Evita Peron


In 1949 the most familiar scene in Argentina was the one played out
almost daily at the Ministry of Labor in Buenos Aires. There, under the glare of
camera lights, a former radio star and movie actress, now the most powerful
woman in South America, would enter her office past a crush of adoring,
impoverished women and children. Evita Peron, the wife of President Juan Peron,
would sit at her desk and begin one of the great rituals of Peronism, the
political movement she and her husband created. It was a pageant that sustained
them in power. She would patiently listen to the stories of the poor, then reach
into her desk to pull out some money. Or she would turn to a minister and ask
that a house be built. She would caress filthy children. She would kiss lepers,
just as the saints had done. To many Argentines, Evita Peron was a flesh-and-
blood saint; later, 40,000 of them would write to the pope attesting to her
miracles.

She was born on May 7, 1919, in Los Toldos, and baptized Maria Eva, but
everyone called her Evita. Her father abandoned the family shortly after her
birth. Fifteen years of poverty followed and, in early 1935, the young Evita
fled her stifling existence to go to Buenos Aires. Perhaps, as some have said,
she fell in love with a tango singer who was passing through.

She wanted to be an actress, and in the next few years supported herself
with bit parts, photo sessions for titillating magazines and stints as an
attractive judge of tango competitions. She began frequenting the offices of a
movie magazine, talking herself up for mention in its pages. When, in 1939, she
was hired as an actress in a radio company, she discovered a talent for playing
heroines in the fantasy world of radio soap opera.

This was a period of political uncertainty in Argentina, yet few people
were prepared for the military coup that took place in June 1943. Among the many
measures instituted by the new government was the censorship of radio soap
operas. Quickly adapting to the new environment, Evita approached the officer in
charge of allocating airtime, Colonel Anibal Imbert. She seduced him, and Imbert
approved a new project Evita had in mind, a radio series called Heroines of
History. Years later, people would say that Evita had been a prostitute.

Six months after Evita met Imbert, an earthquake struck Argentina.
Colonel Juan Peron, the secretary of labor in the military government, launched
a collection for the victims. He arranged for the Buenos Aires acting community
to donate its time for an evening\'s entertainment, with the proceeds going to
disaster relief. Evita was present on the big night, and she wanted to meet the
colonel. Peron had risen quickly in the government and had accomplished a major
coup with the unions, essentially taking control of them. But Evita probably
knew nothing of this. Not political in the conventional sense, she was attracted
instead by the colonel\'s dashing figure and his aura of power. They talked for
hours and left together. Within days Evita had moved into Peron\'s apartment.

In February, Peron engineered the ouster of the president and took over
the war ministry for himself. Evita continued her radio portrayals of famous
women, but her ambitions lay in the movies. She wanted Peron to help her in her
film career, and he did by procuring the film itself, a commodity difficult to
obtain during World War II. He offered it to a movie studio in exchange for
Evita\'s starring role in a film. When she arrived for the first day of filming,
it was in a war ministry limousine.

Four months into their relationship, Evita was named president of a new
actors\' union Peron had created. (Any actors who wanted to work were obliged to
join.) Soon afterward, she began a daily radio broadcast called Toward a Better
Future. It was government propaganda, and it was the first time Evita\'s dramatic
talents had been harnessed to advance the political interests she was picking up
from Peron.

When World War II ended in 1945, Peron, then vice president, became a
target of demonstrations because of his widely known fascist sympathies. In the
fall of 1945, the army demanded his resignation, saying he was a lightning rod
for discontent. Peron acceded, reluctantly.

But he refused to go quietly. Peron controlled the unions, and the
unions controlled millions of men. Appearing in early October before 15,000
unionists (Evita was present), he announced that his last act as secretary of
labor-a post he still held-would