Che Guevara in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical Evita.
In 1978, two Englishmen, Andrew Lloyd-Weber and Tim Rice premiered a new musical in London about the second wife of Argentine President Juan Peron. They called it “Evita.” The musical became a smash success, spawning productions around the globe, launched the career of Elaine Paige, won Tony Awards for Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone. Actresses from Liza Minnelli to Meryl Streep were dying to play Eva Peron in the movie version which eventually ended up starring Madonna. But how close to the truth was “Evita”? And how did this illegitimate daughter from a backwater town in Argentina come to be revered as practically a saint in Argentina?
Eva Maria Duarte was born on May 7, 1919 in the small town Los Toldos in Argentina. Her father Juan Duarte was not married to her mother, he had another family in another town. Her mother Juana Ibarguren, who met Juan Duarte when she was 15 years old, became his mistress, eventually bearing him five children of whom Eva was the youngest. When she was little more than a year old, her father returned to his family, abandoning them to a life of grinding poverty. They had to move from their comfortable house to the slums of Los Toldos to a two room shack. Rumors flew and persisted through out Eva's lifetime that her mother resorted to prostitution to take care of her family. The reality was much humbler, Juana took in sewing to support her family until each child was old enough to work.
When Eva was 6, her father died in a car accident. Juana dressed the children up and took them to the funeral although their presence was considered an affront to his legitimate family. They were forced to walk to the grave-site, while his family rode in comfort. For the rest of her life, Eva and her sisters were unable to come to terms with their illegitimacy. When Eva married Juan Peron, the registery of her birth was changed to not only make her three years younger but also to imply that her parents had been married. And in her autobiography, Eva glossed over her childhood years, starting her story with her arrival in Buenos Aires at the age of 15.
As a child, Eva was skinny, with long black hair and big staring brown eyes. At the age of 8, Eva went to the local one room school house, but she was often absent, due to illness. When she was 11, the family moved to Junin, where her oldest sister Elisa had gotten a job with the post office. Eva's mother turned her house into a guest house, which again led to rumors that her mother ran a brothel, and that Eva and her sisters were forced to entertain the 'boarders.' The reality was far less salacious. Her mother Juana rented the rooms to two elderly bachelors who were kind to the Duarte girls. Eva from childhood was ambitious for more out of life than a small town job and then marriage. She yearned to be an actress like her idol, Norma Shearer.
"On this night of a thousand stars let me take you to heaven's doors, where the music of love's guitar plays forever more." Agustin Mgaldi in Evita.
In the musical 'Evita' the young Eva Duarte meets tango singer Agustin Magaldi, who she seduces into taking her with him to Buenos Aires. However there is no record that Magaldi appeared in Junin, the year that Eva turned 15. In any event, Magaldi was a chubby Mama's boy who traveled with his wife, not the suave matinee idol he appears in the musical. Another more credible version is that Eva's mother initially chaperoned her in the city, that they went around to all the radio stations, until they found one that could use a young girl. Juana then left Eva in the care of some friends, while she reluctantly returned to Junin. However she got there, she was on her own at 15, with just a battered cardboard suitcase and her dream of a better life.
"What's new Buenos Aires? I'm new, I wanna say I'm just a little stuck on you, you'll be on me too."
Buenos Aires was the third largest city in the Americas, after New York and Chicago. If Eva could make it there, she could do anything. The next few years were tough ones for Eva. The life of a struggling actress is never easy, and in 1930's Argentina it was even worse. Theater companies had no permanent troupe of actors, and more than once actors on the road could find themselves unemployed and penniless if the show failed. More than once, Eva found herself having to submit to the casting couch to get even a small part in a play. Over time, Eva acquired the polish and skills necessary to be successful. 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.
By 1944, when she met Juan Peron, she was earning about 6,000 pesos a month. She had learned the value of appearances, making sure that she was seen in all the best restaurants and cafes. When Eva met Juan Peron, he was a colonel in the Argentine army, and had just been made both Secretary of Labour and Secretary of War after the army had seized control of the government in 1943. Almost twice Eva's age at 48, he was a childless widower, his first wife had died of uterine cancer six years before. In early 1944, an earthquake rocked the small town of San Juan at the foot of the Andes mountains killing 6,000 people. Peron came up with the idea of an artistic festival to raise funds for the victims. Eva attended the gala concert with a close friend, but she left that night with Peron (expressed in the song "I'd be Surprisingly Good For You." Peron had a mistress at the time, a young girl that he used to introduce to people as his daughter. Eva took care of the mistress by hiring a truck to move her stuff into Peron's apartment, kicking the mistress out on the street (In Evita, this is the "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" sequence).
Eva had now hitched her wagon to Peron's rising star. Juan Domingo Peron was born on October 8, 1895. Although his paternal grandfather had been a doctor, Peron's father became a farmer and landowner. Like Evita, Peron was illegitimate, but he seems not to have suffered the psychic wounds that Eva suffered from, although it was not public knowledge. By the time Peron turned 16, his parents had married. Peron attended military school and joined the army at the age of 21. He was tall, taller than most Argentine men at the time, macho, with black hair and a movie star smile. He suffered from a mild form of psoriasis that required medicine that also made him look good in photos. He had traveled to Europe in 1939, staying for two years, visiting all the facist countries. He was particularly taken with Mussolini, attracted to the pomp and ceremony of the facist rallies. Like most successful politicians, Peron was charismatic. While other members of the government avoided the press like the plague, Peron was always ready to talk to them. He also had the ability to reflect and interpret the mood of his supporters and also to shape it. He appeared enigmatic and evasive at times. While Secretary of Labor, Peron helped the government to establish the minimum wage, paid holidays, and medical care for the workers, which was revolutionary at the time in Argentina and hated by the wealthy landowners. The Oligarchy or Aristocracy as they are called in Evita had been the dominant political power in Argentine life. in 1930, 1,804 people owned the equivalent in area of Holland, Switzerland and Belgium. They were mainly conservative and more concerned about keeping and consolidating their power. The army coup changed all that and in particular Peron's courting of the working class who had been overlooked by previous regimes.
The image that people most associate of Eva, the smiling, laughing blonde came from her first starring role on film, which she got because Peron provided the film stock to the production company. She also in 1944 became the first president of the newly formed actor's union in Argentina. Soon Eva added a political radio show to her line-up caled "Towards a Better Tomorrow," which consisted solely of content designed to promote Peron. From being apolitical, Eva took to politics with a vengeance. Using the most ordinary language, designed to appeal to the working class, Eva conveyed what she wanted people to believe about Peron. Eva's political education at first consisted of her sitting in on Peron's meetings with his supporters. By now they were living together openly. She would sit quietly, not saying anything, but absorbing everything. She was seen as inconsequential and unimportant.
In 1945, Peron became Vice-President of Argentina, but while he was popular, he was also accumulating enemies, even amongst the army. Rumors began that Eva had been a prostitute on her way up. This was used to explain her 'hold' as it were over Peron. Prostitutes, far from being seen as victims, were considered to be exploiters of men. Only a prostitute or a femme fatale could hold such sway over a powerful man like Peron. What they didn't realize was that it was the other way around, Peron was the one who held sway over Eva. Like other power couples, it was also thought that it was ambition not love or sex that held them together.
In October of 1945, Peron was forced to resign by his opponents within the armed forces and he was arrested on October 9th. Mass demonstrations by the trade unions forced his release 9 days later. His release date October 17th was later celebrated as a major holiday in Argentina. Peron's supporters became known as 'los descamisados' or shirtless ones, a derogatory term which soon began to define the entire working class of Argentina. While Peron was in prison, Evita went to Peron's friend and lawyer Bramuglia, to have him file a writ of habeas corpus to get him released, which would have meant that Peron would have had to leave the country, possibly for good. Bramuglia treated Evita poorly, telling her that she would ruin Peron's political career. After one visit, he slammed the door in her face so hard that she fell over. Evita wrote Peron a letter in prison expressing her deep love for him.
"My adored treasure, only we are seperated from those we love can we know how much we love them."
Four days after Peron's release, he and Eva were married. Peron was planning a run for President and it was seen as prudent that he be married. Soon afterwards, all material related to Eva's career as an actress quietly disappeared, her last film was never released, and she refused to talk about that part of her life anymore. She was now the wife of a presidential candidate, with no past but a glittering future.
"A New Argentina, the voice of the people, cannot be, and must not be, and will not be denied!"
Stay tuned for Part Two of Evita's story, from years as wife of President Peron to her early death.
Evita - The Real Life of Eva Peron - Nicholas Fraser & Marysa Navarro
Evita - The Musical - Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice