More from the ‘Only in Argentina’ files comes a fantastical tale of fame, fortune and worldwide adoration, a tragic plane crash, wild public grief and, in more recent times, highly controversial and scandalous revelations that perhaps unfairly tarnish one of Argentina’s national treasures.
This is a story straight out of (yet another) Latin American telenovela, though this one, whilst again set in 1920’s and 30’s Buenos Aires, has a ring of ‘El Cuento del Tio’ (Uncle’s Tale or confidence trick) about it, if it’s true of course. Perhaps we’ll never know the real story… and in any case many Argentines prefer to ignore this blasphemy entirely.
In 1935 Carlos Gardel, Argentina’s dashingly handsome superstar tango singer was at the height of his fame, taking the tango from the Rio Plata to an adoring audience around the world.
Tragically, Gardel was killed in a plane crash after taking off from Medellín, Colombia whilst on tour. He was just 45. Since his death, the Gardel legend has grown and the myth and intrigue surrounding his early life have exploded, whilst the fight over his true birthplace continues, causing heated discussions, indeed diplomatic tensions, across both sides of the Atlantic. There are even fanciful conspiracy theories that Gardel wasn’t in fact killed in the plane crash but escaped horribly disfigured and lived out his life away from the public glare… fanciful, yes? The Phantom of the Pampa perhaps…
Gardel was born in Uruguay (or was he?), but his official biography claims he was born in Toulouse, France (which is claimed with a birth certificate – conveniently forged perhaps?).
His father, who may or may not have been a petty thief in and out of jail, in any event an already married man who left town before he was born, never acknowledged him as his own and his young unmarried mother brought him in 1893 at the age of two on an Atlantic steamer to Buenos Aires where he was raised in the suburbs.
There’s not much else officially recorded of his formative years (all lost in the murky past) and the story quickly moves onto his early musical career singing in the bars, music halls and milongas of the city.
In more recent years, however, private investigators have been controversially trawling over Gardel’s past and discovering some truly lurid and scandalous revelations that have, to some, tarnished his iconic reputation. I must say here that this account is based on a few online articles I’ve discovered, most notably one from El País in 2012 where ‘two forensic experts’ claim the legendary tango singer had an early criminal record… and was, as they say here, actively engaged in confidence trickery and was, in effect, a swindler or practitioner of ‘El Cuento del Tio’.
The investigators claim that Gardel constantly changed his identity in his early years – his name, place of birth, his parents’ names and occupations, all to prevent his criminal past as a scammer from being found out and damaging his career.
Gardel is a national treasure and one of the great characters of popular culture in Argentina. He’s considered the ultimate porteño. His music lives on today and captures the true spirit and essence of tango and you can still here his scratchy, wistful vocals drifting around the cobbled streets of San Telmo on any given night.
We visited Cementerio de la Chacarita today, the largest cemetery in Argentina and the resting place of Carlos Gardel. His tomb consists of a life-size bronze statue, where he’s impeccably dressed in a suit. In his right hand he clutches a ribbon and medal, but many visitors to this day insert a lit cigarette.
They say here in BA that if you’re itching to get into a fight with an Argentine, just insult any one of their holy trinity of heroes: Maradona, Eva Peron or Carlos Gardel. I wouldn’t if I were you… but by the way, in news just to hand, did you know Maradona has eight children, three just legitimised in Cuba this week? And as for fortune and as for fame…
*El Cuento del Tio, translated as ‘The Tale of the Uncle’ is a term used in South America, mainly Argentina, Uruguay and Chile when a person takes advantage of someone’s trust by spinning a credible but untrue story to swindle them into believing they’re getting a better deal e.g. exchanging money for a lottery ticket, a watch, a prize or a cheque etc.