Edith Piaf and the Death of Marcel Cerdan

Marcel Cerdan and Edith Piaf

Edith Piaf performing at The Versailles on the night of Cerdan's death

From 1948 to 1949, French singer Edith Piaf and pied noir boxer Marcel Cerdan carried on a passionate love affair that was tragically cut short when Cerdan died in a plane crash on October 28, 1949. Carolyn Burke, in her biography No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf, details Piaf's dramatic and heartbreaking reaction to Cerdan's death:
All New York knew of the disaster by early afternoon, when Edith, still in her dressing gown, emerged from her bedroom to find her friends pacing nervously. Thinking that they were playing a joke, that Marcel was behind the door, she asked gaily, "Why are you hiding?" Barrier took her in his arms. "Edith, you must be brave," he said. "There are no survivors." As she began screaming, the men rushed to secure the windows. Edith sobbed all afternoon, unable to accept what she knew to be true.
When Barrier alerted the Versailles to cancel her appearance, the manager came to her apartment with the vegetable broth he brought her each night before she went onstage. She drank it, turned to him, and said that she would sing after all. Her entourage tried in vain to protect her from the journalists besieging the apartment. Once she realized that the whole town knew of the disaster, she spoke briefly with a photographer who asked her about her plans. "Oh, Marcel!" she exclaimed, and burst into tears.
On the way to the Versailles she stopped at a nearby church to light a candle in the hope that he was alive. The club was tense, sympathizers having rushed to book all available seats. When Piaf came onstage, Bonel and Chauvigny had tears in their eyes. She embraced them and told the audience, "Tonight I'm singing for Marcel Cerdan." She managed to get through her repertoire until "Hymne a l'amour." Feeling faint, she clutched the curtain, then collapsed before she could sing the final line, "God reunites those who love each other." 
"I can think of only one thing, to join him," Piaf told Bourgeat three days later. "I have nothing left to live for. Singing? I sang for him. My repertoire was full of love, and you can be sure that I'll sing my story each night. What's more, each song reminds me of his gestures, things he said, everything reminds me of him. It was the first time I was really happy. I lived for him, he was my reason for being, for my car, my clothes, the springtime, they were all for him." Along with intense grief, she was also suffering from acute arthritic pain in her joints. The first of a series of attacks that would plague her for the rest of her life. It was a condition brought on, her entourage thought, by the shock to her system after the death of Cerdan.
Some weeks later, she told another friend, "I try in vain to understand but I can't. The pain gets worse each day. I would never have imagined I'd wish for death as a deliverance, a joy. I was someone who loved life and now I hate it." On November 10, after Cerdan's remains were identified by his watchband (a gift from Piaf), a state funeral was held in France, where his disappearance was a national tragedy."
Piaf attended seances with the hopes of contacting Cerdan. The seances were arranged and executed by her entourage who believed their trickery necessary in order to keep Piaf alive. But, more than anything, Piaf's music and her dedication to her fans gave her the strength to survive the loss of the man she considered the great love of her life:
Years later, Piaf recovered some of the serenity that had deserted her when Cerdan died. Near the end of her life, she wrote, "I know that death is only the start of something else. Our soul regains its freedom." But at the time, unable to regain her equilibrium, she kept on performing through sheer force of will. Piaf later wrote that she made the decision to live for her public: "Our lives do not belong to us. Courage makes us keep on till the end. In any case, since then Marcel has never left me." But her intimates agreed that she was never the same.
Burke goes on to examine how Cerdan's death, and Piaf's subsequent public displays of grief, contributed to her iconic status and allowed her to forge an intimate bond with audiences around the world:
Although tempting, it is beside the point to speculate about their relationship had Cerdan survived. Piaf's view of earthly love as akin to the divine is disconcerting to those who do not sympathize with her spirituality. But, whatever one thinks of her mystical bent, it is more fruitful to grasp what the loss of Cerdan meant to the singer's imagination than to "demystify" her response--to see how it shaped the rest of her career and the rapport with the audience who shared her grief. To this end, we may recall the Freudian notion of sublimation--the coping mechanism by which erotic energy is transformed into achievements of artistic expression. From this perspective, Piaf's actions after Cerdan's death may be seen as ways of refocusing her energy, comforted by the knowledge that, in their own way, her compatriots mourned the death of their hero along with her.