipstick grotesque against her ghostly skin. Her hands shaking and slurring her words, suddenly, the tiny songstress slid to the floor. Gasps of surprise turned to laughter as the audience assumed it was part of the act. Nut as the seconds dragged on and the crumpled figure didn't move, the giggles faded into stunned silence.

When a drug-addicted Edith Piaf collapsed during a sold-out show in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1958, it seemed as though the 42-year-old French singer would never recover. But few people in the audience that night could have predicted that the woman known to millions as La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow) would, just three years later, take her career to its dizzying pinnacle with a song that would haunt the world forever.

It was a fittingly dramatic comeback for the diva who had risen from the gutters of Paris to become its most enduring musical star and feted by the likes of actress Marlene Dietrich and poet and artist Jean Cocteau. But while "the voice of wartime France" had a record-breaking career, Piaf's personal life was a mess - the unhappiness, heartbreak and poverty described in her melancholic music were a reflection of her experiences. Despite a string of lovers and two marriages, true love wold elude her, and the singer became so dependent on drink and drugs that she died at the height of her fame, aged just 47.

Although Piaf claimed she was born on a policeman's cape on a street corner in Paris, official records reveal Edith Giovanna Gassion was born on December 19, 1915 in a Parisian hospital to Louis Gassion, a street acrobat, and Annette Maillard, a cafe singer. Louis was a notorious womaniser and although he had only one child with Annette, it's estimated Piaf had up to 20 half-siblings. The Gassions eked out a living in Belleville, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods, until Louis was called up to serve in World War I and baby Edith was sent to Bernay, a town in Normandy, to stay with Louis's mother, Louise, a brothel madam.

It was during her stay at Bernay that, suddenly, the four-year-old woke up one morning to discover that she as completely blind. Biographers believe it was probably caused by conjunctivitis, but the condition was so sever that she wouldn't see again for another two years. Piaf always attributed her miraculous recovery to St Thérèse de Lisieux after a visit to her shrine. This "cure" sparked a lifelong obsession with the saint to whom Piaf prayed before every performance.

After regaining her sight, Piaf moved back to Paris and started helping her father with his street performances. Then one day, aged 11, she spontaneously began to sing the only song she knew - the French national anthem "La Marseillaise". Within minutes, crowds had gathered to listen to the rich, powerful voice Cocteau would later describe as "a high wave of black velvet". Earning more money than her father usually did in three days, from that moment on, Piaf worked as a singer.

At 16, she fell in love with Louis Dupont, a local delivery boy, and the couple moved in together. Within a year, on January 11, 1933, they had a daughter, Marcelle. But when Dupont forbade Piaf from singing, she left them both. Months later, Marcelle died of meningitis and Piaf rarely spoke of her again.

Piaf's big break cam in 1935 when the 20-year-old was singing on a street corner in Paris and a well-dressed man stopped to listen. Introducing himself as Luis Leplée, the owner of glamorous nightclub Gerny's, he suggested she stop by for an audition. Curious, Piaf, pale with nerves and wearing a tatty dress, showed up. With her rough accent and poor manners, the staff were less than impressed until the music started and Piaf's throaty voice filled the club. Leplée gave her the name The Little Sparrow in reference to her drab appearance and short stature (she was 142cm), and a star was born.

Soon, the young woman was performing to full houses at Paris's top theatres. She began releasing hit records, composing some of the songs herself, including "La Vie En Rose" - one of her biggest hits - which Piaf reportedly penned with her eyebrow pencil on the back of a serviette in a cafe.

During World War II, her popularity soared to new heights when she performed a lewd version of a German song at a concert for high-ranking - but, critically, non French-speaking - Nazi officers. According to biographer David Bret, who wrote "Piaf: A Passionate Life" (Robson Books, $44.95), the singer used her celebrity status to gain unprecedented access to prisoner of war camps and, unbeknown to the occupying forces, used this clout to rescue 300 servicemen. In fact, after her death, Piaf was officially honoured as a heroine of the French Resistance.

In 1947, Piaf decided it was time to conquer the US and sailed to New York. The 31-year-old had cultivated a unique onstage presence, shunning the glitz and glamour normally associated with performers of the era, instead, standing virtually still in a plain black dress and a dash of red lipstick. This minimalist approach was initially met with confusion, with one critic commenting: "Piaf wears too much mascara and there is so much lipstick - she looks like she's dribbling tomato juice!" But, despite initial doubts, she became a huge star there, regularly appearing on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and at Carnegie Hall. During this trip, she met Marlene Dietrich, who became a lifelong friend, and French boxer Marcel Cerdan who, although married, invited her to dinner. The pair became lovers, with Piaf travelling halfway around the world to cheer on Cerdan at fights and the rugged boxer was a constant fixture at her concerts.

But, once again, lasting love would elude the singer. On October 27, 1949, a lonely Piaf begged Cerdan, who was in Paris training for a bout, to visit her in the US. Although he was afraid of flying, the boxer booked the next flight. When Piaf woke the following morning, her apartment was ominously quiet, the staff tiptoeing around until her manager, Louis Barrier, could arrive to break the tragic news - Cerdan's flight had crashed off the coast of Portugal and there were no survivors. Piaf was inconsolable. "She went crazy with grief," recalled Dietrich. "It was a terrible, terrible thing to watch." Although Piaf had many lovers, she maintained that Cerdan was her one true love. That night, the grief-stricken singer would accept no applause at her performance, saying: "Tonight, I am singing for Marcel Cerdan and him alone." Later, she wrote one of her most haunting songs, "Hymne à l'Amour", in memory of him.

Always impulsive and moody - she'd been known to walk up to strangers and inform them she didn't like the way they looked - Piaf became even more volatile after Cerdan's death. "No-one else combined such joie de vivre with such a capacity for self-destruction," commented her protégé Charles Aznavour.

Things went downhill after a car accident in 1951 left her so addicted to morphine that she injected it through her clothes without even bothering to sterilise the needles. And her exclusive apartment in Paris became a party house. "There were so many freeloaders!" remembered the model Manouche. "Once a guy stayed for two weeks and when he left, none of us knew who he'd been. Turned out he'd been the television repairman and every night a bunch of his mates had come to the house and feasted like kings!"

By then, Piaf was one of the highest-paid entertainers in the world, just behind Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, but she was impulsive with her money, spending millions on a farm in north-west France after deciding on a whim that she'd like to grow vegetables. Piaf also spent millions living a luxurious lifestyle that even she admitted she was never really comfortable with, once buying four million francs worth of couture dresses in an hour - yet never wearing one of them.

Soon Piaf was forced to pawn her art and jewellery to finance her drug habit, which was seriously affecting her career. But then, in 1952, she met and married French pop singer, Jacques Pills. Her husband encouraged her to seek help and, after several attempts at rehabilitation, Piaf finally ended her dependence on drugs and alcohol.

Unfortunately, the physical damage could never be reversed and, in 1959, Piaf collapsed again while performing at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. In hospital, the switchboard was jammed as thousands of fans rang in with their best wishes. By now, her four-year marriage to Pills had ended, their tempestuous relationship and busy schedules ultimately imploding. Instead, a young bisexual painter named Douglas Davies nursed her back to health. When Piaf left hospital three months later, she looked so ill that, according to her biographer David Bret, at least one newspaper started writing her obituary.

Increasingly crippled by arthritis, Piaf continued to perform. Terrified of dying outside her beloved France, she continued to spend what little money she had left indiscriminately, even hiring an airplane so she could be spirited back to Paris in case of an emergency. She also began planning a 15-venue tour, which reporters dubbed her "suicide tour". Some journalists were even attending her concerts hoping to land the story of the year: seeing the singer die on stage.

Then, on October 5, 1960, a nervous young composer called Charles Dumont visited Piaf's apartment on the Boulevard Lannes in Paris's smart 16th arrondissement. As he played the opening bars of his new song, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien", Dumont recalled Piaf's response: "She made me play it over and over again, five or six times. She said it was magnificent, wonderful. That it would be her resurrection."

And it was. A live recording became the highest-selling record worldwide in 1961 and a defiant Piaf was back in her element, starring in a gala concert a year later at the Eiffel Tower. With fireworks exploding in the background and an audience that included actresses Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, former US President Dwight D Eisenhower and ex-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, it was clear that she'd triumphed over her addictions and her critics.

She would also rediscover love, finding comfort in her last years in the arms of 27 year-old Greek hairdresser Théo Lamboukas. Piaf admitted the couple's relationship was "unconventional", saying that her feelings of love were mixed with maternal tenderness. However, she was finally happy. "I no longer deserved that happiness," she reflected. "I no longer believed in it...but I shall always thank Providence." The pair were married amid great controversy in 1962 - but it would be a brief romance as Piaf succumbed to cancer a year later on October 10, 1963, aged 47.

On the day of her funeral, for the first time since World War II, Paris completely shut down, flags flew at half-mast, radios broadcasted tributes and more than two million people filled teh streets to get a glimpse of the funeral procession. Denied a Roman Catholic service by Pope Paul VI, who condemned her lifestyle, Piaf's burial in Père Lachaise cemetery was attended by 40,000 mourners. Even in Moscow, where Piaf had never performed, a two-minute silence was observed. It might have been the end for The Little Sparrow, but the fragile singer's ability to turn her personal trials into universal truths ensured her haunting voice would live on forever.

Hot Topics

latest videos