Look, can I tell you something that is actually, I think, legitimately a secret no one knows? Sure I can! And I will!
Whenever I do something I’m really proud of I play High Flying, Adored from the smash musical spectacular Evita. Here it is:
I realize this is amazingly hubristic, which is why I don’t usually tell people. My event has to be something I’m extraordinarily proud of. It can’t be like “I’m proud that I successfully got my cable service changed.” Oh. Well, it could totally be that, I mean, doing that’s a nightmare, but, you know, generally this Andrew Lloyd Webber composition is a song I play to go along with promotions, or getting pieces published somewhere I admire or . . . those are the only things I use it for, ever. I always figured if I ever have a book published, I would not play it at the party, because, again, super self-congratulatory song, but I would certainly play it with the volume all the way up on the car ride over.
I love it so much I try to dole it out sparingly is what I’m getting at.
Evita is, hands down, my favorite musical. This is not a secret. That’s because it is a well known fact that, no matter how much Sex Pistols and Velvet Underground you program into your iPhone, when it accidentally goes off in public, it’s going to play whatever Andrew Lloyd Webber you have stored in there.
When it’s not accidentally going off, I’ve mentioned to people that I tend to listen to all of Evita right after break-ups because “I draw courage from her incredible true life story.” People think that I’m being droll, so I have to explain that I am not. And then people look at me like I’m a psychopath, because, I guess I know some people who don’t love fascism.
I’ve actually always wondered how much of a fascist Eva Peron was really. Was she the scrappy yet immaculately Dior clad fighter who could not be kept down by anyone, that I’ve come to admire? I do love plucky women. Or was she, you know, Mussolini in a dress? Maybe both!
First of all, I want to talk about whether or not Eva Peron, first lady of Argentina, was actually friends with freedom fighter Che Guevera, because, you know, she spends the entire musical dancing around a young revolutionary named “Che”. They waltz. They waltz the hell out of a waltz:
And people say Madonna can’t act. I don’t know. Possibly she can’t. A lot of her “acting” in this scene seems to be throwing her arms up like goalposts. But she is good at staring longingly and lustfully at Antonio Banderas, so that’s enough for me.
When I mentioned I was thinking of Eva Peron as a Shelved Doll, my mother immediately exclaimed, “Friends with Che Guevera!” Meanwhile I thought, “Perhaps they were lovers! Lovers who loved waltzing!”
No. She wasn’t, and they weren’t. Turns out that was a thematic device used by Andrew Lloyd Webber because he wanted to juxtapose Eva’s policies with the goals of South American freedom fighters. Additionally – fun fact – in Argentina the word “Che”, according to the Spanish Royal Academy dictionary, is a familiar form used “to call someone or ask for attention”.
The closest the real Ernesto “Che” Guevara ever came to meeting Evita is touched upon in Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life which says:
“One friend recalled Ernesto advising his mates to vote for Peron because his policies favored their class. He also used the Peronist system to his own advantage when it behooved him. [His cousin Mario recalls] Ernesto joined a Peronist youth organization on campus in order to use its extensive library facilities and check out books otherwise unavailable to him. Another time, on the suggestion, half in jest, of Tatiana Quiroga, before an ambitious trip through Latin America he drafted a letter to Peron and his gift giving wife, Evita, asking her for a jeep. Tatiana recalled helping him and said they had fun writing it, but no reply ever came from Argentina’s flamboyant first lady.”
However, it may still have been appropriate to pair them symbolically, because, as Tomás Eloy Martínez stated:
“Latin American myths are more resistant than they seem to be. Not even the mass exodus of the Cuban raft people or the rapid decomposition and isolation of Fidel Castro‘s regime have eroded the triumphal myth of Che Guevara, which remains alive in the dreams of thousands of young people in Latin America, Africa and Europe. Che as well as Evita symbolize certain naive, but effective, beliefs: the hope for a better world; a life sacrificed on the altar of the disinherited, the humiliated, the poor of the earth. They are myths which somehow reproduce the image of Christ.”
The rest of the musical isn’t totally off base, though. (Not that it was deliberately misleading in the “Che” regard. I guess it would be a bit like if you inserted a man named “Jack” into a musical about Queen Victoria and everyone just assumed it was “Jack the Ripper.” Not that freedom fighters are prostitute-killers but . . . I’ll just step away from this one).
Certainly Eva did, as the musical says “have every disadvantage you need if you’re gonna succeed.”
She was born on May 7, 1919, to Juana Ibarguren in a small backwater town in Argentina and named Eva. Her mother – at the age of fifteen – became the mistress of a man named Juan Duarte. She bore him five children. For a while, she profited by it – unlike many of their neighbors, Juana and her children lived in a comfortable two room house. Not for long, though. When Eva was one year old, Juan abandoned them and moved away. The family was suddenly forced to deal with crushing poverty. All he left was a document declaring the children were his, thus enabling them to use his name.
Although Juan had another legitimate family, and completely abandoned them, Eva went by Eva Duarte. He died in a car accident when Eva was 7, and the family was blocked out of any inheritance, which meant they fell on even harder times. I don’t want to skim over that, but, yeah, he seemed like a jerk so we’re going to skim right over that after all.
Eva’s mother was a seamstress and a cook who was said to have prostituted herself to keep the children alive. You know all those politicians at the RNC who wanted to say they grew up in a shack? Eva literally grew up in a two room shack.
In this regard, Eva’s upbringing reminds me a lot of that other figure of national importance, Jeanne du Barry.
That said, while she was certainly beautiful in the manner of Du Barry, I’m inclined to think she was a lot smarter and had a far better aptitude for survival.
One form of escape from her often unhappy reality was the movies. Eva grew up idolizing Norma Shearer – a very funny lady, who often played saintly society matrons and queens. (Fun side note: Bette Davis once said that she often played bitches in movies because she was very pleasant in real life, while the opposite was true of Norma Shearer.) Here’s a picture of Norma from one of her most famous roles as Marie Antoinette:
Did Eva draw any conclusions about how a woman in power looks and behaves from this picture? I’ll leave you to make up your own mind. But I will say that, later in life, Eva looked great in Dior.
As a child, though, she just loved acting. In her autobiography, The Reason For My Life, Eva wrote:
“Even as a little girl I wanted to recite. It was as though I wished to say something to others, something important which I felt in my deepest heart.”
Eva’s first performance was in a school play called Students Arise, which biographer John Barnes described as “an emotional, patriotic, flag-waving melodrama” in Evita, First Lady: A Biography of Eva Perón. She didn’t even have a very big role in this school play; it was a really minor flag-waving role. Usually it’s the person who plays Dorothy in the high school production of The Wizard of Oz who decides she is going to be a famous actress, not the person who plays Munchkin #2.
But Eva had an exceptional amount of self-confidence. In The Reason For My Life, she wrote:
“Like the birds, I’ve always preferred the freedom of the forest. I haven’t even been able to tolerate that minimum loss of freedom which comes from living with your parents or in your hometown. Very early in life I left my home and my hometown and since then I’ve always lived free. I’ve wanted to be on my own and I have been on my own.”
So, she moved to Argentina at age 15 – alone, by her account – to make it as an actress. There’s no evidence that she was accompanied by the super suave tango singer Agustin Magaldi, as she was in the musical. Here:
And just for perspective, here’s what Agustin Magaldi actually looked like:
There is no evidence he and Eva Duarte ran away together. Evita: The Real Life of Eva Perón states:
“There is no record of the tango singer’s having come to Junín that year. Magaldi, a mild man who was devoted to his mother, used to bring his wife on tour, and it is hard to understand what he would have seen in small, skinny Eva María. If he did help her leave Junín, it is likely that his assistance was of the most innocuous kind.”
I know this seems less sexy than it could have been, but I actually really like her independence. It makes the fact that Eva succeeded seem even more impressive. She didn’t just ride some tango singer’s coat tails to Buenos Aires; she made it on her own. At age 16 she landed her first role in a play called The Perez Mistresses. She quickly found parts in other plays, movies and radio specials. How did she pull it off? Scandalous Women writes:
“She began to spend her time hanging around the office of Sintonia, the movie magazine that she had read as a child, making friends of the writers to acquire favorable mentions in the pages. She also began to act on radio in soap operas, which were as popular in South America as they were in the United States. After a few years, Eva was able to form her own company with the help of her brother Juan, who had contacts with one of the major soap companies. He convinced them to sponsor all her programs.”
So, by being really plucky, basically. And by palling around with journalists, which, for the record, if you are an aspiring dictator is totally a thing you should do. Come to the office. Please bring wine.
In any event, she became a sensational success. And, while she did have an active pre-marital sex life (yes – she spent some time on casting couches) she doesn’t seem to have slept her way to the top quite as described here:
In 1945 in an interview with Radiolandia she said, “I am not an adventuress, although some (those who never forgive a young woman for succeeding) make me out to be one. I have spent more than five years dedicated to what is in me a firmly-rooted vocation: the arts. These have been five years of troubles, of noble struggles when I’ve known the uncertainty of adversity as well as the gratification of success.”
Well, it does sound as though she protested a bit much. Regardless, adventuress is a very good word. Try to use it in a conversation today and see how that goes over.
Despite her appearance in a wide variety of films, it’s a bit tricky to tell how good an actress Eva actually was. Many of the movies Eva appeared in no longer exist, as Evita wanted the record of this portion of her life destroyed after she became First Lady of Argentina. Here’s a pretty great picture of her on the cover of a fan magazine, though:
In 1944 Eva first met Juan Peron. He was 48 (nearly twice her age) and had been recently made both Secretary of Labor and Secretary of War after a military coup. The two met at an artistic festival Peron had organized to support the victims of a recent earthquake. They apparently went home together, despite the fact that Eva was attending it with a friend. Eva forever afterwards referred to this as “my marvelous day.”
At the time, Peron had a mistress – a girl younger than 24 year old Eva – whom he generally introduced as his daughter. Eva took care of this complication by taking all her belongings to Peron’s house, and telling the girl there would be no more room for her.
Most women at the time would have stayed out of politics, but Eva was fascinated. Juan allowed her to sit in on his council meetings with advisors, and Eva did so with great enthusiasm. That said, she never disagreed with Peron despite the fact that he was almost definitely a Nazi sympathizer and a big supporter of Mussolini.
In fact, Eva seemed in almost worshipful awe of him. Perhaps that’s because he was much older, or perhaps it was because in Argentina at the time politicians were seen as an entirely different, higher class of people than entertainers.
Unsurprisingly, when broadcast performers were told they had to organize into a union, Eva was made its president. She then began a daily program called “Towards A Better Future” which consisted solely of her detailing Juan Peron’s accomplishments. This sounds like the dullest program in the world. Her fellower entertainers didn’t like it, but the people loved it. They loved her. I guess she was as great at reciting things as she had hoped to be as a child.
You know who didn’t love her? The oligarchs. They thought she was kind of trashy, for real.
First of all: “Whom did you dine with yesterday?” is a really great way to ask your friends who they’re sleeping with if you want them to have no idea what you’re talking about and be like “Betty, my cubicle mate?” This has the added advantages of making your friends’ sex lives seem far more exciting than they are.
Second, there are several reasons Eva was not accepted by the wealthy oligarchs of the country. It wasn’t because she was an actress – or, it wasn’t only that. Up until the 1930’s the oligarchs in Buenos Aires had fancied themselves Europeans both because of their white skin and their penchant for European architecture. However, poverty began forcing people – like Eva Duarte – from the country into the city. The official Eva Peron website (which is maintained by her family) remarks:
Its inhabitants were not used to slums and ‘yesterday’s mate [ herbal tea] drying in the sun’ so it could be used again. The owners of the palaces on Avenida Alvear, the oligarchs, members of the landowning aristocracy, were used to traveling to Europe. They were not used to the slap-in-the-face reality of tenements and slums on their own doorstep.”
Her presence was likely a reminder that the times, and their way of life, was changing.
And it would shift dramatically in the coming years.
On October 9, 1945, a group of Army officers called the United Officers Group, fearful of Peron’s growing power, had Juan Peron arrested. They were worried that Peron’s supporters, the descamisados, (shirtless ones – workers and the poorer classes) might help him overthrow the current president.
It was actually his arrest that accomplished that. By October 17 between 250,000 and 350,000 people had gathered outside the presidential mansion to demand Peron’s release. The army officers acquiesced. And it was there, on the balcony of the President’s mansion, that Eva announced Peron’s release.
They were married in a civil ceremony on the next day. Eva wore a very large hat.
People claim that this was a political marriage, that it happened because it would look good for Juan to have a wife if he was going to be President, and that Eva just wanted to advance her career. Those people obviously have not read the weepy, pining letter that Eva wrote Juan when he was in prison. In it she says:
“My adored treasure, only when we are separated from those we love can we know how much we love them.”
Eva, seriously. He was only in jail for 8 days. What happened to living your life like a free bird?
During Juan’s 1946 presidential campaign Eva campaigned with him – something that was absolutely unheard of at the time. Some say that it wasn’t a big political move on her part, it was just that she couldn’t bear to be separated from Peron.
It was around this period that the nickname “Evita” which means “Little Eva” originated, as she encouraged the people she visited to address her as such.
She was seen as something of a Princess Diana figure around this time. Remember Princess Diana touching AIDs victims? Eva was out there kissing actual lepers.
She appealed to every workers’ group and all of the underprivileged, claiming that she had grown up like them, and understood their plight.
And her role didn’t end when Peron took power. Eva became Secretary of Labor in everything but name.
In one of her first policies she worked with Peron and the Congress to establish a Decalogue of Rights for those often neglected in Argentine society – the elderly, the children, and the workers. For instance, the seniors’ rights included:
“The right to assistance, to a dwelling place, to food, to clothing, to health care, to spiritual care, to entertainment, to work, to tranquility and to respect.”
She also worked to make every seniors’ home complete with workshops. That meant that those who wanted to continue working at different crafts and occupations (workshops allowed for everything from carpentry to milking cows) could do so.
This is a really nice idea.
Mostly, though, she was known for her work with children. When Evita came to power, children’s orphanages often didn’t even assign names to children who were simply known by numbers. And their heads were all shaved. Why? Lice? To be mean? A V for Vendetta thing? I don’t know.
The Eva Peron Foundation, established in 1947, arranged for the construction of 1,000 schools. This fund, incidentally, was and is very controverial. It’s often said to have embezzled funds:
However, in reality, the finances of the Foundation – an area Eva legitimately knew very little about – were run entirely by Ramon Cereijo, the Minister of Finance. If funds were embezzled, it was very possibly not Eva’s doing.
In addition to the schools, the fund arranged for orphanages where, Eva was adamant, the children would always be called by names, not numbers. Instead of the identical smocks worn by orphans in the homes before this, each child was given a wardrobe and a set of toys from some of the best shops in Buenos Aires.
Here is a picture of one of the boys in a children’s homes. He had a name. You will note he also had hair:
And she worked for women’s groups as well.
She established Unidades Básicas, a place where women could learn basic work skills. She also started programs in women’s prisons designed to teach sewing skills or how to work at a beauty parlor, so that prisoners would have a trade when they left jail.
One moment, that I really like, and I suppose Eva did as well, because she remembers it in her autobiography, is that the Foundation would give away thousands of sewing machines. A woman who received one sent five pesos back, saying that it was a portion of her earnings from her first job as a seamstress.
Later, in her biography, when discussing her role Eva said:
“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”
In taking on that role, Eva showed how influential women could be in the political arena.
Suffrage for women was enacted in 1947, largely because Evita demanded it. In 1951 the first women were elected to Congress.
Eva worked tirelessly on all of her causes, often until 3:00 in the morning, and she rose again at 7. So, when she began to fade, her symptoms were at first dismissed as exhaustion. She was, at that time entertaining the idea of running for Vice President in the 1951 election, though the idea was not popular with many of Peron’s inner circle. (They felt her history as an actress and the fact that she was a woman would undermine Peron).
She ultimately gave up the idea saying that she was just “a simple woman who lives to serve Peron and my people”. Some saw this decision as another selfless, saintly move to support Peron. However, it seems just as likely that it was because she was suffering from cervical cancer – a fact known only to her confidantes. When she turned down the nomination, she had to be physically supported by Juan Peron.
Goal post arms were a real thing! Not just a thing Madonna was doing!
Eva publicly fainted for the first time in 1950. The public was told that she had to be rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy, but, in truth, her cancer was already rapidly progressing. Her vaginal bleeding and fainting spells continued to increase for the next few months until, supposedly, in the last few months of her life – THIS IS THE PART YOU’VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR – she was given a lobotomy to help relieve her pain and anxiety.
That was a pain treatment at the time. Lobotomizing people. Doctors were reluctant to prescribe opiates – like morphine – because they worried that patients might get addicted. So pre-frontal lobtomies, after which patients did say they did not feel any pain – were seen as a preferable alternative.
Here is what she looked like in her final days, before she passed away in 1952 at the age of 33.
And Argentina grieved. Oh, how it grieved. 3 million people attended her funeral. 2,000 people were treated in hospitals (some of which her fund built) for injuries they sustained in the rush to move closer to her casket as it was transported through the streets. So many flowers were bought and put outside her favorite places that every flower shop in Buenos Aries ran out of flowers. Check it out:
I want to believe that my funeral will be like that, but really, I think I’ll have to lure people there by promising them really good music choices, and maybe an ice cream truck.
There were plans to build a massive pyramid-like monument in which to house Evita’s corpse. It was supposed to resemble the Statue of Liberty, but would depict a worker rather than a… green toga lady. Eva’s body would be housed in its base. Work on it began shortly after Eva’s death, however, in 1955 there was another military overthrow, and, before the monument could be completed, Eva’s body disappeared.
Many rumors endure about what happened to the body, including the notion that soldiers coupled with it, that wax copies were made and – honestly, you can come up with any rumor you want.
Its location wasn’t revealed until 1971, when there was another government coup. Officials then revealed that it was in a cemetery in Milan under the name “María Maggi.” The embalmed corpse was returned to Juan Peron who kept it on his dining room table until he died in 1974. Hopefully in a coffin.
Sadly, many of Evita’s best works didn’t endure. In 1955 the new government sought to destroy any traces of the old. The children’s hospital Eva worked on – which, at the time was so close to being complete that only the faucets needed to be installed – was instead turned into a refuge for outcasts and thieves. It was destroyed in short order.
Towards the end of her life, Eva was said to have remarked sadly that after her death “they’ll tear down all the signs.”
But her legacy endures.
In 1971, Juan Peron once again became president of Argentina. There is, incidentally, a military overthrow in Argentina, like, every ten years. You should probably never go there. Regardless. His third wife, Isabel, was made Vice President. When he died in 1974, Isabel became the first female President in the Western Hemisphere.
Never would have happened without Evita.
Evita’s confessor, Father Benitez, claimed that “she loved her clothes and jewels too much to be a saint.” And she was kind of trampy in her youth, too, if you believe the fan magazines. Still, the poet José María Castiñeira de Dios, claimed, that, upon seeing the hours she spent with those infected with syphilis and leprosy, “I had a sort of literary perception of the people and the poor and she has given me a Christian one, thus allowing me to become a Christian in the profoundest sense.”
I’m now more convinced than ever that Eva was a pretty remarkable lady, and not just because she was plucky, but because she legitimately seemed to have a profound desire to do good. I don’t think she was Mussolini in a dress, though if she had been, it would have been a really lovely Dior dress.
But I’m still a little sad she didn’t get to dance lustfully with Che. Those outfits look great.