Marcel Cerdan & Édith Piaf: A Love Cut Short by Tragedy

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I recently read the New York Times obituary for the famous American boxer, Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta, who was portrayed by Robert De Niro in the acclaimed 1980 film of the same name. The article’s mention of Marcel Cerdan, a French-Algerian boxer whom LaMotta fought and beat in 1949, brought to mind an interesting piece of boxing—and musical—history.

Marcel Cerdan (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Marcel Cerdan was a French hero—the finest boxer France has ever produced—and a source of great national pride. He rose from nothing as a dirt-poor kid from Algeria who went on to win K.O.’s in over 60 fights before facing off with La Motta in the ring in Detroit. As fate would have it, Cerdan dislocated his shoulder during the first round, leaving him to defend himself with just one arm. A ringside writer remarked of the match: “…it is difficult to believe LaMotta would have a chance [against] a two-handed Cerdan.” According to many Cerdan was the better boxer of the two and would have won, if not for his early injury that night.

The French adored Cerdan for more than just his pugilistic stardom. In addition to his many uncontested victories, Cerdan had also won the heart of the country’s most beloved chanteuseÉdith Piaf. He was the love of her life, and the only man she ever truly loved. They were France’s hottest celebrity couple in the late 1940s.

Piaf’s early years had also been marked by struggle. Abandoned by her parents and left to earn a precarious living singing on the streets of the Pigalle neighborhood, she was raised by her grandmother who owned a brothel. Pregnant at age 17, she lost her child two years later and supported herself by singing in brothels and dive bars. Piaf’s lucky break came in 1935 when an agent heard her and booked her a gig at a far-ritzier club on the Champs-Elysées, where she was heard by the French actor and singer, Maurice Chevalier, who was then at the height of fame himself. The tables of fortune had finally turned for “The Little Sparrow.” Large concerts followed as she rose through the ranks of fame from celebrity to superstardom.

Piaf met Marcel Cerdan in 1947. Their love became an overnight tabloid sensation in France—a celebrity romance that captivated both mélomanes and boxing fans alike. The two lovebirds purchased a small hotel in Paris, presumably to start a life together. (The awkward truth was that Cerdan was already married and a father of three.) At the height of their love, Piaf penned the song, Hymne à l’Amour,” in September of 1949. After her hardscrabble, often desperate life, the love she describes for Cerdan is all-engulfing, and her devotion to protect and preserve it is fierce to the point of obsession.

The next month, Piaf was in New York City for a performance, eagerly awaiting Cerdan’s arrival before his return match with LaMotta, when the Air France Lockheed Constellation he was on crashed into a mountain on approach to the Azores to refuel, leaving no survivors. Piaf was devastated. The couple had been together for only a year. All of France mourned their hero on that tragic day of October 27, 1949.

Piaf’s biographer, Caroline Burke, recalls the dramatic moment when Piaf learned of Cerdan’s fate in the book, No Regrets: The Life of Édith Piaf. Read an excerpt from that chapter here.

This film clip tells of Marcel Cerdan’s rise to boxing fame and the couple’s love.

Édith Piaf sings “Hymne d’Amour,” which she wrote as a tribute to their love. Written just a month before Cerdan’s tragic death, it is an eerily prophetic elegy, as powerful and sorrowful a love song as any other.

Here are the lyrics to Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’Amour,” followed by an English translation below.

“Hymne à l’Amour”

Le ciel bleu sur nous peut s’effondrer
Et la terre peut bien s’écrouler
Peu m’importe si tu m’aimes
Je me fous du monde entier
Tant qu’l’amour inond’ra mes matins
Tant que mon corps frémira sous tes mains
Peu m’importent les problèmes
Mon amour puisque tu m’aimes
J’irais jusqu’au bout du monde
Je me ferais teindre en blonde
Si tu me le demandais
J’irais décrocher la lune
J’irais voler la fortune
Si tu me le demandais
Je renierais ma patrie
Je renierais mes amis
Si tu me le demandais
On peut bien rire de moi
Je ferais n’importe quoi
Si tu me le demandais
Si un jour la vie t’arrache à moi
Si tu meurs que tu sois loin de moi
Peu m’importe si tu m’aimes
Car moi je mourrai aussi
Nous aurons pour nous l’éternité
Dans le bleu de toute l’immensité
Dans le ciel plus de problèmes
Mon amour crois-tu qu’on s’aime
Dieu réunit ceux qui s’aiment

“Hymn to Love”

The blue sky can fall in on us.
And the earth can also crumble.
It matters little to me if you love me.
I don’t give a damn about the whole world.
As long as love overwhelms my mornings.
As long as my body trembles under your hands.
Problems matter little to me.
My love, because you love me,

I would go to the ends of the earth.
I would dye my hair blonde
If you asked me to.
I would go and take down the moon
I would go and steal a fortune
If you asked me to.
I would renounce my country
I would renounce my friends
If you asked me to
People may well laugh at me
But I would do anything
If you were to ask it of me

If one day life tears you away from me
If you die and are far from me
It does not matter if you love me
For I would also die
Eternity would be ours
In the blueness of the great vastness
In heaven, no more problems.
Do you believe, my love, that we love each other?

God reunites those who love each other!