Blessed as I am to live in London, every so often I get to venture inside somewhere unexpected – and unexpected. Tonight was a particularly special occasion, as I found myself inside the Argentine Ambassador to London’s Residence, in luscious Belgrave Square.
It was a privilege just to see inside this beautiful building, with its magnificent chandeliers, wrought-iron balustrades, ornate fireplaces and damask drapes – not to mention an eclectic mixture of paintings; everything from landscapes to pop art. Designed by Thomas Cubitt and built in 1851, this classically-elegant building was once the home of the Duke of Richmond and, during World War II, served as a meeting point and shelter for Argentine pilots fighting in the British ranks. Since 1936, it has been owned by Argentina and its role, now, is to promote cultural and business links between Argentina and the U.K. It’s one of those places where you think: if these walls could only talk.
We weren’t here just to admire the soft furnishings, though. We’d been invited to the Residence for a special reason: an evening celebrating the life & legacy of Eva Perón: best known to us all as Evita. At this point, I should lay my cards on the table: trail-blazing women have always fascinated me – and none more so than Evita, for whom I have a particular affection, having spent time in Argentina and visited both the Museo Evita, in Buenos Aires, and Eva’s tomb, in Recoleta Cemetery.
Dr Jill Hedges – Eva’s biographer – introduced her book by stating that she has spent many years living and working in Argentina, and knows well the area in which Eva grew up, Los Toldos. Apparently, very little has changed there since Eva left home, aged 15: it remains a small, gossip-fuelled village where people talk about each other behind closed doors. It was always a difficult environment for those growing up on the wrong side of the tracks and consequently Eva left home as soon as possible; aged just 15, she headed for the bright lights of Buenos Aires.
Jill’s purpose in writing this biography was to examine how Eva – whom Jill describes as an “exciting and imaginative subject” – converted herself from a radio actress into the image of a political woman. As has happened to so many successful and high-profile women, Eva’s reputation has suffered greatly since her death, due in no small part to the scurrilous rumours put round about her by her enemies and those of her husband, Juan Peron. The first substantive biography of Eva to be published in English, this book sets out to right a number of wrongs.
In tonight’s talk, Jill focused on a number of topics: Eva’s relationship with her husband, her failed attempt to become vice-president of Argentina, the 1955 coup which saw Juan Perón deposed & exiled – and the legacy of Evita, as she has come to be known. It was fascinating stuff, and I have every intention of reading Jill’s book; in the meantime, I’m sharing a little of what I learned…
Eva met Juan Perón, then Argentina’s Secretary of Labour, in January 1944, when she was 25 and a successful radio actress. Despite the 24-year age gap, the couple married the following year.
Much has been written about their relationship – in particular, who manipulated who (if at all). It’s Jill’s belief that Eva was artfully manipulated by her husband, although she qualifies this by saying that the two did balance each other out and that Eva had a fiery temper which Perón could not always manage. It’s worth remembering, too, that Eva would not have become the icon that she now is had she not met Perón; he, however, could have become President without her – albeit a different sort. Despite having a strong will and strongly-held principles, Eva was very loyal to Perón and generally found his manipulation of her “useful”. She certainly wasn’t above manipulating him to get what she wanted.
For his part, Perón unquestionably placed a great deal of faith in Eva. Having been elected President of Argentina in 1946, just one year late she embarked, alone, upon a highly-publicised “Rainbow Tour of Europe”, meeting various dignitaries and heads of state and securing a cover upon Time magazine. This was a whole new level of performance: Eva was very much learning on the job.
THE VICE PRESIDENT QUESTION
A pivotal moment in Argentinean history which is oft-discussed, yet rarely agreed upon: why did Perón, ultimately, refuse to give Eva the role of Vice President that she so desperately craved? According to Jill, the Argentinean military was adamantly opposed to the idea, believing that no benefits, and many problems, would arise from such an appointment. It is likely, also, that Perón knew by then that Eva was terminally ill (this prognosis was kept from Eva) and that she would be unable to fulfil the requirements of the role.
Nonetheless, this was a dramatic and pivotal moment, not just within their marriage but within Argentinean history: the general public was demanding that Eva be given the job, and women had just been granted the vote. Jill described Perón’s decision as a “tragedy” between Perón and Eva. Knowing how badly the public would react to the news, Perón asked his wife to explain his decision to them.
Eva is a fascinating character for many reasons, not least because she was in no way a feminist or even a particularly progressive thinker. Indeed, Jill describes her as “resentful” – albeit understandably so. That said, Eva certainly held solid beliefs and she never ceased striving to equip women with an independence they could never previously have dreamed of. She stood up for women, the poor and the disabled. As Jill pointed out, Eva never had the “luxury” of being a feminist; while middle-class women were demanding the right to pursue careers as doctors or lawyers, Eva and her working class contemporaries were more concerned with having sufficient money with which to feed their families. And yet, it was in part due to Eva’s work behind the political scenes that women’s suffrage was granted in 1947.
Eva lost her battle with cancer aged just 33. Prior to her death she had undergone a lobotomy; not, thinks Jill, for the kinds of sinister reasons with which we associate that procedure these days. In 1952, a lobotomy was still seen as a progressive and useful treatment for someone suffering a great deal of pain, and there is no reason to think that wasn’t why she submitted to the operation. Post-death, Eva’s embalmed corpse became a “trophy” – a fate which Perón, upon whom Eva’s death had a lasting impact, was determined would not befall him.
Perón’s second term in office came to a turbulent end in 1955 when he was deposed by a military coup. For his part, Perón was desperate to avoid further violence, having visited Spain directly after its civil war and seen for himself that war’s horrendous ramifications. Nor did he want to see armed trade union members on the street, despite many of his supporters questioning why the unions had not come out in support of him. Consequently, Perón found himself in exile in Venezuela, where a number of attempts were made upon his life.
Did the Peróns “steal”, for example from pension funds, as has been alleged? Jill does not believe so; during her research she found very little evidence of personal enrichment – and Perón had little money during his years in exile. Neither of the couple was motivated by money – and the much-maligned Eva Perón Foundation seems to have been guilty of waste rather than of theft.
I’m so glad I attended this talk. It was a genuinely insightful glimpse into a woman who remains not just an icon, but an enigma. Who, for all her faults, fought to make other people’ lives better – and who would, had she not been snatched away at such a cruelly young age, would have gone on to achieve so much more.