Perhaps famous to most of us for the musical made of her life, Eva Peron remains a figure of division and controversy in the country of her birth. To many she was a saint to others little better than a whore and her legacy continues to be fought over more than sixty years after her death.
She was born Maria Eva Duarte in Los Toldos on 7 May 1919, in rural Argentina into relative poverty, though it remains a matter of debate as to whether the family were always as poor as she later made out.
She was the youngest of five children born out of wedlock to her mother Juana Ibarguren and her lover the wealthy local landowner Juan Duarte.
The family’s fortunes it seemed were dependent upon the presence of Juan and they would often fall into poverty when he returned to his legitimate wife and children.
The young Eva was very aware of her illegitimate status at a time when there was great stigma attached to it and it was to prey on her mind and undermine her self-esteem for much of her life.
The family were plunged into penury following Juan’s death but their situation was to improve over time and Eva was even able to attend school, not that she impressed academically but then she was a dreamer who always preferred the movies to books.
At the age of sixteen, Eva left home for the bright lights of Buenos Aires, an elegant and cosmopolitan city, determined to achieve her ambition to be an actress at any cost.
Yet there was little about her that made her stand out, she was pretty enough, dark haired and dark eyed, not dissimilar to many other young women from rural Argentina but she worked tirelessly at self-promotion, though her critics were to say that her energies were devoted more to the casting couch than they were to auditions and she did indeed take up with and discard lovers with a breathtaking regularity.
If her over-active sex life was premised upon career progression then it seemed to work, or at least it got her noticed, for she wasn’t exactly the epitome of feminine beauty being very small, thin, and flat-chested.
But even with her angelic face and translucent complexion it wasn’t until she bleached her hair blonde that her career took off and she soon started to get small parts in B movies but with her shrill voice, hesitant manner, and tendency to speak too quickly she wasn’t considered a good actress. She had charm but lacked presence, and it was said she would never be a star.
Not that you could tell Eva this and if there was one role she could play to perfection it was that of the diva, she had frequent tantrums on set, had often not learned her lines, was rarely punctual, and was not popular with other cast members.
She continued to work both as a B movie actress and on modelling assignments but though it was a glamorous profession it didn’t pay well and her lifestyle was dependent upon the many powerful men who supported her with their pocket book in return for her support in the bedroom.
In 1942, she successfully auditioned for a role in a popular radio soap opera which not only made her name familiar throughout the country but at last provided her with an income to live independent of others.
On 22 January 1944, she attended a Gala Event being held to raise funds for the victims of a devastating earthquake that had struck the town of San Juan the previous week killing more than 10,000 people and it was here that she first met Juan Peron.
The dashing Peron was an Army Colonel who had since the previous year been a popular Minister of Labour. He was handsome, charming, and extremely ambitious.
Eva was attracted to the 48 year old Peron, 24 years her senior, for all the above reasons but most of all for his barely disguised ambition to be President. He was similarly attracted to the coquettish charms of his little Eva, and the glamour and self-confidence she exuded.
By no means politically left of centre Peron was willing to use his position as Minister of Labour to seduce the Trade Unions and won the support of the largest of them the General Confederation of Labour, the C.G.T working hand-in-glove with them to introduce pro-labour legislation and supporting them in labour disputes with employers.
He was not so generous however towards those smaller Unions that did not pledge him their full support. Indeed, upon becoming President the C.G.T was to be the only Trade Union recognised by the regime enhancing both their power and his own.
In September 1945, Peron overstepped the mark when in a speech broadcast nationally he appeared to appeal directly to the people praising his own work on their behalf and excoriating conservative forces within the country and by implication the military. As a result, on 9 October he was arrested and imprisoned.
The C.G.T immediately rallied to his support and organised mass-demonstrations in Buenos Aires and other cities.
Under intense pressure and faced with the prospect of a general strike the Government was forced to back down and he was released four days later.
Eva was later to be credited for being behind the organisation of the demonstrations though it is doubtful that her name carried much weight at the time or that she was able to influence the actions of the C.G.T leadership.
She was after all, only his mistress and as people well knew mistresses came and went.
The day after his release from prison with Eva at his side Peron announced to cheering crowds in Buenos Aries his intention to run for President in the forthcoming elections. Shortly after, on 18 October in a civil ceremony Juan and Eva married.
Powerful men in Argentina rarely married their mistresses and even less so actresses, and in doing so Juan had not only made a very public acknowledgement of his devotion to her but made Eva, legitimate for the first time.
It was something for which she would be eternally grateful but it was also to prove an astute political move on his part.
Peron’s candidacy for the Presidency quickly gained momentum and Eva was constantly at his side throughout the campaign, addressing meetings, introducing her husband at campaign rallies, and giving radio broadcasts on his behalf.
When the result of the election were announced on 24 February 1946, it was a comfortable victory for Peron gaining 53.1% of the vote against the coalition of disparate right-wing groupings whose only common purpose had been to prevent his coming to power.
Once in Office, Evita as she was soon to become known, was to prove herself no shrinking violet and no mere trophy wife but instead became the anvil upon which Peron’s regime would be forged – she was to be a working First Lady.
In a society as overtly masculine as Argentina a woman’s involvement in the highest echelons of the political establishment and the decision making process did not go down well within the more conservative elements and her interference, as some saw it, caused a great deal of resentment.
Peron was aware of this but he was reliant not upon the traditional ruling elites of Argentina for his position but the support of the people, and he knew who had their hearts.
Eva, who had been a very visible presence throughout her husband’s campaign for President was determined to be just as visible now he was in power and the first thing she did was to change her image and style of dress to suit her new status. The makeup became more refined, the hair often pinned back, and the provocative clothes of the glamorous movie star exchanged for the designer dresses more suited to her station as the President’s wife.
Eva was always careful about how she presented herself to the people.
Despite extensive voice training her working class accent was still evident and she could speak their language, she had shared their hardships, and she never spoke down to them.
Neither did she patronise them by dressing down but rather wore her expensive designer dresses and priceless jewels with pride. She was one of them, she said, and if she could rise from poverty to a place of such wealth and prominence then so could they.
But she was always more than just about style and was also to prove herself a woman of substance.
One of the first things Eva did was to throw her weight behind the campaign of votes for women giving speeches and radio broadcasts in its support and even persuaded her somewhat reluctant husband to speak in favour of it and with Presidential backing it became law in September, 1947.
The success of the campaign provided Eva with a real taste for politics and the dawning realisation that with real power she could get things done.
Later that same year, Eva embarked upon a tour of Europe.
Juan Peron as the recently elected President of Argentina had been invited on an official State visit to Spain but to do so would court controversy. The Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco had kept the country out of the Second World War but it can hardly be described as having been neutral. It had been an active supporter of the Axis powers providing military bases, valuable raw materials, diplomatic support, and even 60,000 volunteers to fight on the Eastern Front.
Following the defeat of Italy and Germany, Spain had been ostracised by the victorious Allies and had effectively become a pariah State.
Realising the sensitivity of a State visit to Spain Peron declined the invitation. Eva, however, remained eager to go and Franco starved of any official recognition for his regime treated her as if she were a visiting Monarch. A public holiday was announced to coincide with her arrival and people were encouraged by their thousands to line the streets of Madrid as she was driven past in an open-topped car.
She later embarked upon a series of carefully choreographed meet the people walkabouts where she was greeted by enthusiastic crowds and which were filmed for domestic and international consumption.
She was to spend a week in Spain where she was wined and dined, lavished with gifts especially expensive jewels, and was awarded Spain’s highest honour.
But Eva’s apparent endorsement of fascist Spain when it was under international embargo was in many respects unfortunate and was to damage her legacy.
She did not see it this way at all, as far as she was concerned she was representing Argentina on the international stage and she loved the attention.
Throughout her many public appearances she projected an image of beauty, elegance, self-confidence and an ability to connect with ordinary people but for all the easy charm she exuded in public in private she was often nervous and riddled with self-doubt. At night she often left the light on and could only sleep if someone else was present in the room.
Evita’s so-called Goodwill Tour was soon to stall however, and her reception elsewhere in Europe was to be much cooler than it had been in Spain. In Italy, for example, there was to be no official reception and no honours were bestowed upon her. She was granted an audience with Pope Pius IX which played well back in Catholic Argentina but it had lasted barely 20 minutes and she was to be both hurt by the lack of warmth with which she was received and the fact that her visit was so little reported.
Regardless she put a brave face on it but when she learned that King George VI had refused to meet her she cancelled her visit to Great Britain.
Despite her tour of Europe not going as well as she had hoped it had at least brought her to world attention.
But her stay in Spain had led many to believe that both she and her husband were fascist sympathisers and her critics quickly spread the rumour that she had only been in Europe at all to deposit money pilfered from the Argentine treasury in secret Swiss bank accounts.
Returning to Argentina to great popular acclaim Eva threw herself into her work, particularly the charitable organisations she had founded to help the poor.
On 8 July 1948, she established the Eva Peron Foundation with 10,000 pesos of her own money.
From her office she laboured tirelessly day and night to raise funds from wealthy donors, small private businesses, and large corporations. The C.G.T made membership of the Union dependent upon the workers being willing to donate two days pay a year to the charity, and Eva made sure that her husband brought pressure to bear on those unwilling to pay up.
No one can know for sure if all the money raised was spent altruistically and again the accusation was made that the Peron’s were siphoning off money into overseas bank accounts but whether this was true or not the Foundation made a difference and became the effective safety net for millions of poor people living on or below the breadline.
Hospitals and schools were built and essential items such as blankets and cooking utensils distributed.
An entire community named Evita City was constructed on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and thousands of people found work with or via the charity; and every day in her office regardless of her heavy workload Eva would find time to meet ordinary people seeking an audience.
There was always a clamour to be in her presence and she never failed to hug those she met whether they were suffering from disease, were physically deformed, or on occasion even had an open wound. She never shied away from them unlike the contempt with which they were so often treated by the Argentine elite.
Eva’s work had brought her not only recognition but also the admiration of a great many people and she let it be known that she was considering running for Vice-President on her husband’s ticket in the 1951 Election.
The news caused great excitement among the people but conservative elements within Argentine society were appalled at the prospect.
They knew that if she ran she would win, and that a woman, and not just any woman, but one of common stock, one who was illegitimate by birth and an actress by profession, and one who had squandered so much of their money on raising the living standards of the poor, would be one step away from the Presidency.
Their worst fears were borne out when on 22 August 1951 an estimated two million people attended a campaign rally in Buenos Aires where alongside her husband and in front of a huge poster of herself Eva addressed the crowd.
They chanted for her to announce her intention to run for the Vice-Presidency but she demurred, she needed more time she told them.
In extraordinary scenes in which the address became more like a personal dialogue between Eva and the crowd they shouted “Now Evita, Now!”
No one could speak to the people like Evita, she cajoled them, she soothed them, and she controlled them as a conductor controls an orchestra. Eventually, she told them that she would make her decision known in a radio broadcast in the next few days.
Juan Peron, standing alongside her had been startled by the degree of love and support displayed by the crowd towards his wife. His re-election as President he knew was assured but his continued incumbency in the Casa Rosada was not for the military had already let it be known that they would not tolerate Eva as a candidate for Vice-President.
To the great disappointment of the people Eva was to announce that she would not be standing for Vice-President
portraying her decision as an act of great self-sacrifice on her part. She told them that she just wanted to support her husband in his bid for a second term and devote herself to eradicating poverty in Argentina.
In truth, she had bowed to pressure and the threat of a military coup.
She was bitter and resentful but there was little else she could do, and she was also aware that she was seriously ill.
On 9 January 1950, she had fainted in public. It was reported that it had been the result of exhaustion caused by hard work. In fact, she had advanced cervical cancer. Eva insisted that her illness be kept from Juan, whose first wife had died of cancer, but it was to prove impossible to do so.
On the day that he was overwhelmingly re-elected President, Eva cast her ballot from a hospital bed.
Even so, she was determined to attend his inauguration to stand beside her husband as their open-topped car drove through the streets of Buenos Aries, and as far as the watching masses were concerned it was the same old Evita, smiling and waving, and working the crowd.
What they could not see beneath her oversized fur coat was her pitiful frame supported and held in place by structures designed to allow her to stand, or that beneath the smiles was a woman so wracked with pain that she had to be heavily sedated before the inauguration began and again immediately upon its conclusion.
Her imminent death was the best kept secret but not long after he began his second term as President, Peron provided a hint that all was not well when he announced that she was to be known as the Spiritual Leader of the Nation.
On the morning of 26 July 1952, Argentine Radio announced to a stunned nation that Evita had died.
The country immediately went into a deep mourning, shops closed, factory workers downed tools, and all entertainments ceased.
Evita’s corpse was put on public display and such was the desire of the people to file past the coffin to pay their last respects that 8 people were killed and many more injured in the crush.
On the day of her State Funeral more than 3 million people thronged the streets of Buenos Aires.
Even so, some cast doubt as to whether the public grief being expressed was entirely genuine and wasn’t being orchestrated by the Peronist regime. In truth, it was probably a combination of both.
Evita’s determination to endure a public death, dignified and brave, a martyr for her people and for her faith, was not to be replicated in the treatment of her remains.
Not long after the Requiem Mass held in her honour Dr Pedro Ara, a leading anatomist, was approached to embalm the body.
His advanced technique was to drain the blood and replace it with glycerine, the result of which was to give her corpse the appearance of a porcelain doll with her preserved bleached blonde hair providing it with a golden glow.
It made her look as beautiful in death as she had been in life and it made for an eerie sight.
A memorial was planned in her honour, a huge monument that would dominate the Buenos Aries skyline with Evita’s embalmed body at its base encased in a glass coffin and on public display for all time.
Her corpse was kept at her old office whilst the plans were laid and the monument constructed, but it was never completed as without Evita, Peron’s grip on power began to slip.
His increasingly authoritarian rule was in fact deeply unpopular and he was more reliant upon his wife’s ability to sway public opinion than perhaps even he realised and with the economy struggling, inflation rising, unemployment on the increase, and without Evita’s hold over the people the vultures began to gather.
The conservative opposition that had always resented his pro-labour reforms, high business taxes, and forced charitable donations now seized their opportunity.
The country was plunged into turmoil as the Church voiced their opposition to Peron and much of the army rose in revolt. In response, he appealed directly to the people and a mass demonstration in his support was organised by the C.G.T.
Addressing the crowd he evoked memories of Evita and they cheered and applauded at every mention of her name but at rallies in other parts of the country the workers were not always demonstrating in his support but rather their disenchantment with the regime.
For a time the outcome appeared in the balance but on 21 September 1955, fearing for his life, Juan Peron fled the country.
The new military regime was now faced with what to do with Evita’s corpse?
They certainly weren’t going to perpetuate her myth as they saw it by building a mausoleum in her honour and putting her on display for public veneration. Indeed, they wanted to expunge the collective memory of her altogether.
Peronism was effectively outlawed in Argentina with posters of Evita removed from the streets and graffiti praising her painted over.
Her body they had secretly flown to Italy where it was buried in a crypt near Milan under a false name and where it would remain for sixteen years until it’s real identity was discovered by accident.
In 1971, Juan Peron, who was living in exile in Spain requested that Eva’s body be exhumed and flown to his home.
Upon seeing the body for the first time in so long he was amazed at how well-preserved it was, how beautiful she still seemed, as if alive but with no breath in her body. For a time he and Isobel, his wife since 1961, kept the corpse in a glass case in their dining room.
In June, 1973, Juan Peron was permitted to return to Argentina and he did so to great public acclaim. Indeed, the reception he received encouraged him despite his advanced age, he was 78, to run once more for the Presidency.
During the campaign he promised to return Evita’s body to Argentina -to bring her back home – and in the election held in September of that year he won 60% of the vote.
On 1 July 1974, Juan Peron died of a heart-attack just nine months into his third time and was succeeded by his wife Isabel who unlike Evita twenty years earlier had been elected Vice-President on her husband’s ticket.
She now tried to evoke the spirit of Evita having her body returned to Argentina and displaying it alongside that of Peron; but despite having some physical similarity to Eva, dressing and styling her hair in a likewise way, and even appealing directly to the people for support when crisis loomed she was to prove herself no Evita.
On 23 March 1976, she was ousted from office and arrested for fraud.
Yet again, a Peron had been deposed by the military.
With Peron dead and his wife safely under lock and key the new Military Dictatorship felt confident enough of their position to have Eva’s body interred in the family plot in La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.
But even now the Government were not willing to take any chances and Eva’s body was buried deep beneath layers of marble and concrete and not in the first compartment reached by trapdoor, but in a second compartment reached by a further trapdoor, as if her spirit along with her memory could similarly be entombed alongside her corpse.