ON SEPT. 23, 1971, IN THE IRON Gate suburb of Madrid, a van delivered a black wooden coffin to the mansion where Juan Perón, Argentina's exiled dictator, lived in bitter exile with Isabel, his third wife. In it lay the body of his second wife, Eva Duarte Perón. Missing for almost two decades but perfectly preserved, the embalmed corpse had been spirited out of Argentina by the generals who had ousted Perón and buried anonymously in an Italian grave. Now the generals had returned the body to Perón. He had Evita's coffin set up on the dining table. As Perón plotted his return to power, Isabel lovingly combed her predecessor's long blond hair.
Thus it is with Eva Perón: The stories that have attached themselves to her name—the true stories, like the one above, and the baroque fantasies composed by friend and enemy alike—all have the feel of a dreamlike narrative in which truth and myth are combined. In most tellings, the Evita saga hews to one of two principal themes: She was either a saint who loved the common people—or a calculating whore who slept her way to power and exploited everyone she met. Evita, the movie (opening Christmas Day) based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice stage musical and starring Madonna in the title role, tries to reconcile these two conflicting spirits.
To tell Eva's story involves sifting through mounds of propaganda—much of it generated by Evita herself. In her ghostwritten 1952 autobiography, she said she had been born in Junin, a town on the Pampas, in 1922. In fact, she was born three years earlier in Los Toldos, a desolate little village in Buenos Aires Province, one of five children of Don Juan Duarte, a married rancher, and his mistress, Juana Ibarguren. A cook and seamstress, Juana had been traded to Duarte by her mother, according to family legend, for a horse and carriage.
After the death of Don Juan in 1926, Juana and her children moved to Junin, the town Evita would later claim as her birthplace, where Juana ran a boardinghouse for the town's bachelor gentlemen. Evita, the dreamer, the budding actress who haunted the local movie theater and idolized Norma Shearer, set her sights higher. She told her sister Erminda that she would marry only a prince or a president.
As a teenager, Evita, with a friend, was sexually assaulted by two young aristocrats, landowners' sons, who left the girls naked on the side of the road, to be rescued by a trucker. The tale goes far, say her supporters, in explaining why Evita became a sworn enemy of Argentina's wealthy and a champion of the poor.
When she was 15, Evita left Junin forever. Here the stories diverge, depending on the teller's politics. One version says she traveled to Buenos Aires with her mother to audition for a radio soap opera. The other maintains that she went to the dressing room of a touring tango singer, gave herself to him and then accompanied him to Buenos Aires, where she led a life of casual debauchery and calculated ambition.
Evita didn't exactly take the big city by storm—at first. Uneducated and unpolished, she wasn't a great beauty. "Her only assets," writes Alicia Dujovne Ortiz in Eva Perón, her 1995 biography, "were her transparent skin and her vivid eyes." But she persisted, and over the next 10 years gradually forged a career as an actress onstage, on the radio and in the movies. According to the rumors that were spread about her after she attained power, she used the bedroom ruthlessly to get what she wanted.
By the time she met Juan Perón in 1943, she was, at 24, a well-known radio actress and a celebrity in her own right. Perón was a 48-year-old widower, a career army officer and an admirer of Fascism, which he had seen firsthand during officer training in Italy in the 1930s. After another in the dreary round of military coups that mark Argentine history, he was named Minister for Labor. He and Evita met at a festival for earthquake victims. "She literally elbowed her way through the crowd to be able to meet him and sit next to him," says Ortiz. Evita became Perón's mistress, and in 1945, the year before he was elected president, they were married. "Through Perón," says Tomas Eloy Martinez, an Argentine journalist and author whose 1996 novel Santa Evita traces the strange journey of Evita's corpse, "Evita acquired self-confidence; he granted her legitimacy, being a military man marrying a woman who was both an actress and of bad reputation and illegitimate. When she realized how much power there was, she wanted to use that power to avenge the humiliations she had suffered."
Perón, calculating but almost devoid of personality, unleashed Evita on a dazzled nation, and for five years she blazed like a meteor. As the only person Perón trusted completely, Eva, who held no office of her own, served as his political hatchet person, driving out high officials he wanted to oust. She was also his link to the masses. The poor people of Argentina—the descamisados, or shirtless ones—embraced her as one of their own.
To Evita, charity was a personal thing. It wasn't enough that she administered millions of dollars in health and welfare benefits through the Social Aid Foundation, which she founded after the wealthy women of Buenos Aires blackballed her from the country's foremost charity. She also visited lepers, harangued the rich and opened her doors to the poor, giving away sewing machines, bridal gowns, false teeth or whatever might be needed. Women supplicants, no matter how disheveled, were greeted with a kiss. A man who worked with her told of throwing himself between Evita and a woman with a syphilitic sore on her mouth. Evita insisted on kissing the woman. "Never do that again," she told the man afterward. "It's the price I have to pay." Under Perón, and with Eva's advocacy, Argentine women got the vote for the first time in 1950.
This was the Evita of legend—the poor girl who redistributed the nation's wealth from the rich to the downtrodden. The legend does not, of course, detail the wealth the Peróns distributed to themselves. With Argentina running trade surpluses achieved through beef and grain shipments during World War II, the Peróns systematically looted the treasury. Evita stocked her wardrobes, jewelry cases and a Swiss bank account. As corruption and mismanagement and Juan Perón's political strong-arm tactics triggered an economic slump that would last 30 years, Evita used her considerable power over the police, the unions and the press to cow and punish her opponents.
Always frail, Evita underwent an emergency appendectomy in 1950. By some accounts, her surgeon later said that she refused to submit to a life-saving hysterectomy after tests revealed she had uterine cancer, claiming the surgery would have interrupted her work.
Evita's final appearance was at Juan Perón's second inauguration on June 4, 1952. Filled with painkillers and weighing about 80 pounds, she rode in an open car, held up by a plaster support under a long fur coat. She died seven weeks later at 33.
Remarkably, Evita grew more potent dead than alive. Her grief-stricken followers petitioned the Vatican to have her canonized—to no avail. After Perón was overthrown in 1955, the new regime, fearful that her body would become a shrine for the Perónists, had it removed from the Ministry of Labour, where it was on display. It was stashed in various unlikely places—a military base, a truck parked on the street, someone's attic—until it was shipped to Italy and buried, to be exhumed in 1971 and returned to Perón. The act of reconciliation was not without political motive. In the absence of Juan and Evita, Peronism—a cult of personality that accommodated a wide and often mutually exclusive range of ideologies—flourished in Argentina as never before. The government realized it was time to make overtures to Perón.
In 1973, Perón returned to power but died the next year at 78. His third wife, Isabel, who governed disastrously, was ousted by the military in 1976. After a futile war with Britain over the Falkland Islands in 1982 and a vicious civil war, the generals turned the country over to civilian control in 1983. Today, President Carlos Saul Menem, who is leading Argentina along a path of democracy and free trade, is proud to call himself a Perónist.
And Evita? Her itinerant body is finally at peace, buried beneath three layers of steel plate in the Duarte family vault in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. Her neighbors are the very oligarchs she so despised.
LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in Buenos Aires