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Eva: A Figure Who Refuses to Die

By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Foreign Service
January 1, 1997

With all its flash and verve and hype, the movie "Evita" aims right past Eva Peron, the woman, and draws a bead on Eva Peron, the myth. Which is just as well. The myth is a fabulous target, the story of a modern-day saint who had the grace to die young. The woman, on the other hand, would be hard to portray with any real sympathy.

As played by Madonna, and as enshrined in legend, Evita was a beautiful young girl who made her way from the dusty Argentine provinces to the metropolis of Buenos Aires, where she worked as a radio actress, carving out a modest career until she caught the eye of the handsome and powerful army officer Juan Peron.

Together they rose to hold a nation in their hands. She hated the rich, who had scorned her, and loved the poor, from whose ranks she had come. She enveloped the poor with her love, giving them hope, giving them power. When she died, it rained for two weeks -- even the Argentine heavens mourned her untimely passing.

Is that the truth? The writer V.S. Naipaul went to Argentina to find out, and in his 1974 essay "The Return of Eva Peron" he expressed his frustration at the trouble he was having separating fact from fiction. Then, in exasperation -- or perhaps, finally understanding the place -- he wrote: "So the truth begins to disappear: it is not relevant to the legend."

The real Eva Peron, according to a newly published biography by Alicia Dujovne Ortiz, began as something of a sex symbol but quickly left that phase behind. She probably didn't have to sleep with the tango singer Agustin Magaldi to get him to take her to Buenos Aires, and there probably wasn't quite so much traffic in and out of her bedroom as the new movie would have us believe.

Juan Peron was the hormone actuator of the glamorous presidential couple, the macho heartthrob, the one who caused ladies in the vast Peronist crowds to flash their panties and scream at the top of their lungs that they wanted to bear his children. Eva was beautiful but unattainable, isolated by her great power and her even greater ambition.

She seemed motivated by a genuine desire to help the poor, most accounts agree -- if necessary, to help them one by one. She would even bring street urchins into the presidential palace to bathe them and treat their scabies and give them a meal. But she was also a fascist, or at least a crypto-fascist, who shared her husband's admiration for Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany and especially Franco's Spain.

There is the nagging question of the alleged Nazi millions. Some Peron haters believe that high-ranking Nazis managed to spirit millions in gold, currency and other loot into Argentina after the war, and that the Perons came to control this vast fortune. During her triumphal tour of Europe, which is depicted in the new film, Eva made a curious and unscheduled stop in Switzerland -- to deposit some of that loot in Swiss banks, the anti-Peronists charge. There seemed to be no undisputed facts that would either back up the story or knock it down.

Eva Peron was vain, she was capricious, she was horribly insecure. Throughout her brief career as Argentina's first lady, she kept at her side a succession of ladies-in-waiting, women who had better pedigrees than hers, better table manners, and could warn her if she was about to commit some grave error of etiquette. When one of her attendants said something she didn't want to hear, the offender was balled up and tossed away like a used candy-wrapper.

Her death was slow, ugly, agonizing. She was wasted to skin and bones, weighing barely 80 pounds and badly burned from the radiation treatments doctors gave her to try to halt the spread of her uterine cancer. It took the genius ministrations of her embalmer, a mysterious Spaniard named Dr. Ara, to restore her to beauty so she could lie in state.

She had been born Eva Maria Ibarguren, illegitimate daughter of a minor provincial big man named Juan Duarte. But she later had her birth certificate changed to make it read "Maria Eva Duarte" -- legitimate and with the Maria coming first, as was the custom among upper-class families. To the rich and powerful of Argentina, she was "Maria Eva Duarte de Peron."

Only the poor were allowed to call her Evita.

It is a shame, in a way, that the movie ends with her death. Only then does the myth of Eva Peron get really interesting.

After she lay in state, Dr. Ara went back at the corpse with his formulas and his waxes and his elixirs, producing what is generally agreed to be a masterpiece of the embalmer's art. Her corpse became an icon, the ultimate relic in a nation that has always had a strange attraction for bits and pieces of the dead.

Then, three years later, Peron was overthrown. For the next 16 years, Eva's body was "lost" -- the country's military rulers were afraid to destroy it, and afraid to bury it, lest the tomb become the focal point of a Peronist revival. So it was shuttled around, at one point residing in a heavy and anonymous-looking piece of furniture in an army major's office.

In 1971, as a peace gesture, the military "found" the body and returned it to Peron, who was living in Madrid with his new wife, Isabel, and a mystical aide-de-camp named Jose Lopez Rega, who later would come close to ruining the country. At Lopez Rega's urging, Isabel would lie on top of the coffin -- some versions of the story have her lying inside, next to Evita -- in an attempt to absorb some of her power.

Peron did not bring the body home when he returned to take power again in 1973. When he died the following year, Isabel succeeded him -- with the disastrous Lopez Rega at her right hand -- and ordered the corpse flown home.

Juan and Eva Peron were not buried together. He was buried in his family's crypt, and his final rest was undisturbed until 1987, when vandals broke in and cut off his hands. The hands are still missing. The anti-Peronists who believe in the Nazi millions theorize that the desecrators wanted his fingerprints to gain access to those supposed Swiss accounts.

Eva Peron was buried, at last, in a tomb in the Recoleta Cemetery, a citadel of stylish and monied death amid Buenos Aires' toniest districts. The tomb, by no means the grandest in the cemetery, is a shrine, an object of pilgrimage, a place where men and women -- increasingly, old men and old women -- come to lay flowers and pray.

There are always fresh flowers, as if something there refuses to die.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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