By Ashley Zimmerman
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On Thursdays, couples engrossed in an intimate candlelight dinner conversation at the Design District's One Ninety Restaurant may be surprised when a slightly miffed elderly woman, wearing a red sequined dress and fishnet stockings, tells them to shut their traps because she's going to sing. Their surprise may turn to shock as she raises a stiletto heel to a man's chair while belting out a tango song to the winsome whine of a bandoneon. But soon they will be clapping their hands and yelling "bravo."
At 77, La Gata's voluptuous figure is not as perky as it was when she traveled the globe, singing for her supper and serving as a distraction from the latest dictatorship for her adoring audiences. But her voice is still full, her body is as agile as a cat, and her spirit is ageless.
La Gata's green eyes are piercing, and when she dresses up for a show, she steps with a sway and flaunts sassy expressions at the audience, often telling them how happy she is and how loneliness is beyond her comprehension. But when she's at home, she lounges about without makeup, dressed in cat-print pajamas, her strawberry-blond-tinted hair in a messy bundle. She becomes hysterical when her kitten Ufa wanders into the street, and she often phones friends to remind them that they should call her on a more regular basis.
Every conversation is a trip into the past, but hers is a long and wandering memory. Sometimes she picks up too far after the part where she left off and then gets a little cantankerous when you ask her to repeat the story. But after a few wisecracks, she softens and fills in the details, plugging in the names of journalists, politicians, and actors for whom she sang during her adventures.
"The nuns handed me 20 pesos and told me: 'It's your life -- you're free to do what you want.' So I thought, what was that famous phrase? 'Broad and alien is the world'?" she asks, citing the title of a 1941 novel by Peruvian writer Ciro Alegría.
"And I said, 'The world is broad, and it's mine!'" she exclaims to a young man she has never met before and with whom she is about to share a drink on a recent Thursday evening at 190. La Gata's table is soon crowded with international bohemians showering her with kisses and settling in to hear her stories.
The first months outside the convent were the hardest. At night, she would sleep in bathrooms or in the production room of Buenos Aires' Astral Theater, showing up at the cafeteria next door for handouts. Artists and journalists befriended her there, putting her in contact with entertainment representatives who paid her to pose for ads for the U.S. firm J. Walter Thompson. She says she also used those contacts to get herself a meeting at the Casa Rosada, Argentina's national palace, with one of President Juan Domingo Perón's officials, who used his influence to slip La Gata some small parts in movies such as Marihuana and Madre Alegría. "I had no idea how to work, but I would lend my face because it was an agreeable face in those years," she recalls.
At the time, Buenos Aires' nightlife was flourishing with tango and cinema, and Argentine nationalism was high. "President Perón inculcated us with a love of our country," she says. "There were a lot of decrees on national culture. For example, 70 percent of radio programming and music had to be Argentine."
The rags-to-riches story of Perón's glamorous wife, Evita, also enhanced national morale and fostered the bohemian movement. Evita, herself a singer, was a major supporter of the arts. Her death in 1952 left a hole in the country's heart and a gaping image problem for the president, whose popularity was widely based on the affection the poor masses held for his wife.
In Evita's absence, Perón began attending social events for the Union of Secondary Students, a youth organization in the city. A lawyer and close friend of Perón's wanted La Gata to join the union, as he was sure Perón would be turned on by her charm. But La Gata, who started singing professionally in the early '50s, refused. "I could never stand people in power telling me what to do," she says. "I was a complete bohemian, and I didn't ever want to feel trapped." The two eventually did meet years later in Panama and Spain, she adds, but no romantic relationship ensued.
In 1955, Perón was ousted in a military coup. Two years later, La Gata left the country to make a name for herself in places such as Peru and Chile, so she wouldn't have to compete with so many other tango singers.
In Chile, La Gata appeared at Santiago's Bim Bam Bum Theater, where Isabel Allende later debuted as both a cabaret dancer and a writer. Then she moved to Spain for nearly a decade, opening a flashy tango bar in the Canary Islands while conservative dictator General Francisco Franco ruled the country with a heavy moral hand. In 1968, she went to Paris for a year and gave a show at the exclusive Club Regine in front of celebrities such as Brigitte Bardot. "I wanted to sing at the Moulin Rouge, but it was closed because of the strikes," La Gata says. Her venue options were somewhat limited because France had been brought to a standstill by student protests demanding the resignation of President Charles de Gaulle.