These days I always wake-up to The Shipping Forecast. It is almost mediation: Malin, Hebrides variable thee or four, showers good and on it goes like a prayer to the weather gods. This being 5.30am my days tend to be that couple of hours longer than most people and that gives me joy now that I am quite fastidiously living as if the next day is one’s last. Time is terribly precious to me now it appears to race by one with ever increasing speed.
My heroes and heroines tend not to live a normal lifespan: Marilyn Monroe, Eva Peron, Judy Garland, Jimmy Dean and Amy Winehouse to name a very few who checked out too young. Perhaps all of these idols lived at such a pace that they exhausted themselves though I would say that Marilyn Monroe had many somethings that should have given had she lived beyond thirty-six.
Argentine dictator’s wife Eva Duarte de Peron certainly exhausted herself in the promotion of the Peronist regime though I would argue that she was older than the thirty-three years the government said she was in the year of her death. It amazed me listening to lyricist Sir Tim Rice describing his musical Evita saying that he tried to portray Eva as a mendacious, power-hungry monster. I was totally on Eva’s side when I was first enchanted by that musical soap opera that is Evita.
I don’t think for a moment that Eva’s rise to First Lady of Argentina was left to chance. Eva appeared to sleep with men ever increasing in power until she hit the jackpot with Juan Peron. When Peron was removed in an attempted coup, it was Eva who galvanised her ‘decamisados’ (shirtless ones) to riot in the streets until her husband was free. Eva had the charisma of the late Diana Princess of Wales with a political drive that would have made Churchill look shy and retiring in comparison.
We are fortunate to have film footage of Eva in her prime giving speeches from the balcony of the Case Rosada. She is a firebrand working for the underclasses while dressed head-to-toe in Dior with jewels that would shame an Indian Maharani. Eva did indeed take the riches from the oligarchs and booted the English out of Buenos Aires. She also had her fun doing it; dressing and living like a queen while posing as a Robin Hood character taking from the rich and giving to the poor.
I spent a month all told in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s looking for Evita’s lost wardrobe. I found it in a bank in the suburbs of BA and photographed masterpieces by Pierre Balmain, Jacques Fath, Christian Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga and Norman Hartnell not to mention box-upon-box of hats and cardboard crates filled with over 200 pairs of white high heels. What struck me when researching Evita Peron was how polarised she made the world about her sins and virtues.
Fleur Cowles, who I was fortunate enough to interview for the Financial Times, in the twilight of her life spent six months with Evita and told me ‘she was the most evil woman you would care to meet’. My taxi driver in Buenos Aires drove me to a children’s village that Evita had founded for orphans whose inhabitants still consider Evita a saint.
I don’t for a second believe that Juan and Eva did not feather their nests. I doubt equally that all the funds from the Eva Peron foundation went to alleviate poverty in Argentina. It was rumoured that Eva’s Rainbow Tour of Europe was an excuse to stash millions of Pesos in Swiss banks. Peronism was Fascism dressed up as socialism with Eva as the de facto Queen. She obviously felt like a monarch refusing as she did to visit England because she was denied a State Visit and only offered tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle.
One would have loved to be a fly on the wall in conversation with Her Majesty and Eva Peron but it was not to be. In the autumn of her life, Eva was riddled by cancer. She was on the campaign trail with President Peron but was forced to give-up hope of being voted Vice President (which she would have won) because she was dying. There are stories of Eva riding in a motorcade with a cage underneath her fur coat to allow her to stand for the duration of parades. The last appearance on the balcony of the Case Rosada showed an emaciated woman whose flame was soon to be extinguished.
Eva came into my mind because I am contributing to a UKTV series that aims to rehabilitate controversial figures such as King Edward VIII and Princess Margaret. I think Eva is due a reassessment. Make no mistake, people disappeared during Peron’s regime. Even after his death in 1955, Juan Peron’s grave was robbed and his finger cut off because the grave robbers though that a signet ring had the codes to his Swiss bank accounts. When Eva died, her body was embalmed and disappeared for the best part of two decades before being repatriated and buried in the Duarte family vault in La Recoleta cemetery sealed with tonnes of concrete so the lady would be left undisturbed. No less than she deserved as the musical Evita ends.