Evita, First Lady
A Biography of Eva Peronby John Barnes
“John Barnes describes her life with a veteran storyteller’s robust style, rich in fascinating detail and confidential anecdote.” –Chicago Sun-Times
This is the story of one of the most fascinating women of all time—Maria Eva Duarte, who rose from poverty to become one of the richest, most powerful women in the world. As Eva Perón, or Evita as she was known to her adoring followers, she was a blond goddess in diamonds and furs who dominated and hypnotized a nation of eighteen million people for seven years before her death at the age of thirty-three.
In this first major biography of Eva Perón, John Barnes explores the paradox of this beautiful, brave woman who attacked the rich, Argentine ruling classes in countless speeches “in the name of the humble, homeless,” urging “los descamisados“—the shirtless ones—to “cry out against the old evil days.” Who exactly was Eva Perón, who so dominated the workers of Argentina that they were ready to do anything she asked of them? How did she amass a multi-million dollar personal fortune in her seven short years of power? John Barnes answers these questions, and helps to illuminate the mystery and myth that surrounds Eva Perón.
“Greed, hate, and passion too real to dismiss.” –Time
“John Barnes describes her life with a veteran storyteller’s robust style, rich in fascinating detail and confidential anecdote.” –Chicago Sun-Times
“Barnes’ biography is brisk, pointed, and thoroughly fascinating.” –Los Angeles Herald Examiner
“John Barnes’ excellent book is a splendid evocation of the woman and her times–the most precious ingredient of any creditable biography.” –The Miami Herald
1 – THE WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS
“If ever a man wishes to know what it is to have an inclination to commit suicide, let him spend a week in a rural town in Argentina.”
It was a foreign visitor to the Argentine pampas who made that remark long ago in the 1890s. Los Toldos is that kind of town. It hadn’t changed from the days when it was a frontier outpost less than fifty years before Eva Ibarguren was born. It’s still the same today – a dreary, squalid, little pueblo, built on the site of a long-forgotten Indian encampment. Dusty, unpaved streets wander out from the grassless, empty plaza and disappear into the plains. Dust covers everything, a foot thick on the ground, choking up in yellow clouds with the passing of each truck or herd of cattle, colouring the brown mud walls of the houses a faded grey. When the violent south-west wind, the pampero, blows across the pampas, Los Toldos disappears from view in the dust.
Then black clouds sweep out from the horizon, swallowing up the sky, unleashing thunder, lightning and torrents of rain, isolating the pueblo in a sea of mud.
Juana Ibarguren, a pretty, plump girl of Basque descent, lived on the edge of the town. It was not much of a home; one room and a patio shared with the chickens, goats, and five children. But then her lover, Juan Duarte, a local landowner, already had a wife and other children to support in Chivilcoy, another rather larger pampas town not far away. Still, he was a man of moderate means and it was naturally accepted that he would have another woman elsewhere. In fact, he would have been thought of as odd by his friends if he had not. Machismo – the cult of sexual conquest – was, still is, deeply rooted in the Argentine way of life. Women, legally as well as socially, were regarded as part of a man’s material possessions, as wives, virgin daughters, and mistresses – the first two to be protected from dishonour, the third to be pursued and used for pleasure. A wife could not get a divorce in Argentina (she still cannot) and, legally, both she and her children were considered part of her husband’s property. She expected him to be unfaithful. She might not like it. But she put up with it as long as he did not embarrass her by flaunting his girl friend in their own social strata. In wealthy families, he would have his gar”onni’re, bachelor rooms, in a discreet block of flats in town. For those who could not afford such luxuries, there were always the amoblados, love hotels which exist in every town and city in Argentina, where rooms are rented by the hour. In the countryside, in the home of the wealthy estancieros, the sons of the family gained their sexual experience with the servant girls or the daughters of the estancia’s farmworkers. They could not, of course, sleep with a girl from their own class of society. Her virginity was the most prized family possession of all, to be relinquished only for the price of a good marriage.
For the poor girl on the pampas, virginity was almost certainly a thing of the past by her fourteenth birthday. Few could expect anything more from life than grinding poverty. However, if she was really pretty, there was always the possibility that she might find a married man of means to support her. Juana Ibarguren was certainly pretty in a plump, pinchable sort of way. She also had an effervescent personality, the kind that usually gets what it wants. At the Duarte farm in Chivilcoy, where she worked as a cook, she had quickly fastened her flashing dark eyes on the master of the house. It was not long before she was pregnant with the first of her five children, all of them born in the one-room house that Juan Duarte had rented for her in in her home town. Her father had been the local coachman in Los Toldos, carrying the rich estancia families in his horse and trap to and from the local railway station, where Juana’s brother worked as the stationmaster. So she was not from the very lowest rung of rural peasant life, which often dispensed with the cost and formality of marriage. Perhaps then, it was understandable that some of her more ‘respectable” neighbours looked with disapproval at Juana Ibarguren and her growing number of illegitimate children.
But her relationship with Juan Duarte was a stable one. After all, it lasted for nearly fifteen years. Even if he did not live with the family, Juan visited them frequently. But although they were not deprived of his love and affection, they learnt at a very early age what it was like to be branded as bastards. Los Toldos was so small it could hardly be called a town, just a stop on the little railway line that meanders for a 100 miles through that part of the pampas, giving up midway to the next village of o’Brien.
Everyone led much the same squalid, poverty-stricken life. Even so, the Ibarguren children were ostracised. Neighbours would not let their own children play with them. But while that is something that no child would ever forget, the deepest scarring experience in Eva’s childhood – she was the youngest and nearly seven at the time – occurred when her father died. Juana Ibarguren, being a practical woman, knew that she could not go to the funeral (which in Argentina has to take place within 24 hours of death) because of the bitter hatred that Juan Duarte’s wife, Estela Grisolia, felt for her. But she wanted her children to see their father for the last time. So the girls – Elisa, the eldest, who was about 16, Blanca 14, and Arminda, a year older than Eva –- were dressed in mourning, black smocks and long black stockings, while Juan, the 10-year-old boy, wore a band of crepe around his sleeve. They set out on their first ever ride in a sulky to the Duarte estancia. But when they got there, they were not allowed into the house.
With death and funerals occupying such significant roles in Argentine life, Dona Estela was determined not to allow the evidence of her late husband’s unfaithfulness to be displayed in public around his coffin. So the bewildered little girls and their brother sat up in the sulky, crying their eyes out, not really comprehending what it was all about. Finally, a brother of the dead man interceded on behalf of “those little wretches who want to take one last look”. They were allowed to follow the coffin, in Indian file, after the family to the local cemetery.
Life was rough for Juana Ibarguren for the next couple of years. Juan Duarte had been her sole means of support. All that he left her was a legal declaration that her children were his – in order for them to be able to bear his name. So, in order to pay the rent for her tiny one-room house, she and the girls hired themselves out as cooks in the homes of the local estancias. It was then that Eva got her first close look at the rich, powerful families who controlled Argentina through the wealth generated by their ownership of the land. In Buenos Aires Province, which includes Los Toldos and is the largest of the pampas provinces, 15 families owned a million acres of land each. Another 50 families owned 50,000 acres. The estancias where Eva often worked existed virtually as independent mini-kingdoms. They had their own schools, chapels and hospitals. The estanciero families would divide their year between Paris and Buenos Aires, visiting the estancia usually at Christmas-time, at the start of the long, hot Argentine summer. Their journey to and from their nearest pampas railway station was, more often that not, their only connection with the tiny pueblos that had grown up around the stations that the British-owned railways had built to serve the estancias. For Eva, helping out in the kitchens, it was a world to be gawked at as a child – the crowds of guests and children, the nannies, governesses and major domos, and the patron, wearing the inevitable, expensive imitation of the clothes that the impoverished gauchos wore on the plains.
Eva never forgot those years or the dusty, grubby little pueblo by the railways tracks. In her autobiography, La Razon de mi Vida (The Reason for my Life), published shortly before she died in 1952, she recalled her childhood: “I” remember I was very sad for many days when I discovered that in the world there were poor people and rich people; and the strange thing is that the existence of the poor did not cause me as much pain as the knowledge that at the same time there were people who were rich . . . From each year I kept the memory of some injustice that roused me to rebellion.”
But life improved a little when she was ten years old – her mother had finally found another protector. It had taken a while. But despite five children and a growing plumpness, she could still attract men. There was a sexuality, a ripeness about her, an alluring excitement in her flashing, dark eyes. In her late thirties, mature and voluptuous, she had not lacked admirers. But it was finding the right one, the man who could pay la cuenta (the bill), that had taken the time. Finally, he appeared in the form of a local, small-town Radical politician. He had met her on a visit to Los Toldos and had promptly fallen for her charms. Like his predecessor, Juan Duarte, he was getting along in years and already had a family. Juana didn’t mind that. It showed a stability, lacking in the handsome, young machos who had been prowling around her and her daughters in Los Toldos. So he set her up in a small house on Julio A. Roca Street in Junin on the other side of town from his own home. It was not much of a place, built of whitewashed mud brick around a patio, its front door leading directly onto the pavement, typical of an Argentine provincial town. For although Junin boasted a population of over 30,000, it was still very much a town of the pampas – surrounded by the endless plain, the field of corn and herds of cattle.
To Dona Juana’s children, moving to Junin from their tiny pueblo was like moving to the big city. There were paved streets, two storey buildings, shops that sold dresses made in Buenos Aires, and even a cinema. Going to the cinema or walking down to the railway station to watch the arrival of the Buenos Aires train provided the main out-of-school entertainment, although in the spring and summer, on warm evenings and lazy Sunday afternoons, the girls would often head for the plaza, where they strolled arm-in-arm in the shade of the broad, leafy ombu trees, giggling and listening to the young men, who circled the other way around the plaza, passing the girls with a piropo, a whispered compliment in words that had not changed in generations. To the girl in a green dress: “You are a miracle when green; what will you be when you are ripe.” Or to the girl in red: “Pretty as a rose – but I’m afraid of thorns.”
It is doubtful that Eva Duarte had many piropos whispered in her ear. She was still very much of an ugly duckling in those early teenage years. There is an old school picture of her that has survived – a classroom group photograph taken at the end of the school year with the girls in freshly-starched white smocks with bows like butterflies on top of their heads. Eva is half-way back, a rather plain, sullen-looking child with dark, brooding eyes staring unhappily out from a sallow complexion. There’s no indication there of the beauty-to-be. Not even a hint of the curves that Argentine girls develop so delightfully at an early age. One of her classmates from those days remembers her as a girl who kept very much to herself, a quiet, day-dreaming type. She was not a bright student, and all the indications were that she faced a depressing future. Her mother had already found husbands for her three eldest girls from the succession of young bachelors who lodged at the house. Elisa married an army officer after finishing high school and getting a job in the post office, thanks to a little string-pulling by Dona Juana’s benefactor. Blanca had married a struggling young lawyer, and Arminda married the lift operator at the town hall. Son Juan had picked up a job selling soap on commission to the local stores. As for Eva, mama’s plans for her went no further than finishing primary school, then helping out full-time in the boarding house. But her youngest daughter had other ideas. In October of 1933, she had been given a small part in a school play called Arriba Estudiantes (Students Arise), an emotional, patriotic, flag-waving melodrama. From that moment on, Eva Duarte resolved to shake the pampas dust from her shoes. She was going to become a great actress.
She did not waste time. The first thing she learned from the film magazines she bought from the kiosco at the corner of the plaza was that there was only one place in Argentina where a girl could become a star – Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital. That presented certain problems. For a start, there were several hundred miles of pampas between her and the big city. She had no money, and there was certainly no way her family was going to help her. Then, she was still at school, and she was only fourteen years old. But when Eva set her mind on something it was very rare she failed to get it. A few months later, just after her fifteenth birthday, a handsome young tango singer, Agustin Magaldi, came to Junin to play a couple of nights at the local theatre. Juan Duarte had a friend who worked there and who arranged for Eva to slip in through a side door of the theatre during the first night’s performance. When Magaldi left the stage, he found this slip of a girl with very white skin and very red lips waiting for him in his makeshift dressing room at the back of the building. The next evening, after the show, they drove through the night to Buenos Aires.
©1978 by John Barnes. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved