The Ingrid Pitt column: Evita’s coffin

Ingrid's South American adventures continue - and it's a story so good, you'll wish they'd filmed it...

A day later than planned due to gremlins in the Den of Geek office, here’s our weekly dose of Ingrid Pitt goodness. This follows on from last week’s column

Back in the office in Corrientes there was more good news. Hector Olivera had returned from Peru and wanted to have a meeting. Of course he did. And la Presidenta, Isabelita Martinez de Peron, had booked us for dinner and films in two days time.

Even better was the news that Steffie was on her way. School was out and Tonio had arranged for her to spend the holidays with us. Tonio and I met Olivera in the Alvear on Pasadas where all the posh lot hang out. He turned out to be a big friendly bloke who knew more about the British film industry than was comfortable. 

I told Olivera about de Benedetti’s interest and our recce in Uruguay. It didn’t seem to faze him. Which was just as well as Perina had laid on a press conference at the splendidly baroque Circulo Italiano to publicise the six films and a TV series which had been agreed with the proprietors of El Pais in Montevideo. After Olivera left we went to Ezeiza to pick up Steffie. It was wonderful to all be together again.

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An old friend Gaston Perkins, a top Argentine racing driver, rang and asked us out to dinner at the prestigious Hurlingham Country Club.  There we were introduced to his brother-in-law Herbie Henderson. Herbie was into farming implements in a big way. And he was looking to have some fun with his money. By the time we left the club he had promised to look into the possibility of coughing up some cash. Could things get better?  

There was about a dozen people at Isabelita’s little soiree. The ‘little’ cinema she had on the ground floor was able to seat about fifty viewers at a pinch. By the end of Countess Dracula there was a lot of shuffling and yawning so I suggested that we might view the other films some other time. Isabel agreed and we drifted back to the drawing room for a drink to calm the frayed nerves.  Isabel took me to one side.

“I’ve something to show you.” she said.

I followed her down to the cellars. A bare low voltage bulb lit the scene, hardly giving off enough energy to light up the surroundings. But what it did light up got my attention. On a couple of trestles there was what looked like a coffin. It was a coffin! Isabel drew me towards it.

“It’s Evita,” she explained. “I’m keeping her here while the arrangements for her mausoleum in Recoleta are being made.”

I smiled thinly. I wasn’t too happy being in a cellar with the darling of Argentina, President Peron’s second wife, Eva Duarte de Peron. His third wife drew me closer and indicated a stark white kitchen chair beside the coffin.

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“I come and sit down here whenever I can,” she said. “She talks to me”.Then she had a bright idea.

“Why don’t you sit here for a few minutes. I’m sure she would appreciate it.”

My smile turned from thin to sickly. As she left she said I should come up whenever I felt like it. I wanted to say “now” but was too much of a coward.

There had been rumblings of unrest in the city for ages but I didn’t think it was anything to do with us. Tonio had been there before Peron returned to power, when the country had been run by the Militaristas, and he was a bit worried that they might be making a comeback. It didn’t worry me. I was on a roll and wasn’t going to be put off by anything as trivial as a revolution. Until the telephone rang in the middle of the night and Luis Sojit told us to get out as quickly as possible.

It seemed that Isabel had been flying home in her helicopter when the pilot diverted to the Municipal Airport where she had been arrested. The country was now in the hands of the Militaristas and it wasn’t safe to stay around. I couldn’t believe it and insisted that Tonio rang Fangio and got his take on the situation. After all, we were British. He offered to send a car to take us to the airport.

All the way to Ezeiza Airport the road was thronged with military vehicles. Every few hundred yards we were searched and our papers scrutinised. Obviously nobody knew what they were supposed to do with foreigners on their way out. So they just pointed their weapons at us and playfully pretended to shoot us before waving us on. Ezeiza was like a refugee camp. Thousands of would-be travellers sitting around with their luggage piled around them like barriers.  Even the British ambassador was ensconced in a corner.  He was in the dark as much as we were. There were no flights going to either Europe or America and we just had to wait and see what would happen.

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Tonio told Steffie and me to stay with the ambassador while he had a scout around. He found his way to the General Aviation side of the airport and was lucky enough to meet a Uruguayan about to leave for Montevideo in his own plane. Tonio waved his pilots’ licence at him and played on the fraternal links of the brotherhood of the air and got him to agree to fly us out.

Montevideo wasn’t the Montevideo we had left just a few weeks earlier. For one thing the proprietors of El Pais wanted nothing to do with us. We spent the next few weeks trying to decide what to do next. Every week I phoned Raquel and tested the temperature in BA. At last Raquel told me that an Admiral had been appointed as head of the film industry. She had spoken to him and he had promised to see me.

The bad news was that Orlando de Benedetti, a rabid Peronista, had found it prudent to leave Argentina and set up office in Venuzuela. There was a big ouch factor in that. But the time had come to return to Buenos Aires. Tonio agreed. But he had a proviso. Steffie had to go back to school in England. At least for a while. I agreed. He also said he needed to go back to London to try and raise some funds. Living in Uruguay hadn’t favoured our bank account. I wasn’t too keen on being left on my own but could see that it was no good floundering around in BA without at least some pocket money, so I agreed on that as well. A couple of days later I waved them off at the airport. It wasn’t the happiest day of my life.

NEXT WEEK: Olivera steps up to the mark, we get lost in the desert, the Admiral turns down The Last Enemy and we start shooting La Gauchita (Gaucho Girl).

Ingrid Pitt writes every week at Den Of Geek.