On November 17, 1972, Juan Domingo Perón returned to Argentina after 17 years in exile. It was my family’s fate to have prime seats in the front row for that event, because he and his wife Isabel moved into Gaspar Campos 1065, Vicente Lopez, the house bought for them by the Justicialist Party. It was right next door to our home! As often occurs during historical dramas, humorous moments took place on occasion and I was witness to some of them. So to celebrate this anniversary it has struck me that, although not a historian, I could share a few of these stories.
The first concerns how Bob Cox and I gave birth to our friendship: on that fateful Saturday very loud crowds began to gather and flood our neighbourhood, climbing trees and using the private gardens as WCs. This continued overnight and into the following day. The next day, our newsagent was kind enough to get through the crowds and drop the newspapers into our mailbox, and this is how we got to see the Buenos Aires Herald and a forceful editorial urging the government and Armed Forces to protect the neighbours under siege. I called the paper to thank them for the consideration.
I was passed on to Bob. I explained to him that I was living under Watergate conditions and that I knew all our phones were tapped, so I told him that I would visit him once we had a quieter situation and hung up. This I did a few days later. We had a very brief conversation, deciding to have a protracted lunch the following day. Bob showed up with a well-known US magazine under his arm and, after sitting down, I told him that the correspondent who had written the column about the incidents on Gaspar Campos had been very inexact, and I suggested he read The Economist instead. At which point Bob had a large grin on his face, because in fact he himself was at that time the local Economist correspondent who had written the column I had lauded!
At a certain moment he mentioned his wife Maud. As the name is not common in Argentina, I asked him the surname and, oh surprise, it turned out that she was the Maud who was my classmate in primary school. So was born the close and longstanding friendship with the Cox family, which by now has stretched into our next generations. It was also the birth of my relationship with the Herald.
Back to Perón. The permanently rotating crowds demanded the appearance of “el líder.” So, on Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday and exactly on the hour, he would greet them from the top window under the spiked roof and deliver a brief speech. It didn’t take long before the neighbours referred to him, not disrespectfully but with humour, as “el cucú”!
My third tale is from Sunday, September 23, 1973. Perón was elected president with 61.85 percent of the vote. I had planned a trip to Europe for the following day, so on the Monday morning I walked up to my neighbour’s gate, greeted the head of his security, Juan Esquer, and asked him to keep an eye on my family while I was away.
At that very moment the door of the residence opens and out comes Perón. He ordered the gate opened and stretched out his right hand, which I obviously shook whilst congratulating him on his victory. It so came to be that I was the first person outside of his home who congratulated him after the historical election. He knew perfectly well that I belonged to an opposition party, so with a mischievous grin he asked me where I was going and if I was leaving forever. Amongst the great hilarity which ensued all around, I replied that ‘No, I was not leaving for good’ and that I would be back in two weeks time. “In that case”, he replied, “I wish you a very good trip and a safe return!” Perón was famous for pulling legs, and that day it was my turn!
One day, an additional room was added in the back part of the house, where cabinet meetings were held during the period before Perón moved to Olivos. But evidently the builders did not foresee that it would be hit by the sun all morning and become very hot. Esquer asked me whether they could bore a hole through the wall giving on to our garden, for the installation of an air conditioner. I replied, tongue in cheek, that this would be against ordinances set by the government of Vicente López. With a big smile ‘Don Juan’ (I used to call him this way, and he would call me “vecino”) answered that he believed that he would be able to control the situation. What I was not able to control at all, afterwards, was the furore of Marianne Ingham when the hot air blowing out of the machine burnt all the surrounding plants in the garden!
Another Saturday afternoon, Don Juan and I casually came upon each other. He told me that, whilst serving mate to the president one morning, Perón had asked him how I would react if terrorists came into my home to attempt to take his life from there, and whether I would assist them. He told me that he had answered that he trusted me, being an active member of the opposition, more than many who called themselves peronistas in those days!