The Instant Expert: Go ahead and cry for Evita

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Rick Arthur looks at the life and times of María Eva Duarte de Perón – Evita – who was born on this day in 1919.

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THE BASICS María Eva Duarte de Perón was the second wife of the Argentine President Juan Perón (1895-1974) and served as his wildly popular First Lady from 1946 until her death in 1952. She was commonly referred to as just Eva Perón, or by the affectionate Spanish nickname Evita. "Don't cry for me, Argentina," she may - or, more likely, may not - have urged.

THE HUMBLE BEGINNINGS A small-town girl made good, María Eva was born out of wedlock to Juan Duarte and Juana Ibarguren in the rural village of Los Toldos. Her father's death left the family impoverished, and they moved to the larger town of Junín. Evita, as she then was beginning to be called, left school and went to Buenos Aires to try to become a movie star. She got a few small parts and finally landed a job at one of the largest radio stations in the capital.

THE COLONEL Eva met Colonel Perón on January 22, 1944, at a benefit for earthquake victims he organised when he was secretary of labour and social welfare. He was 48, she 24, and it was love at first sight; the biographers Marysa Navarro and Nicholas Fraser say the two left together at two in the morning, and that she was soon living with him. They married the next year.

THE QUICK STUDY Perón was elected president in 1946. His eager pupil and wife Eva absorbed knowledge and soon established herself as an important political figure. She championed female suffrage, supported organised labour and founded and ran both the charitable Eva Perón Foundation and the nation's first large-scale female political party, the Female Peronist Party.

HER PEOPLE Eva worked tirelessly on behalf of the lower classes. She reached out to the descamisados (the shirtless ones). The wage increases she obtained for them brought overwhelming political support for her husband - and nationwide adoration for herself.

A HISTORIC DATE On August 22, 1951, two million people turned out for a labour rally called Cabildo abierto. (The name echoed the first Argentine town hall of the May Revolution, in 1810.) The Peróns spoke from atop a huge scaffolding. The rally, clamouring for Eva to announce her candidacy for the vice-presidency, is said to have been the largest public display of support in history for a female political figure.

NOT TO BE In early 1950, Evita had fainted and undergone surgery a few days later. Although it was said that she had had an appendectomy, she actually had cervical cancer. A bid for office was not practical in light of her condition, although pressure from her husband, the military and the upper class, who opposed her entering the race, were also factors.

THE END By June 4, 1952, when she rode with her husband in a parade through the capital in celebration of his re-election, Eva could not stand without support. In an official ceremony a few days after Juan Perón's second inauguration, Eva was given the official title of "Spiritual Leader of the Nation". She died on July 26.

SOME FIRSTS The pioneering Eva was the first woman in Argentine public life to wear trousers. In 1947, she made the cover of Time magazine, the first and only time in the periodical's history that a South American first lady appeared alone there. The cover story also marked the first time a publication mentioned that Eva had been born out of wedlock.

A PROVOCATIVE SPECULATION Imagine Eva and Britain's Margaret Thatcher going at it – handbags at dawn – over the Falkland Islands.

On stage and screen

Among the most prominent of the many artistic depictions of Eva Perón:

EVITA (1979) The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical began as a concept album with Julie Covington in the title role. Elaine Paige played Evita when the album was adapted into a musical in London's West End. In 1980, Patti LuPone won a Tony Award for her performance on Broadway. Can't get that song out your head now, can you?

EVITA PERÓN (1981) Faye Dunaway and her razor-edged cheekbones starred in this television movie in the same year she memorably chewed up the scenery as Joan Crawford in the film Mommie Dearest.

EVA (1986) Argentine musical made in response to the Lloyd Webber-Rice one, with Nacha Guevara in the leading role.

EVITA (1996) The Lloyd Webber-Rice musical was a natural for film adaptation. Madonna - hardly known for her thespian talents - got the nod and won a Golden Globe Award for the title role. One diva playing another, you know.

EVA PERÓN: THE TRUE STORY (1996) Another Argentine response, starring Esther Goris. It was the country's Oscar entry in the "Best Foreign Film" category.