Evita - The True Story of Evita Peron - Part II
Evita on the balcony of the Casa Rosada in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber's Evita.
When we last left Eva, she and Peron had married after his release from prison. Peron announced his candidacy as part of the newly formed Labor Party. Eva broke new ground by being the first candidate's wife to stand by her husband in a political campaign. At each campaign stop, Eva greeted the people, handing out campaign buttons.
She even took a tentative step at making speeches on her own. On February 8 a group of working women met at Luna Park to show their support for the Labor Party ticket. Peron was ill and couldn't attend. Eva was sent in his place. It was supposed to be her debut as a speaker- but they wouldn't let her speak. Every time she tried, the women shouted, "We want Perón!" In a few months that would all change.
When the results of the election that took place on February 24, 1946 were tabulated, Peron had won by 52% of the vote. He was now the President of Argentina and Evita, at the tender age of 26, was its First Lady. Eva immediately caused a sensation by the dress she wore for a gala event. She wore a one shouldered dress, and she was seated next to the Cardinal at dinner. Photos appeared in all the papers, of Eva's bare shoulder only inches away from a man of the cloth. The Oligarchy was scandalized, but the people loved the pictures of their Evita looking glamorous. Soon after the inauguration, Eva and Peron moved into the 283 room of the Unzue Palace. Eva didn't forget her family, her brother Juan became Peron's presidential secretary, and her sisters' husbands were all given positions in the government.
Argentina, at this time, was one of the richest countries in the world. Its years of neutrality during World War II had made it a creditor nation. There was a steady market for Argentine beef and goods in post-war Europe, as well as a steady influx of skilled immigrant workers. But Argentina also had a reputation, particularly in North America, of harboring Nazi war criminals. Peron himself was seen as if not a Nazi himself, someone who had been sympathetic to the Nazi cause. He certainly saw Mussolini as someone to be admired. It was around this time that the first articles about Evita appeared in North American magazines. Newsweek even referred to her as 'La Presidenta'. She deeply fascinated people in the United States who had never seen someone like her before in politics. Peron flamed the anti-American feeling in Argentina, he claimed the US was trying to control and influence domestic policies in the country.
Now Eva had to define what role she would play as First Lady of Argentina. Would it be strictly a ceremonial role, like previous First Ladies, opening shopping centers, serving tea to the women of the oligarchy, presiding over State Banquets? Instead, Eva defined herself by her relationship to Peron as President and Leader.
"This is a foundational circumstance and is related directly to my decision to be a President's wife who does not follow the old model. I could have followed those models. I want to make this clear because sometimes people have tried to explain my "incomprehensible sacrifice" by arguing that the salons of the oligarchy would have been closed to me in any case. Nothing is further from the truth nor from common sense. I could have been a President's wife in the same way that others were. It is a simple and agreeable role: appear on holidays, receive honors, "dress up" and follow protocol which is almost what I did before, and I believe more or less well, in the theater and the cinema. But I was not just the spouse of the President of the Republic, I was also the wife of the leader of the Argentine people"
Soon after the inauguration, Eva began to work 3 days a week in an office at the Ministry of Labor. People came to her to ask for favors or financial assistance. Eva would listen to their problems and then act. She would hand out 50 peso notes that she kept under a blotter on her desk. She also began to work more directly with the labor unions, trying to understand their problems. Labor had put Peron in power, and it was essential to keep them happy. Lilliane Guardo, the wife of Ricardo Guardo, the majority leader of Congress became Eva's de facto lady-in-waiting cum social secretary. It was she who helped smooth out the rougher edges on Eva's persona, helping to transform her from well known actress to polished First Lady. Lilliane had four children, and it was hard for her to work the hours that Evita demanded. Eva solved the problem by having a car pick her up and take her home at night. When Lilliane complained of not being able to spend time at their place in the country, Eva arranged for her travel to and from their country estate. Eva worked long hours, it was not uncommon for her to work until 3 o'clock in the morning, take a brief nap, and return to her office at 7. She began to visit factories, and to visit poor neighborhoods, to see for herself how the people lived. Like Princess Diana, she had the common touch. She wasn't afraid to hold the hands of lepers, or to kiss people suffering from syphyllis. It wasn't only for a photo opportunity, Evita really cared about the working class. Despite her success, she still considered herself to be one of them. She also considered herself to be a bridge between Peron and the people. She traveled to the interior of the country to visit the workers in the many provinces of Argentina.
In 1947, Eva was able to buy a newspaper, Democracia, which surprise, surprise turned into a pro-Peron paper. Evita took her revenge on Bramuglia, the lawyer who had treated her so poorly while Peron was in prison, who was now Foreign Minister by making sure his name never appeared in the paper (he was always listed as Foreign Minister) and that his picture was cropped so that he was unrecognizable. The more photos of Eva that appeared in the paper, however, the more circulation rose. Eva took great care with how she was dressed, she felt she owed it to the people to always look glamorous. That meant big hats, lots of jewelry, and furs. One special room in the palace was devoted to her furs, another for her hats, and many more for the many dresses that she wore. At one point, it was noted that Eva had worn 306 dresses in less than a year. She even had a room for the huge amounts of perfume that she brought back from Europe. It was later written that Evita's collection of jewelry was the largest owned by any woman since Cleopatra! When one of her advisors suggested that she might want to tone it down a bit, Evita replied "The poor like to see me beautiful, they do not want to be protected by a poorly dressed woman. You see they dream about me. How can I let them down?"
"Let's hear it for the Rainbow Tour, it's been an incredible success, we weren't quite sure, we had a few doubts, would Evita win through? And the answer is yes, and no, yes and no."
It was also in 1947 that Evita embarked on what became known as the Rainbow Tour of Europe. It was her first trip abroad and she was the first wife of an Argentine President to be invited on an official visit by a foreign government. The invitation was initially extended by Franco to Peron, but it was decided that diplomatically it would be endanger Peron with the UN and the United States to visit a Facist dictatorship. Instead it was decided that Eva would take Peron's place. Even before she left, the anti-Peron press in the US began printing unflattering articles about the trip. It was reported that Foreign Offices hand their hands tied, that they were being forced give a convincing demonstration of welcome or risk having loans called in or exports from Argentina mysteriously disappear. The New York Times later speculated that Eva's trip cost an estimated $4MM, and called it "the most original diplomatic mission in recent times."
In June of 1947, Eva and her entourage left Buenos Aires on two planes, for Evita and the other for her considerable wardrobe. Her itinerary had now grown to encompass not only Spain but Italy, France, Switzerland and Monaco. There was also talk of Eva visiting England, and having an audience with Queen Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother. Unfortunately Eva dithered on the dates of her trip, and consequently it turned out the Royal Family would be in Scotland for their annual summer holiday during Eva's trip. When she found out, Eva took it as a personal affront, not understanding how rigid the Royal Family's schedule was and always has been. So Eva never made it to England.
However, she was acclaimed in Spain, 3,000,000 people warmly greeted her on her arrival. Eva spent 15 days in Spain, where Franco awarded her the Great Cross of Isabel the Catholic, named after Queen Isabella of Ferdinand and Isabella fame. There was one tricky moment when Eva, after receiving the cross, gave a speech to an enthusiastic crowd. She raised her hand over her head in her characteristic salute, which was reported in the press, as a facist salute. Where ever she went, Eva made the time to visit the neighborhoods of the ordinary workers, and their institutions to see how the Europeans dealt with the underclass. But it wasn't all hearts and flowers. In Italy, where she had an audience with Pope Pius XII, the Communist Party demonstrated against her, claiming that the Perons were nothing but Facists. There's a myth repeated in the musical that Evita was called a 'whore' by someone in the crowd, when she complained, another gentleman informed her that he was still called a general even though he had retired years ago. The press followed the tour with a religious fervor, reporting almost daily, of what Eva was wearing, saying, and doing. In Argentina, Eva's success was greeted with cheers, even by her detractors, who despite their negative feelings toward her, couldn't help swell with pride at how their country was being received. While she was in France, Eva was showered with dresses and jewels. She developed a liking for French couture, and ever after most of her wardrobe came from France. In Monaco, Eva made the acquaintance of Aristotle Onassis who later claimed that he had slept with her and given her a check for one of her charities.
"And the money kept rolling in from everyside, Eva's pretty hand reached out and it reached wide.
The Money Keeps Rolling In number from Evita.There were rumors both while she was alive as well as after her death about the Evita Peron Foundation that was created after Eva's return to Argentina. That contributions were forced, and that Peron and Eva siphoned millions of dollars into a Swiss bank account. Whatever the case, the Evita Peron Foundation became her passion in the five years left before she died. The Foundation came about from the visits that Eva had made to the poor in Europe. Originally it would have falled to Argentina's First Lady to be invited to be the President of the Sociedad de Beneficencia, which was had been run by aging society ladies. But they weren't doing enough for the poor in Eva's opinion. The Foundation gave Eva a way to control how the money was distributed. The money came not only from private donations, mainly from the unions and private corporations, but also from the government. It was true that any company that didn't donate to Eva's foundation found that they suffered financial losses. But the charges that the Foundation was used to launder Nazi gold were spread by anti-Peronists after her death and were never proven. It would take pages to list all the hospitals, schools, nursing schools, and other social services that were created with money from the Foundation. Many of these social services and buildings still exist in Argentina to this day.
There was also a cosmetic change that came over Eva as well. No longer did Eva wear the elaborate hairdos, large hats, over jeweled, and flamboyant dresses. Her hairstyle was simple, the dresses and suits black and tailored, with just jeweled Peronist medallion on the lapel, which she wore even when she slept. Eva also became involved with woman's suffrage, working hard to help marshal support to pass a bill finaly granting women in Argentina the right to vote, 27 years after women in the US were granted the same rights. She also became the first President of the Peronista Women's Party.
Eva was often described as a "South American Eleanor Roosevelt" but she had more in common with Hillary Clinton than Eleanor. Like Hillary, Eva was not the woman behind the man, but the woman who stood next to the man. In the Casa Rosada, Juan Peron is the only Argentine President to be painted with his wife, instead of alone. Eva's manicured hands eventually ended involved in all aspects of the government. Peron knew what a political asset his wife was, even though he had the support of the army and the descamisados, it was Evita who made it all work. Peron let it be known that Eva represented him and his views, that he relied on her above anyone else in Argentina for advice. The army of course resented her interference.
In 1950, Eva fell ill while appearing at a political rally. She was taken to the local hospital where it was discovered that she had uterine cancer. Eva was never told of the seriousness of her illness, she was only told that she was suffering from anemia. But she must have sensed that something was wrong because she redoubled her efforts, working like a woman who knew the clock was ticking. For Peron, it was have been a double blow, knowing that the woman who had been his helpmate was now suffering the same disease that had killed his first wife. For a year Eva refused to see any more doctors. By the time that she submitted to a hysterectomy, it was too late, the cancer had spread.
Peron was gearing up for another run for President after having pushed through a revision to the constitution that allowed for two consecutive six year terms. It was the people of Argentina, her beloved descamisados, who demanded that Eva become Vice President. Time Magazine, which had been banned from the country, wrote "Never before in Argentina, or any other country in the hemisphere, had a woman been groomed for Vice President." Unfortunately for Eva she was forced to decline due to pressure from the army. They were worried that would happen if Peron died in office, leaving Eva in the Presidential hot seat. In her speech renouncing the honor, she urged her followers to give Peron and the party their unconditional loyalty.
The army needn't have worried since Eva was already in the final stages of the cancer that would shortly take her life. She lost more and more weight, eventually she weighed only 80 pounds. There were days when she couldn't even get out of bed, the pain was so great. It was while she was ill that she dictated her autobiography La Razon de mi Vida (The Reason for My Life) and its sequel. The books sold hundreds of thousands of copies. A ballot box was brought into her hospital room so that she could vote for the first time. The truth of Eva's illness was kept, not only from her, but also from the people of Argentina. Various reports stated that she was suffering from anemia, overwork, stress, and even appendicitis.
Even before her death, Eva became a living icon to the Argentine people. Her picture appeared alongside the religious icons that were kept on the mantelpiece and prayed too. As her life slipped away, Eva's speeches became more violent, filled with visions of destruction. They were later used after her death, in later years, by a different generation of Peronists to justify political violence. Two months before her death she was declared the Spiritual Chief of the nation. Her last public appearance was, heavily sedated, at Peron's second inauguration. She was not seen again until after her death, when thousands paraded by her coffin as she lay in state.
Her last months were spent in a small, shabby room in the Presidential palace, where she was infrequently visited by Peron. Perhaps it was just too much for him, having already experienced the death of one wife. There were already rumors about him and other women. While Peron loved Eva, it was not to the extent that she loved him and worshipped him. On July 24th Eva said her last words, 'Eva se va,' Eva is leaving. At 8:25 pm that evening, she took her last breath. She was only 33 years old. The nation immediately went into a deep mourning that wasn't seen again until Princess Diana died in 1997. Restaurants, shops, movie theaters, and public transport were shut down. The Argentine flag was flown at half mask. Dr. Pedro Ara was brought in to start the embalming process on Eva's body. By the time he was finally done, a year later, she looked like she was still alive.
Peron finally lost his grip on the country in 1955. There were many factors that led to his political demise, one being that by 1952, Argentina's post war boom had gone bust. Argentina had turned into a police state, with the government cracking down on the media, using brute force against opponents. Although Eva's death was blamed for his unpopularity, Peron made many mistakes in his arrogance. The biggest mistake he made was insulting the Catholic Church by not only legalizing divorce but also prostitution as well. The Church pulled all its funding for schools in the country. He offended the oligarchy and the army by parading a string of mistresses who were barely out of their teens. He finally lost the support of Eva's beloved descamisados who saw his behavior as disrespectful to Eva's memory. He fled the country when the generals seized power from him, bouncing around from country to country, until he finally settled in Spain.
After he fled, the true extent of the Peron's greed was discovered, as houses were uncovered filled with jewelry, clothing and artwork. Rumors circulated that Eva and Peron had squirreled away millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts. Peron's behavior while in exile lent credence to the rumors, since he lived high on the hog, for someone who supposedly fled with no resources. Of course, it was always possible, that he was being supported by the numerous Argentine exiles who showed up at his door in Spain for an audience.
As for Eva, the incoming regime were in a quandary. The expensive monument that was supposed to house her coffin was not complete, and the government worried that any monument would become a Peronista shrine. Her family, in exile in Venezuela, washed their hands of her. Eva's body then disappeared from 16 years. There is speculation that it was buried under an assumed name in Italy until such a time as Peron needed it.
In 1973, Juan Peron was elected President of Argentina once again at almost 80, and his third wife Isabel became Vice President, the role that Evita had hoped to fulfill. But the Peronista dream was over. From a distance, he looked great, but up close he looked old and tired. Isabel tried to fill Eva's shoes by dressing like her, but she was a pale imitation. Before Peron had been in office for a year, he died from pneumonia, and Isabel became the first female President of Argentina. She tried to hold onto her position by trotting out Eva's body but to no avail.
Although it was hoped that Eva would be forgotten by the Argentine people, she continued to hold sway over Argentine politics for the next three decades after her death, and is still a factor in the country. Her body was finally laid to rest by her family in the very same cemetary where her most vocal detractors are buried. The tomb is very unassuming, and impregnable, to keep grave robbers at bay.
In 1976, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber released a concept album of their new work 'Evita' based on the life of Eva Peron. The story is that Tim Rice had been on vacation in Argentina and became fascinated with the stories he'd heard about Eva. The collaborators used a book by Mary Main called 'Woman with a Whip' who was very anti-Peron as the source material for the musical. The release of the album and the subsequent hit single 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina' turned Eva into a folk heroine for a new generation and made her internationally famous. In 1978, the London production opened starring Elaine Paige and rock star David Essex, followed by the American production starring Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. Despite the historical inaccuracies (Che Guevara who functions as a Greek chorus in the musical, although born in Argentina , was only 24 when she died and had left the country in 1951 to go on a motorcycle tour of South America. There is no record of him having met her and he was in medical school during Peron's first presidency. His father however was a Peron supporter.) and Lloyd Webber's statement that he found Eva personally repugnant, the musical has several songs that sound like Eva could have written them herself, including 'The Actress Hasn't Learned the Lines You'd Like to Hear,' and 'High Flying Adored.' In a way, they turned Eva's story into the quintessential Cinderella story but with politics. The 2007 London revival featured an Argentine actress in the role.
A hue and cry rose about the musical. Eva's supporters were horrified that their heroine had been turned into a social climbing whore, who used men on her rise to the top. Anti-Peronists couldn't understand why anyone would want to write a musical about a neo-facist. A TV movie starring Faye Dunaway appeared on NBC in 1982, that was a little more historically accurate, and speculation was on as to who would play Evita in the movie version of the musical. After going through directors and actresses, Madonna was finally announced as the new star to be directed by Alan Parker. Argentines were outraged that a woman like Madonna, known for her provocative lyrics and clothing, would play a woman many consider to be the Latin American equivalent of the Virgin Mary.
"You let down your people, Evita, you were supposed to have been immortal, that's all they wanted, not much to ask for but in the end, you could not deliver."
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were wrong when they wrote those words for Che Guevara to sing in Evita. In the end Evita was immortal, still young and beautiful, at the age of 33. Love her or hate her, there is no denying the power of Evita. If you ask the average person who Juan Domingo Peron was, he couldn't tell you, but if you say the name Evita, you'll see recognition if only for the musical. Eva's memory continues to haunt Argentina. Few would deny that Eva was notorious and unscrupulous, but given her background and her limited opportunities, she took the only route she could. Eva broke new barriers for women, showing them just what a woman could achieve, she gave hope to the poor who had none, and gave them a future.
If Eva were alive today, she would probalby be President of Argentina like the current President Cristina Kirchner, who was herself the wife of a former President. Although she now rejects the comparison, Cristina once said in an interview that she identified herself "with the Evita of the hair in a bun and the clenched fist before a microphone" (the typical image of Eva Perón during public speeches) more than with the "miraculous Eva" of her mother's time, who had come "to bring work and the right to vote for women."
Eva has now passed into legend, a thought that would no doubt please her. When she once asked her friend Lilliane Guardo how she would like to be remembered, Lilliane answered as a good mother. Eva replied that she wanted to be known as a woman of history. It appears that she got her wish.
Sources include: Wikipedia
The Official Eva Peron website
Evita, The Real Life of Eva Peron - Nicholas Fraser & Marysa Navarro
Evita: First Lady of Argentina - Darlene R. Stille
Eva Peron: A Biography Alicia Dujovne Ortiz and Shawn Fields