In 1949 the most familiar scene in Argentina was the one played out almost daily
at the Ministry of Labor in Buenos Aires. There, under the glare of camera lights, a former
radio star and movie actress, now the most powerful woman in South America, would
enter her office past a crush of adoring, impoverished women and children. Evita Peron,
the wife of President Juan Peron, would sit at her desk and begin one of the great rituals
of Peronism, the political movement she and her husband created. It was a pageant that
sustained them in power. She would patiently listen to the stories of the poor, then reach
into her desk to pull out some money. Or she would turn to a minister and ask that a
house be built. She would caress filthy children. She would kiss lepers, just as the saints
had done. To many Argentines, Evita Peron was a flesh-and-blood saint; later, 40,000 of
them would write to the pope attesting to her miracles.

She was born on May 7, 1919, in Los Toldos, and baptized Maria Eva, but
everyone called her Evita. Her father abandoned the family shortly after her birth. Fifteen
years of poverty followed and, in early 1935, the young Evita fled her stifling existence to
go to Buenos Aires. Perhaps, as some have said, she fell in love with a tango singer who
was passing through.

She wanted to be an actress, and in the next few years supported herself with bit
parts, photo sessions for titillating magazines and stints as an attractive judge of tango
competitions. She began frequenting the offices of a movie magazine, talking herself up
for mention in its pages. When, in 1939, she was hired as an actress in a radio company,
she discovered a talent for playing heroines in the fantasy world of radio soap opera.

This was a period of political uncertainty in Argentina, yet few people were
prepared for the military coup that took place in June 1943. Among the many measures
instituted by the new government was the censorship of radio soap operas. Quickly
adapting to the new environment, Evita approached the officer in charge of allocating
airtime, Colonel Anibal Imbert. She seduced him, and Imbert approved a new project
Evita had in mind, a radio series called Heroines of History. Years later, people would say
that Evita had been a prostitute.

Six months after Evita met Imbert, an earthquake struck Argentina. Colonel Juan
Peron, the secretary of labor in the military government, launched a collection for the
victims. He arranged for the Buenos Aires acting community to donate its time for an
evening\'s entertainment, with the proceeds going to disaster relief. Evita was present on
the big night, and she wanted to meet the colonel. Peron had risen quickly in the
government and had accomplished a major coup with the unions, essentially taking control
of them. But Evita probably knew nothing of this. Not political in the conventional sense,
she was attracted instead by the colonel\'s dashing figure and his aura of power. They
talked for hours and left together. Within days Evita had moved into Peron\'s apartment.

In February, Peron engineered the ouster of the president and took over the war
ministry for himself. Evita continued her radio portrayals of famous women, but her
ambitions lay in the movies. She wanted Peron to help her in her film career, and he did by
procuring the film itself, a commodity difficult to obtain during World War II. He offered
it to a movie studio in exchange for Evita\'s starring role in a film. When she arrived for the
first day of filming, it was in a war ministry limousine.

Four months into their relationship, Evita was named president of a new actors\'
union Peron had created. (Any actors who wanted to work were obliged to join.) Soon
afterward, she began a daily radio broadcast called Toward a Better Future. It was
government propaganda, and it was the first time Evita\'s dramatic talents had been
harnessed to advance the political interests she was picking up from Peron.

When World War II ended in 1945, Peron, then vice president, became a target of
demonstrations because of his widely known fascist sympathies. In the fall of 1945, the
army demanded his resignation, saying he was a lightning rod for discontent. Peron
acceded, reluctantly.

But he refused to go quietly. Peron controlled the unions, and the unions
controlled millions of men. Appearing in early October before 15,000 unionists (Evita was
present), he announced