When Edith Piaf died in 1963, at the age of forty-seven, she was the most famous singer in France. But Bernard Marchois, founder and docent of the Musée d’Edith Piaf, was afraid the petite songstress, whose extraordinary voice elevated her from the street corners of working-class Belleville to the stages of the world’s largest music halls, would fall into oblivion after her death. “Her public will never forget her, but the media can. Piaf must not die a second death,” he told me, in French, sitting on an ornate Victorian couch once owned by Piaf herself.
Paris is filled with strange museums—from the museum of absinthe to the museum of carnival equipment—but the Musée d’Edith Piaf is among the strangest. Marchois has kept the same hours since its founding fifty years ago, in 1967: Monday through Wednesday, one P.M. to six P.M., strictly by appointment only. He pointedly speaks no English (“Juste une,” he corrected a prospective American visitor, “Une, pas un, parce que vous êtes une jeune femme.”) To those who call, he dictates the address and door codes to a residential building in Belleville. The museum occupies two small rooms of a fourth-floor apartment that adjoins Marchois’s own.
Faint notes of “La vie en rose” float down the hallway. Inside, one is greeted by a life-size cardboard cutout of the four-foot-eight Mome Piaf—the little sparrow, as she was affectionately called. On a rocking chair sits a large teddy bear that matched her in height, a gift from one of her many lovers. The walls are covered, floor to ceiling, in photographs, framed letters, fan mail from the equally famous, her collection of china plates, her birth certificate, her awards, and painted portraits of her, often with her mouth open in the exquisite agony of song. Short headless mannequins model her dresses, all black, and side tables are crowded with her shoes and gloves. The two cramped rooms have the quality of a shrine, and according to Marchois this is intentional. “We did not want to make a traditional museum,” he said. “We wanted to make a space that felt inhabited.”
There is no signage or explanatory text in the museum: Piaf’s life story is assumed to be known by the visitor. Heavy furniture, brought over from the sprawling apartment where she lived in the final years of her short life, crowds the space. But she lived in these rooms once, too, for a brief time, in 1933, when she still sang in the streets and drank in the bars, transient and unknown.
While visitors browse, Marchois drifts unobtrusively, offering information only when solicited. He has written two books on Edith Piaf, and collaborated on many others, but he seems to prefer to ruffle papers and discreetly point out the donation dish. He is an orderly man, and he keeps a strict schedule—visitors who arrive ten minutes late may find him peevish. Yet when at ease, and talking about his favorite subject, Marchois is an excellent storyteller, with animated facial expressions—his glasses enlarge his blue eyes—and a dry sense of humor. Marchois’s Edith Piaf is a wholesome one—if she was seen as an alcoholic, it is only because her delicate constitution couldn’t process alcohol, and a single beer caused her to wobble. If she abused painkillers, it was only to combat her rheumatoid arthritis long enough to appear on stage before her fans.
He told me of two visitors who were, as he put it, “sensitive.” “She’s here!” one told him, eyes wide, refusing to cross the threshold into the museum. The other held her hands above one of Piaf’s black dresses and proclaimed, “It’s getting warm.” She asked Marchois if he wished to move the museum to a larger space, then told him it would never happen. “She likes it here,” the woman told him.
“And why does she like it here?” I asked Marchois, willing to delve into the metaphors of the supernatural to draw him out. “I don’t know,” he replied, with a shrug. “You’ll have to ask Edith yourself.”
Marchois first met Piaf in 1958, when he was seventeen years old and she forty-three. His parents’ friends had dragged him to a party at Piaf’s house. He had never heard of the singer before and he was unimpressed by the small rumpled woman, who woke past two P.M. and greeted her guests with a sleep mask on her forehead and curlers in her hair. But then, she announced that it was time to practice her songs for her performance at the Olympia that evening. Her guests fell silent, and she singled him out—the sullen teenager sitting on the floor by the piano. She stared straight at him while she sang, performing for him alone. It was as if she had said to herself, He doesn’t like me now, but he will see. And see he did. Marchois fell under her spell and never re-emerged. “How did you like it?” she asked him after the rehearsal, and he gaped at her, struck dumb. She told him to meet her at the artist’s entrance of the Olympia. After that, he went every single evening. He never missed a Piaf concert in Paris. When her health began to rapidly deteriorate, he held her elbow to walk her onto the stage, propping her against the piano before the curtain rose. And five years after her death, when even radio Montmartre, the station of traditional French oldies, began to play Piaf less and less, and the same three compilations of Piaf’s music rattled around in the record stores, he approached her friends and collaborators, and founded the museum dedicated to preserving her memory.
“Pardon me for my indiscretion,” I said to Marchois, “But did you ever start a family of your own?”
“No, no, no,” he said. “No, no.”
“So would it be safe to say that Piaf has been your one great love?” I asked.
“Platonic!” he said. “Platonic love, yes. That’s why I close the doors between our apartments at night: she has her rooms and I have mine.”
Marchois is in the second half of his seventies now, still young among those who once knew Piaf, but older by other measures. One day, he knows, he will no longer be able to greet visitors, quietly sharing his love for Piaf, as he has done for the past fifty years of his life. The arrangements have been made: the collection of memorabilia—the porcelain urns she once owned, the letters from Jean Cocteau, the portraits—will be absorbed into the archives of the French Ministry of Culture. And this apartment will lie empty, awaiting its next tenants. Perhaps, if they are sensitive, they will hear the strains of “La vie en rose” still lingering in the air.
Nadja Spiegelman is the author of I’m Supposed To Protect You from All This, and coeditor of Resist!, a feminist publication of comics and graphics.