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Books: La Presidenta

3 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

EVITA: FIRST LADY by John Barnes Grove; 195 pages; $8.95

During the 1940s one could tell the dictators and dictatees by their shirts. There were black ones for Mussolini’s Fascists, brown ones for Hitler’s National Socialists and a blousy peasant number that Joseph Stalin occasionally wore when he wanted to convince the world that he was just a country boy.

Argentina’s Juan and Eva Perón gave a different wrinkle to the haberdashery of power. Although they dressed like Napoleon and Josephine, they identified themselves with the descamisados, the shirtless poor who supported Perón from 1946-55. It was a classic case of gilt by association. Both Peróns came up from the bottom, and their ostentation and tantrums against the upper classes provided vicarious thrills for the masses they left behind.

Perón was a farmer’s son. Evita, as the crowd called her, was a third-rate actress with first-rate street smarts who worked her way up from the casting couch to the Pink House, the traditional seat of Argentina’s First Family. When she died in 1952 of cancer at the age of 33, the bereaved descamisados sought to have her canonized. The Vatican diplomatically declined, suggesting that her good works were basically secular.

John Barnes’ biography amplifies the papal declaration. Peronist power was founded on a simple principle: Take from the rich and give to the poor, then take from the poor. Just after World War II this was not difficult. Argentina was fat with hard foreign currency from its exports of wheat and beef. While Juan donated the machismo, Eva provided the cunning and humorless drive. Largely under her direction, the wealth was spread.

Once a union became solidly Peronist, its workers could look forward to huge wage increases. Evita also controlled the 5 million-member General Confederation of Labor, whose figurehead leader had been a hall porter at her old apartment building.

Her Social Aid Foundation, Barnes documents, was gorged with millions of unrecorded dollars, “gifts” from industrialists and chambermaids. She humiliated the aristocratic families that had snubbed her on the way up and bought the affection of the crowd with widely publicized and much needed charities.

She also attempted to secure her own future by stuffing a Swiss bank vault with cash and flaunting one of the world’s most valuable (and tasteless) collections of jewelry. Eva’s death deprived Perón of her much needed political pillow talk. His heavyhandedness and arrogance went unchecked. He foolishly attacked the church and caused outrage by taking a 13-year-old mistress. Later he dismissed criticism of the affair with the remark that he was not superstitious. He lasted until 1955, when the army toppled him in a coup.

Today Peronism is brutally suppressed by Argentina’s military government. Yet the mystique of Juan and Eva continues. She, especially, has achieved an international moment of posthumous pop stardom. Evita, a musical based on her life, is now a hit in London, and will probably be brought to Broadway.

Biographer Barnes, a journalist who covered Latin America before becoming a Los Angeles-based correspondent for the London Sunday Times, treats his subject both forthrightly and fairly. In fact, he is not entirely unsympathetic. The sources of Eva’s greeds, hates and demagogic passions are too real to dismiss. Sad is an adjective that often appears in front of Argentina, and this book shows why.

— R.Z. Sheppard

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