Remembering the life of `Evita'


A now-retired Hopkins physician once tended to the charismatic Argentinian first lady


Evita, the long-running hit Broadway musical now at the Hippodrome about the life of Eva Peron, wife of Argentinian dictator Juan Peron, has special significance for Dr. George G. Udvarhelyi, the internationally renowned Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon.

The physician was born and educated in Hungary, and he worked in the Underground against the Nazi occupation of his homeland during World War II. He barely managed to escape deportation to Siberia when the Russians took over.

Udvarhelyi's odyssey, which would take him to Argentina as a young surgical resident, began on a spring-like day in February 1948 when he boarded a steamer in Genoa, Italy.

To his astonishment, he recognized that several of his fellow passengers, traveling in disguise with bodyguards dressed in dark shirts and sunglasses, were former SS military and Nazi representatives he had known in Budapest.

"It suddenly dawned on me that Argentina may be a country which could be considered a refuge for all those dubious elements who survived the war and changed personalities and clothes while trying to embark on a new existence," he wrote in an unpublished memoir.

During the 10-day voyage, Udvarhelyi and the other passengers read about their new homeland.

"We realized that there was a character there called Mr. Peron, who evidently had a military background, who attracted `experts' of a dictatorial system, which he was in the process of consolidating in that country," he wrote. "Our doubts about leaving Europe were further accentuated by the recognition that we were heading toward a land which might be another variant of the same systems we had managed to escape."

The other day, while sipping tea in the book-lined sitting room of his Cross Keys apartment in North Baltimore, which he shares with his wife of 49 years, Elspeth , Udvarhelyi, 85, recalled those days for a visitor.

"Let me tell you, after Paris and Rome, Buenos Aires was one of the world's great international cities. It was multilingual and had a high level of culture. There were wonderful theaters, concerts and restaurants," he said.

Udvarhelyi was working at the Institute of Neurosurgery at the University of Buenos Aires when he first saw Eva Peron standing on a balcony. He would eventually see her as a patient.

"She was talking about the descamisados, shirtless people, and the simple life, while wearing a million dollars' worth of jewelry," he said.

Maria Eva Ibarguren Duarte de Peron, who was born poor and illegitimate, was 15 when she arrived in Buenos Aires, planning to become an actress. In 1944, she met Col. Juan D. Peron, then minister of labor, and they were married the next year. He was elected president in 1946.

Argentina's blond and glamorous first lady, Eva Peron was ignored by the country's aristocrats who thought her a woman of questionable morals and limitless ambition.

"The aristocracy treated her very badly. They invited me to tea at Harrods, and in walked Evita. They stood up and walked out on her. You could see the hurt on her face," Udvarhelyi said.

"Evita was ... of average height. She was very elegant, wore lots of jewelry and had beautiful hair. She had an elegant walk and had learned how to behave like a lady despite her background," he said. "She was a very lively person who made eye contact and would gesticulate during conversation."

Unhappy with the results of a scientific exploration to Patagonia, Peron did little to suppress his anger at an official reception.

"She was very gracious and tried to soothe him. Evita really was the brain between the two of them. Soon after, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and we knew she was in a great deal of pain," Udvarhelyi said.

"A prefrontal lobotomy was performed for the pain and afterward, she became an emaciated lady. We saw her several more times at the institute. She became quite a pathetic person," he said.

Eva Peron's death July 26, 1952, at age 33 plunged the nation into deep mourning.

Embalmed and dressed in a white evening dress, her body was placed in a glass-topped mahogany coffin that rested on a catafalque in the Ministry of the Interior.

Udvarhelyi was sent to the funeral chamber as part of a medical team that assisted mourners who became hysterical with grief or collapsed from seizures.

"The room was draped with heavy curtains, and the air was filled with the scent from banks of flowers that lined the room. Peron and his generals stood there shaking hands for 2 1/2 days with hundreds of thousands of people, while a soldier kept wiping and cleaning the glass over Evita's face," he said.

"It was like show business or something from the decadent days of the Roman Empire. Crowds came from the provinces to mourn, and the line to get into the building stretched for more than a mile."

Udvarhelyi remembers hearing the chant of the hysterical crowds calling from the streets that penetrated the room: "Evita, Evita, why did you leave us, why don't you come back?"

Udvarhelyi left Argentina the next year, and came to Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1957 as an instructor and assistant resident in neurosurgery. He became a professor in 1969 and retired in 1984.

After being overthrown by a military coup in 1955, Peron was exiled to Madrid. His wife's remains then began a two-decade journey that took her from Argentina to Italy, Spain and finally back to Argentina in 1974. Her coffin now rests under three layers of steel designed to discourage grave robbers.

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