Winston Churchill is credited as saying “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
With the manipulation of the media in Argentina throughout most of the twentieth century, this quote could easily have been ascribed to Eva Perón. Yet even Hollywood could not have conjured up events that would surround the death and afterlife of Eva Perón.
In 1950, at the age of 30, Eva fainted during a public appearance. Medical diagnosis revealed that she had appendicitis and simply had her appendix removed. Eva never seemed to regain strength and continued to feel weak, dizzy and frequently suffered from severe vaginal bleeding. However, the diagnosis by Eva’s gynecologist indicated the presence of cervical cancer, which Juan Perón insisted on keeping from her. Dragging from continued lack of energy, Perón admitted Eva to the hospital during his campaign for re-election in 1951 under the guise of routine surgery to have her uterus removed.
Secretly Perón arranged to have American cancer surgeon George T. Pack slip in after she was anesthetized and surgically remove what was initially considered to be cancer of her cervix. During the surgery, however, Dr. Pack discovered that the cancer had spread throughout Evita’s body. At the conclusion of the surgery Dr. Pack was quickly whisked to the airport and was on a flight back to New York well before Eva regained consciousness.
Eva was not informed of the presence of cancer for some time afterward as Juan Perón realized that having Eva at his side was crucial to his presidential election, and her absence might influence the vote.
Public awareness of Evita’s serious decline in health brought tremendous support from the people. Upwards of two million were said to have gathered outside the Casa Rosada with demands for Evita to accept nomination as Vice President. This overwhelming show of support came as a tremendous shock to Juan Perón who became frightfully aware that his popularity had been greatly eclipsed by wife.
It was obvious that Evita’s health would not sustain the candidacy. Evita declined and offered her unflagging support for Perón and asked that the country do the same.
What better person to play the tragic role than an actress? Sympathy undoubtedly contributed to Perón’s landslide victory in 1952 and, in June of that year, Evita took a triple dose of medication which enabled her to accompany her husband on an automobile procession throughout the streets of Buenos Aires in celebration of his re-election. Underneath a lavish fur coat, a steel frame was constructed to hold up Evita’s body, enabling her without effort to stand erect. Evita Perón weighed less than 80 pounds.
Yet it was not in her role as First Lady of Argentina or other appointments she held throughout Perón’s presidency that brought her greatest fulfillment and satisfaction. It was the view that the Argentines considered her to be “the Spiritual Leader of the Nation,” a title bestowed upon her during Perón’s campaign for re-election.
In the musical “Evita” by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the question is asked: “Why try to govern a country when you can become a saint?”
On July 26, 1952 Eva Perón died at the age of 33 of cervical cancer. The government suspended all official activities for two days. The crowd outside the Casa Rosada blocked traffic for 10 blocks in each direction. While Evita’s body was being moved, eight people were crushed to death and more than 2000 people would be treated in city hospitals over the next 24 hours for injuries sustained in efforts to view or even be near her body.
The streets of Buenos Aires appeared as caverns flanked by flowers that were stacked in huge piles. Within twenty-four hours of Eva’s death all flower shops in Buenos Aires were completely emptied.
Juan Perón continuously berated Evita throughout their relationship for her immoral past, and the fact that she was not a virgin when they met. It was no coincidence that Perón’s first wife, Aurelia, also died of cervical cancer. It is likely that Juan Perón himself was the carrier of the deadly virus from his first wife to his second. Perón’s marriage to Aurelia lasted 9 years before she died of cervical cancer. Perón’s marriage to Evita lasted 7 years before she, too, succumbed to the disease.
Evita Perón and the Body as Spectacle
Perón arranged for Dr. Pedro Ara to embalm Eva’s body. Dr. Ara was a world-renowned professor of anatomy, having studied in Vienna, who maintained a practice in Madrid. His work was referred to as “the art of death.” His technique in embalming would remove blood from the corpse and replace it with glycerin, which would preserve all body organs and create a lifelike appearance. Eva Perón died at 8:25pm on July 26, 1952 and, by the next morning, her body was “completely and infinitely incorruptible” and ready for public display.
Perón announced that Eva’s body would be placed on display at the headquarters of the General Confederation of Labor. Lines would form early in the morning and would stretch for upwards of 35 blocks as thousands would file past the embalmed body. Thousands further would be turned away at the conclusion of each day. The corpse was to have remained on display while a monument projected to be larger than the Statue of Liberty was being designed to permanently display Evita’s preserved body.
The Disappearance of the Body of Evita Perón
Perón fled the country during a military coup in 1955. In his haste he failed to make arrangements for Eva’s body. The military dictatorship issued a ban on Perónism and Evita’s body disappeared. The location remained a mystery for 16 years. It was disguised in a crypt in Milan, Italy, under the headstone of Maria Maggi.
In 1971 Juan Perón learned of the whereabouts of Eva’s corpse and made arrangements to secure its transfer to him where he was resident in Madrid. Peron once again called on services of Dr. Ara as the body allegedly had been desecrated during the coup of 1955 and the corpse had “…a large dent in the nose, blows to the face and chest, and marks on the back.”
Perón kept the body in an open casket on his dining room table and his third wife, Isabel, combed Evita’s hair daily. Perón returned to Argentina and won the election of President with his third wife, Isabel, as Vice President. Soon after Juan Perón’s death in 1974, the government of Argentina made arrangements for Evita Perón’s body to be permanently entombed and securely placed under three plates of steel in the Duarte family crypt in the Recoleta Cemetary.
Though Eva Perón has gone to sleep more than 60 years ago, it is difficult to avoid being confronted throughout the streets and neighborhoods of Buenos Aires with her legacy. A visit to the Museo de Evita Perón will convince you that Eva Perón, this Spiritual Leader of the Argentine Nation, was a mix of Jesus Christ and Mother Teresa.
Museo Evita, 2988 Lafinur Street in Palermo
Recoleta Cemetery, at the entrance on Junin in Recoleta (free tours in English Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:00am