Terrible twins – An Irishman’s Diary about the parallel lives of Edith Piaf and Frank Sinatra

Signature songs

I don't know if Edith Piaf and Frank Sinatra even met in life, never mind performed together. But somewhere in a parallel universe, I believe the two are trapped together on a desert island, and probably getting on each other's nerves.

The notion was prompted by a poll a few years back on another such island – the one imagined by the long-running BBC Radio 4 programme. It found that in 60 years of asking people which “discs” they would bring with them into Robinson Crusoe-type exile, the signature songs of Piaf and Sinatra finished first and second.

Je Ne Regrette Rien topped the poll, just ahead of My Way.  And apart from being about equally annoying, the two ballads are also remarkably similar in theme. You could write a thesis about their popularity with the sort of people (ie conspicuously successful ones) who end up on Desert Island Discs.


The demographic seems to be at high risk of terminal smugness, for one thing. Its members also differ only slightly on how many regrets you can afford to harbour if you’re rich and famous, none in the Piaf manifesto, “a few” according to


My Way

’s only modest line.

Their twin anthems add to the strangely parallel lives the two singers led. If they are indeed sharing an island this week, they’re also celebrating their 100th birthdays – Piaf’s today, Sinatra’s last weekend.  They were born an ocean apart, but each in humble circumstances and on the edges of great cities. Of necessity they both also grew up tough.

Hard image

Sinatra prided himself on the hard-man image. But compared with Piaf’s life, his was comfortably bourgeois. She wasn’t born on a footpath, contrary to a much-loved myth. She was, however, soon abandoned by her mother, and raised in the brothel where one of her grannies worked.

In contrast with the huge voice, she was always physically frail. Sinatra weighed a monstrous 13.5lbs at birth, but it must have taken the baby Piaf a long time to catch up, because at her maximum adult extent, she was 4ft 8in and waif-like.

In common with Sinatra, she mixed with mobsters. Unlike him, she was a suspect in her first manager’s murder. She drank heavily and abused a wide range of pharmaceutical products. She was cosy with the Nazi occupiers of Paris during the war – too much so for subsequent comfort (although she was eventually forgiven, thanks to more myth-making).

By the premature end of her life, in 1963, there was a wide divergence between her famous refusal to regret anything and the Catholic Church’s assessment vis-a-vis her atonement needs. In the event, the archbishop of Paris refused her a funeral Mass, although 100,000 Parisians lined the route of her last journey to Père Lachaise.

The Piaf-Sinatra parallel ended with her early death. He was just getting his second wind then, and the mid-1960s were among the most successful of his career. In fact, for good or bad, he had yet to record My Way.

‘Something in it’

There’s another coincidence lurking behind the desert-island popularity of the two songs, because musically at least,

My Way

is also French.  It began life in 1967 as the ballad

Comme d’Habitude

(“As Usual”), which

Paul Anka

heard while on holiday. As he said years later, he thought it “a bad record, but there was something in it”.

So he bought the adaptation rights, and rewrote the lyrics in the mental voice of his friend Sinatra, who’d been talking about quitting the music business.

And there's an irony in this, because after it became a cornerstone of his repertoire, Sinatra claimed that, hating boastfulness in others, he never enjoyed singing My Way, lest it be taken as a personal statement.

Je Ne Regrette Rien had been first rolled out (the cliche is for once justified, given the fierce rolling of Rs – "rrrrien de rrrrien, je ne rrrregrrrete rrrrien" involved) a decade earlier, in 1959. And it too was at least partly inspired by the singer. It had been written for somebody else, with a different title. But when offering it to Piaf, the writer adapted the words accordingly.

Whatever about a desert island’s capacity to contain both songs, they would hardly fit in the same arrangement.  Still, modern editing technology can do remarkable things.  So I wouldn’t be surprised if we yet see Sinatra and Piaf performing them together.

My fear, given the sloganeering lyrics, is that it will be in a TV ad.