tc logo
The Mysterious Life and Strange Myth of Eva Peron
    Biography, autobiography, and novel only deepen "Santa Evita's" enigma


tom christensen?
graphic design
book reviewing
grab bag
book of days
search the site
site map



Long after the death of Argentine icon Eva Peron at 33, her enigmatic image continued to blaze through the tenements of Buenos Aires, accompanied by the prophetic legend, "I will return and I will be millions." This fall, that prophesy seems to be coming true.

Evita will be everywhere, with the appearance not only of the Andrew Lloyd Weber-inspired movie-and its spin-off soundtracks, web sites, feature articles, photo spreads, and interviews-but also of three new books that will only leave admirers wanting more. For, good as these books are, the cult of Eva is endless, and one who falls under her spell can never escape.

For those in the early stages of Eva-infection, Alicia Dujovne Ortiz's biography EVA PERON (translated by Shawn Fields; St. Martin's; 336 pages; $25.95) might be the best quick fix. Eva's origins are so obscure, the details of her life so intentionally concealed and falsified, and her story so compounded by legend that any biography must be part hagiography, part detective story.

Though Dujovne Ortiz tries to sort out the truth from the myth, Eva's life offers more questions than answers: Did the youthful Evita leave her dusty hometown to run off to Buenos Aires with aging tango singer Augustin Magaldi? Did the struggling actress turn tricks in the city's squalid backwaters to see her through tight stretches? Or (unlikely as it seems) was she virginal, saintly? Where did she go when she disappeared from sight for several months? How did she win Peron, whose military colleagues could never accept their marriage? Did she help to transfer Nazi wealth into Swiss bank accounts? Was it Peron or was it Eva who goaded the masses-those she called decamisados (shirtless ones) or gracitas (greasers)-to carry him into power? As death approached, did Evita become a leftist?

While some of these questions can be answered, many never will be. Dujovne Ortiz does a god job of tracking the various possibilities. Basing her conclusions on interviews with surviving participants (including Eva's confessor) and on the many written materials surrounding her, Dujovne Ortiz sketches the various theories while constructing a convincing portrait of the woman who began life as Eva Maria Ibarguren and ended it as Santa Evita, the spirit whom death could not defeat.

Eva's history, Dujovne Ortiz says, can be traced in her names. "Ibarguren" was the name of her unmarried seamstress mother, for Eva and her sisters and brother were the illegitimate children of a married man. As an actress in Buenos Aires, she adopted his name, becoming "Eva Duarte" (or sometimes "Eva Durante"). Married to Peron, she took the traditional, deferential and legitimizing name of "Maria Eva Duarte de Peron." This confining name could not long contain the starlet who had the power of moving the masses, and Peronist propagandists soon christened her "Eva Peron," emphasizing the strongman's name. But in the end Eva overshadowed Peron. she triumphantly cast off is name to become simply "Evita."

Dujovne Ortiz has a tendency toward purple patches. Her opening is overwritten, and the book has trouble gaining momentum. But when she hits her stride, the story carries the reader along. Some "novelized" passages are in a style more popular in France than her (the author is an Argentine who lives in Paris), and in English translation her sentences can be awkward and contorted ("For Peron, Eva was one of those melons that one throws into a disorganized cart that once on its way rolls into its proper place.")

But Dujovne Ortiz's quirky, worldly wise, faintly feminist writing has charm and even wisdom, and if her scholarship does not inspire unbridled trust, at least this book gives the essential elements of the Evita story in a perceptive and entertaining presentation with a good balance of fact, speculation, and myth.

The little book Mi Mensaje, inexplicably titled IN MY OWN WORDS in the English-language edition (translated by Laura Dail; New Press; 119 pages; $8.95, paperback), answers a few questions. Eva was credited with writing a book called My Mission in Life, which had been conceived and ghostwritten by a Spaniard, Manuel Penella de Silva. He theorized that the disaster of the Nazi regime was caused by a lack of women in political power, and he envisioned a political system in which women would control one of the houses of government.

With this in mind, he traveled to Argentina, interviewed Eva, and wrote My Mission in Life. But de Silva's views were not those of the Peronists, and the book was substantially sanitized by their propagandists, so it is difficult to know to what extent it reflects Eva's thoughts (it does not reflect her writing style).

In her agonizing final days, Evita dictated My Message as a kind of sequel (ideally the two books should be published together). Unfinished, it was almost forgotten until it surfaced in 1987 in the garage of Peron's chief archivist. Its text is even more doubtful than My Mission in Life, and it has been disavowed by Eva's surviving sisters (perhaps as a hedge against lawsuits, the English edition is attributed not to "Eva Peron" but to "Evita," as though acknowledging it as the product not of the person but of the myth).

Yet much of the book is consistent with Eva's views, and it may reflect to some degree her final thoughts. It gives us a left-leaning Evita, and is of value in helping us to understand how young Argentine radicals could have taken the wife of Peron as a precursor. The English edition includes a rather huffy yet informative introduction by Joseph a. Page, which attempts to debunk several of the myths surrounding Evita. For those unfamiliar with her life, this introduction can serve as a helpful summary-but a mythless Evita is not the true Evita.

Myth abounds in Tomas Elroy Martinez's SANTA EVITA (translated by Helen Lane; Alfred A. Knopf; 371 pages; $23) even though the novel rests solidly on reality: in Evita's case, myth is reality, and how strange it is.

After Evita's death, a Spanish embalmer spent years preserving her body, its internal organs intact. The result was exhibited by Peron, but after his overthrow it fell into the hands of the junta. Fearful that the perfectly preserved cadaver might be used to rally the masses, yet also afraid to destroy it, they formulated elaborate ruses to elude Peronists and hide the corpse in a foreign cemetery. Compounding this black farce, several identical way and vinyl copies of Evita were created to mislead her devoted followers.

Martinez-who is a leading authority on Evita-reconstructs the journeys of the true and false Evitas as they pass from one corrupt, wicked, and demented hand to another. As they are hidden, stolen, and swapped again and again, they are mysteriously accompanied by the candles and flowers of the faithful, eerily appearing as if by a mummy's curse.

Martinez too interviewed many survivors, among them Evita's hairdresser, the wife of the colonel charged with hiding her body, and a bizarre, dwarfish confidant of the secret service called Tom Thumb, who is like a character from Gunter Grass. Why does Martinez present the result as a novel?

"The novel is the most effective way of telling the truth," he has said, "especially about a person like Eva Peron, whose character has taken on mythical qualities in Argentina."

The result is remarkable. At times Martinez addresses the reader in his own, rather confessional voice, at times he presents what he says are almost verbatim interviews, at times he imagines events in a weirdly compelling narrative style, perfectly rendered by translator Helen Lane. Martinez shows how for so many of those who became involved with Evita-even after her death-she became an obsession.

The colonel, for example, driven mad by his feelings for Evita, came to believe that her corpse made its way to the moon, buried by Neil Armstrong as an international television audience looked on. This strange, sad character was the main player in the machinations surrounding Evita's corpse, and he plays a corresponding role in Martinez's novel.

How much of what Martinez tells us is imagined and how much is real? In the end, it is impossible to say, for Martinez himself fell under Evita's spell. for him too she became an obsession, an obsession so powerful that it bursts the formal boundaries of the novel, obliterating the distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

All of which adds up to the strangest and most effective work on Eva Peron to date. But this cannot be the end of the story: Evita will return, and she will be millions.

Richmond writer Thomas Christensen translated Around the Day in Eighty Worlds by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar.


top of page
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, 3 November 1996