Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote one of his most famous musicals about her in the 1970s. In 1996 Madonna won a Golden Globe Award for starring her in a film. She is venerated alongside the virgin Mary in many Catholic homes. But she was also bombarded with tomatoes during her only visit to Switzerland, King George VI refused to meet her and even after her death her body was stolen not once, but twice by those who vehemently hated her. All of this is a testimony to the extraordinary impact and legacy of Eva Peron, who, from humble beginnings eventually became the first lady of Argentina and undoubtedly one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century.
On the 7th of May 1919, Maria Eva Duarte was born in the town of Los Toldos in Argentina, to parents of Spanish and French Basque descent. Her parents were unmarried and her father Juan Duarte was a wealthy rancher who already had another wife and family. At the time in rural Argentina, it was not uncommon for wealthy men to have multiple families. When Eva was just a year old, her father, their sole means of support, left them for his other family, leaving them in abject poverty. Literally the only thing he left them was a document stating that the children were his, thus allowing them to use his surname. Eva’s mother, Juana was also stigmatized because of Eva and her siblings’ status as an illegitimate children. In the midst of such trying circumstances, Juana certainly could never imagine that this little girl, who would later become affectionately known as Evita, would end up becoming one of the most influential and famous women of the 20th century.
When Eva was six years old her father died. But when Juana and her children attempted to attend the funeral, but they were promptly escorted out of the church as Mrs. Juan Duarte didn’t want to have her late husband’s mistress and her children present.
Juana’s plan for her daughter to escape their dire situation was to marry her off to a wealthy local bachelor, but Eva herself had other plans. She had acquired a love for acting by regularly participating in school plays and concerts, and her favoured pastime was going to the cinema. At 15, Eva fled her poverty-stricken village by running off to Buenos Aires with one of the nation’s up and coming musicians. The relationship didn’t last long, but Eva remained in the city, pursuing jobs on the stage and on radio. She bleached her naturally dark hair to blonde — a look she famously maintained for the rest of her life — and started her career as an actress.
During the 1930s, Buenos Aires was known as the Paris of South America. It had a bustling cultural life and was filled with not only cafés and restaurants, but also theatres and movie houses. But Eva initially still struggled financially. By 1936 she managed to star in a few B-grade movie melodramas, but her break finally came in 1942, when, at 23 she landed a role in a popular daily radio drama. Later that same year, she signed another major contract to play a number of parts in the historical-drama called The Great Women of History. In it she played the roles of Elizabeth I of England, Sarah Bernhardt and the tsarina Alexandra of Russia. Eva started to excel and soon not only became one of the highest paid radio actresses in Argentina, but also co-owned the radio company.
But Eva’s true rise to fame came when she met Juan Peron in January of 1944. During that month, tragedy struck in the town of San Juan: an earthquake resulted in the deaths of no less than ten thousand people. Peron, then the National Secretary of Labour, hosted an art festival as a fundraiser to help affected families. He invited the country’s top radio and film actors to participate. At a gala held for participants on the 22nd of January, the two met — a day Eva would later describe as “marvellous.” He was 48 and she was 24.
Juan’s spectacular rise in Argentinian politics made him a feared contender for the highest office in the land. In October 1945 he was arrested on suspicion of planning a power grab. The people, however, demanded his release in a massive and successful demonstration a week later and the very next day Juan secretly married Eva in a civil ceremony.
In 1946, Juan won the Argentinian presidential election. During the campaign Eva played a major part, using her weekly radio show as a platform to urge the poor to align themselves with his movement. She won the adulation of the masses. The following year Eva embarked on a highly publicized “rainbow tour” of Europe, meeting with numerous dignitaries and heads of state. Her husband had been invited by the Spanish dictator Franco, but he refused, upon which she volunteered to do the tour instead. The tour was labelled as an a-political “goodwill” tour, but through it, Eva became associated with fascism. After she had met with Franco and Pope Pius XII, she visited Charles de Gaulle in France, where she received word that King George VI would not be receiving her in Britain. Eva consequently cancelled the trip, citing “exhaustion” as the official reason. The final stop on the tour was Switzerland, where she wasn’t well received by everyone either. Rocks were tossed at her car windows and after she was also targeted by tomatoes, she finally decided it was time to return home to Argentina. During the tour, she featured on the cover of Time magazine — a feature proved to be highly controversial because it mentioned that she had been born out of wedlock. The publication was banned from Argentina for several years. After becoming the first lady in 1946, Evita had had her birth records altered to read that she had been born to married parents, and placed her birth date three years later, making herself younger.
After the tour, Eva changed her former image characterized by film-star hairstyles and elaborate hats to a much more refined style. She could now be seen wearing Cartier jewels and, in an attempt to cultivate a more serious political persona, she began to increasingly appear in public with tailleurs produced by Christian Dior.
But Eva’s status as an illegitimate child continued to haunt her. The Sociedad de Beneficencia, a major Argentinian charity organization, traditionally elected the Argentinian first lady as its president, but refused to extend the invitation to Peron because they believed the fact that her illegitimacy could set a bad example for the orphans it was caring for. She consequently founded the Eva Peron Foundation. In addition to distributing shoes, sewing machines and cooking pots to the poor her foundation also funded scholarships and built homes and hospitals. It even oversaw the construction of an entire city named in her honour. Eva’s work with the foundation gained her the reputation of a saint and played a large role in her idolization. Eva set aside time every day to personally meet with the poor and during the latter part of her career, she was working as much as 20 to 22 hours a day in her foundation, much to her husband’s dismay. Eva felt as though she was on a crusade to eradicate poverty and social ills.
Eva successfully helped campaign for women’s suffrage and founded the Female Peronist Party in 1949, which helped attract a lot of female votes for her husband Juan. In 1952 she declined an invitation to be her husband’s vice-president, arguing that her only goal in life was to be the woman who brought the people’s hopes and dreams to the president. By then she already suffered from advanced cervical cancer and became the first Argentine to undergo chemotherapy — a new treatment at the time. On the 26th of July 1952, at the tender age of 33, Eva Peron passed away. After her death, the government ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff for ten days in remembrance of her.
The love and affection the Argentinian people had for Eva Peron is, rather tragically, evidenced in the fact that during the morning after her death, as her body was being moved to the Ministry of Labour building, 8 people were crushed to death and over 2000 rushed to hospital as a result of the stampedes aimed at getting a good look at her. For two weeks, queues stretching for many city blocks could be seen with mourners lining up to see Eva’s body.
Within two years of Eva’s death, Juan Peron’s government was overthrown in a military coup, necessitating that he hastily flee the country without making arrangements to secure Eva’s embalmed body, which had been on display for two years. The new government removed Eva’s body from display and secreted it to a crypt in Milan where it had been kept under the name “Maria Maggi” for 16 years. In 1971, the government bowed to Peronist demands, turning over her body to Juan who then lived in exile in Madrid, Spain, with his third wife Isabel. They kept the corpse in their dining room on a platform near the table. Juan returned from exile in 1973, becoming Argentinian president yet again. After he died in office in 1974, Isabel, who succeeded him as president, finally repatriated Eva’s body to Argentina. Her remains were installed in a crypt in the presidential palace, but was taken again two years later by a terrorist group hostile to Peronism. Eva Peron finally found her final resting place in the Duarte family cemetery in Buenos Aires. Naturally, later Argentinian governments took elaborate measures to secure her tomb.
Eva Peron continues to grab the fascination of millions. As controversial as her legacy may be to some, remains an icon of self-sacrifice, femininity, class and true leadership in Argentina and around the world.