Edith Piaf: A Gift from Miss Bement

Headmistress Bement demanded much from her students. But for the author, that class opened the door to French culture—and to a lifelong fascination with one of its stars.

I like to point out, when I lecture on French singer Edith Piaf, that her songs hit you with a wallop from the first notes. Her rich voice grips you and suddenly you find yourself on the streets of old Paris without really knowing how you got there.

And so it was with my French IV class at Northampton School for Girls, taught by Headmistress Dorothy Bement. We began in September with no elaborate introduction from Miss Bement. No chats or jokes eased us into the material. There were no screens or special effects. Instead, she plunged us headfirst into her rich world of French language, literature, and history.

Four of us sat at a table with her in a small, spare classroom that offered no room to duck from her rigor and high expectations. What did we think, for example, of King Henry IV of France, who had vacillated between embracing Catholicism and Protestantism? Was he weak, as some of the French thought, or was he, in the end, the ultimate pragmatist? We were asked to give well-reasoned arguments based on historical facts. There was no place to hide. One by one, we answered in the slow, faltering French that formed our arguments. Miss B betrayed no impatience, only a barely concealed pleasure that we were indeed thinking — and in French, at that.

Throughout the year she heaped homework on us in ever-expanding assignments, never seeming to doubt that we would somehow get it done. And not wanting to shake her faith in us, we somehow did. At the same time, she prodded us, pulled us, even dragged us to the finish line—to a scholarly level that I only witnessed later in graduate school.

While it is true that Miss B was the academic head of the school’s French program, it seemed as if she were really a writer-producer-director who had taken her excellent script and assembled a cast of fine teachers, including herself, to bring it to life.

For example, she brought us the glamorous Mlle Gatti, who arrived straight from Paris, trailing French chic and style and speaking with crisp Parisian pronunciation. And she gave us young Miss O’Connor for French II, a warm and witty example of a native-born American who could be an excellent French teacher. She proved it by our high national achievement test scores.

But surely Miss B’s best production was the successful NSFG Summer School of French that she created and directed every summer on the Northampton campus. Unique on the secondary school level, it offered intensive French classes, French language and cultural immersion, and just plain fun. This rich combination attracted girls from prominent independent schools around the country. Every day, a beaming Miss B directed her colorful production and all its moving parts, with good humor that would have astonished some in the NSFG winter school who thought of her as a martinet.

The after-class activities she arranged were many and varied, but the most popular was the daily singing session when we were taught traditional French songs. It was usually topped off by the stirring “Marseillaise,” which we learned in all its many and lesser-known stanzas.

Many years later, at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., I joined in the general singing of the “Marseillaise.” Somebody asked who this American was who knew even the most obscure stanzas of their national anthem. The credit belonged to Miss Bement.

After NSFG, I spent my Smith College junior year abroad in French-speaking Geneva, Switzerland. How grateful I was for the French program at NSFG. Less time struggling with communication meant more time to absorb European culture. And so, I encountered Edith Piaf—through her magnificent voice that captivated not only her native France, but all of Europe.

Her public knew her story well. Born in poverty in 1915, she was abandoned by her parents. As a little girl she sang on Parisian street corners for tossed coins, developing a powerful vocal focus that grabbed the attention of passersby. For her fans, her personal history of abandonment and, later, lost loves, addictions, and ill health were intertwined with her musical history. In Geneva, people hummed and whistled her songs as her unmistakable voice drifted out from radios and record players.

In France, they lined up for her concerts and, once inside, sat in silence, as if in church, waiting for a tiny figure in a plain black dress to appear. On stage, there were no special effects. There was only her voice. With the first soaring notes, she plunged the audience into musical mini-dramas that reflected her own life on the streets. She led them into the open-air dances she had known as a girl, where love flickered and died to accordion waltzes. The literate, romantic story-song had originated in the early 19th century French music halls, and Piaf dedicated her career to preserving this tradition and passing it on through her protégés. She sang these songs with polished, precise diction that made her the envy of those with the musical training she lacked.

When I was teaching French in Washington, D.C., I introduced a few of Piaf’s songs to my students. Some resisted them. “This song has no beat,” said one 18-year-old. Had they been ruined by rock? But then I discovered that a group of my students had formed a small Piaf fan club on campus. There was hope, after all.

In Washington I encountered a French singer who sang Piaf’s songs to perfection, with just the right touch of earthiness. I researched Piaf’s life and wrote a script for the two of us that presented Piaf’s life in words and song. We appeared on stage at universities where, happily, her songs met with more appreciation than resistance from the students. In museum theaters, we found ourselves playing to adults who were already devoted Piaf fans and were hoping to hear their favorite songs. It seemed that everybody had favorites. A Washington Post critic came one night and wrote an enthusiastic review, but his piece ended on a note of disappoint- ment. Why had we not included his favorite song, “Bravo Pour le Clown?”

Now I lecture alone, using video clips of Piaf singing on stage. I was recently leaving the Smithsonian’s theater after giving a Piaf program when the light- ing technician rushed up to me. He had heard me say that Piaf’s parents, who had abandoned her as a child, reap- peared when she became successful. “How were their relations afterwards?” he wanted to know. “Strained,” I said, “but she supported them for the rest of their lives.” He left mulling this over. Clearly Piaf’s story had fascinated him.

I could understand his fascination because I too had been drawn in by a compelling image: A singer standing on a bare stage, stunning us from the first notes of her musical mini-drama. But another striking image often came to mind: Miss Bement in a small, simple classroom plunging us into the fasci- nating dramas of French history. Some- times I wonder: Without Miss Bement’s rich and demanding French program, would I have been fully capable of appre- ciating the Piaf phenomenon? I think I know the answer.