The Tragic Death of French Cabaret Sweetheart Edith Piaf

"La Vie en Rose" Star Had a Tough Life

Edith Piaf's Grave
Edith Piaf's Grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. © Megan Romer 2010

French cabaret artist Edith Piaf is best known for her ballads about life, love, and sorrow. Sadly, her life story was full of illness, injury, addiction, and these factors took its toll on her body. She died at the age of 47 in Cannes, France. The case of death was likely liver cancer although some reports say it was cirrhosis others say it was a cerebral hemorrhage. There wasn't an autopsy so the cause of death is not definitively known.

Early Years of Poor Health and Injury

Like so many children raised on the street, she was an ill child. Her mother abandoned her at birth, her father was an acrobatic street performer. When her father enlisted in the Army during World War I, she went to live with her father's mother, the madam of a brothel.

She suffered from an eye disease that causes blindness from age 3 until age 7. The prostitutes at her grandmother's brothel took up a collection to bring Piaf on a pilgrimage honoring Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Piaf claimed the return of her eyesight was the result of miraculous healing.  

Some friends report that Edith spent several years in her early teens suffering from intermittent deafness as well. Over the years, she continued to suffer various bouts of poor health.

In 1951, she was in a serious car accident that left her with a broken arm, two broken ribs, and severe bruises for which she was given morphine to ease the pain. Thereafter she had serious difficulties arising from morphine and alcohol addictions. Two more near-fatal car crashes exacerbated the situation. 

Addiction Leading to Illness

Piaf quite rapidly developed an addiction to morphine, an addiction which would torment her for the rest of her life. She struggled with alcohol dependency and friends report that she experimented with other drugs. Sometime during the 1950s, she began to develop rheumatoid arthritis and was reportedly in constant pain which only deepened her dependence on painkillers. Rehabilitation programs were attempted but were unsuccessful. Piaf slipped back into addiction each time she exited the facility.

In 1959, she collapsed onstage during a concert, apparently due to the onset of liver disease. It's unclear whether this was cancer or cirrhosis or both, but it seems that she underwent at least one surgery to assess or repair the problem. At her final concerts in early 1963, she had a visibly distended abdomen, and cancer was suspected to be the cause.

Her Death

Later that year, Piaf went with her husband, Theo Sarapo, to recuperate at her villa on the French Riviera. However, her condition rapidly deteriorated. She died on October 10 or October 11. The date is unclear because her husband and nurse either drove or hired an ambulance to bring Piaf's body back to Paris in the dark of night, and they announced her death there the next morning. 

Piaf had always stated that she wanted to die in Paris, the city where she was born and found nearly all of her success.

The overwhelming opinion of her friends and biographers is that her death was from cancer, probably of the liver. However, Theo Sarapo's sister says that Sarapo told her that the death was more likely because of a cerebral aneurysm. No autopsy was ever performed.

Though Piaf was refused the Roman Catholic rite of burial by the archbishop of Paris due to her unrepentant wild lifestyle, the entire city essentially shut down for her funeral. More than 100,000 people attended her burial at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Her grave there, beside her daughter who died in toddlerhood and Sarapo himself, who died less than a decade later in a car accident, remains a pilgrimage point for fans to this day.

On October 10, 2013, 50 years after her death, the Roman Catholic Church gave her a memorial Mass in the St. Jean-Baptiste Church in Belleville, Paris, the parish into which she was born.