• U.S.

The Hemisphere: Daddykins & Nelly

4 minute read

Juan Perón, who called himself Argentina’s “No. 1 Worker,” turned out on his downfall to have been merely the country’s fastest worker. Evidence left behind after his hasty flight to asylum on a dinky Paraguayan gunboat reduced the 60-year-old dictator to a lonely eccentric and tawdry libertine who liked his girls young, his gadgets golden, and his plunder plentiful. Almost the first witness that the new regime’s investigators turned up was a sun-ripened lass named Nelida (“Nelly”) Rivas, 16, who apparently had been in and out of Don Juan’s bedroom since she was 14.

“Dear Baby Girl.” Perón knew teenage girls by the thousands; in the hope of building political support, he had created a Union of High School Students (U.E.S.) and turned over to its girls’ division the 124-acre presidential estate at Olivos, a Buenos Aires suburb. “Just call me Pocho,” Perón told the girls, and he came often to watch the basketball, skating and sailboat racing, or to award wallets containing 500-peso notes to graduates of the classes in dancing, gymnastics and drama. On one such occasion, he met green-eyed Nelly, a janitor’s daughter. Perón, who also called himself the “Immortal Widower,” gave Nelly jewels from his late wife Eva’s collection, as well as poodles, perfume and a nice little concrete house in the suburbs for her folks.

Despite rumors that Perón last March married one Isabel del Solar Guillen, 19, (in a civil ceremony in the city he renamed for Eva Perón), Nelly stayed his favorite right up to last week. Aboard the gunboat, he penciled a fatuous billetdoux: “My dear baby girl … I miss you every day, as I do my little dogs . . . Many kisses and many desires. Until I see you soon, Juan D. Perón.” Another time he signed “Papi,” which translates roughly as Daddykins.

“He loved me,” Nelly insisted. “He could have been my grandfather, but he loved me. He always told me I was very pretty, and I’m really not, am I?”

Mirror-Lined Boudoirs. The same investigators who found Nelly also tried to probe into Perón’s hidden wealth, reportedly stowed in Swiss banks. That the sum is huge was clear enough after newsmen last week got a look at the way the dictator used to live.

He had at least five dwellings, including the Olivos estate and the official mansion. A third was a get-away-from-it-all weekend house on the pampas south of Buenos Aires, fitted out with a fencing court and white bearskin rugs. His fourth residence was a duplex apartment atop an eight-story building, where, in boudoirs lined with mirrors, Daddykins liked to while away the hours with Nelly. Closets were crammed with suits, uniforms, jackets, 13 pairs of riding boots.

The fifth house, a two-story Buenos Aires bungalow, proved the richest. In its incredible gold collection were cigarette, jewel and bonbon boxes, clocks and watches, coins of various countries, toilet sets, ashtrays, spoons and bowls, a gold-plated telephone. Downstairs was a well-stocked bar under the motto: “Someone always gets assaulted when a poor man has some fun.” The basement garage held two of Perón’s 16 cars of every high-priced foreign make. In various safes, vaults and drawers, the cops said they found $20 million in cash.

Against the all-too-real chance of revolution, Perón also had a bomb shelter and Hitler-style funk hole. Through a secret panel in the ground-floor pressroom of his downtown publishing house, a passage led to an underground vault lined with rosewood. A bedroom there had silk pajamas, an emergency supply of oxygen, and a wall safe big enough to walk into. Oddly, when investigators did enter the safe, they easily tapped out the plaster wall at the back and found a long underground escape passage leading to another office building next door.

The panic tunnel was never used. When his bubble broke, Perón took the easy way out to a safe and mobile hideout under a foreign flag on the Paraguayan gunboat. He, spent all last week there, while Argentina prodded Paraguay to guarantee that it would not let Perón mount a counterrevolution from Paraguay, which is separated only by rivers from Argentine soil. This week, apparently satisfied, Argentina let its busted boss fly off to exile.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com