She was closer to her audiences than any film star; she could feel them press round her, watch how they reacted, notice the women with their prams or the passing cyclists pausing to listen, see new lovers leaning on each other as they sang from a score. Spreading love in songs was another job she was doing. Street singing combined the two essentials in her life. One was Paris, specifically on or near the place de la Nation and the rue de Buzenval, where she was born and where she lived for her last 70 years.
Her popular name was “Lily Panam”, argot for “Paris Lily”. As a child she had been dragged to le Nord for a while, to a farmhouse half-drowned in mud; she pined for the sparkling city she had seen from her parents’ tiny mansard flat. She needed pavements. And she needed to sing, so ardently that nothing could stop her. As she ran errands or peeled vegetables, she sang. As her parents split up, with their new partners variously abusing her, she cried a bit, shouted back, but sang. At 18, having definitively run away with five francs in her pocket, she was posing for naked tableaux in Pigalle.
During the German Occupation she hid in a cousin’s hotel to escape forced labour. Between times she did shop-work, and sang. The street was her escape. Yet she could not help dreaming of stardom, too. It was possible. In 1935 she had encountered Edith Piaf, a little scrap of a woman in a shabby black dress, performing on the street illegally. She agreed to watch out for the police on Sundays, and for a spell Piaf coached her in how to sing as she did, from the heart and guts. But soon she was discovered, and their ways parted.