LATIN AMERICA

Carlos Gardel's legend shattered as con artist past exposed

Two forensic experts claim legendary tango singer had a criminal record

Carlos Gardel and Helena D'Agly in Paramount's Melodía de arrabal (1933).
Carlos Gardel and Helena D'Agly in Paramount's Melodía de arrabal (1933).

They say that when Carlos Gardel went into any bar in Buenos Aires province, it took him about two weeks to make friends in the place. Once he gained their confidence, he would often brag that one of his uncles had left him a huge inheritance, while lamenting that he had no money to file a claim to it. If anyone doubted his word, he would show them documents that purportedly supported his story, and frequently he found people who willing to offer to help el pibe Carlitos.

In exchange for paying his travel and hotel expenses and lawyers' fees, Gardel agreed to sign a promissory note that stated that he would give them part of his inheritance once he collected it. Gardel would take his journey but disappear - no one would ever see him again.

This is what is known in Latin America as the common story of the simpleton being ripped off - like the guys who fall for the shell game - and which has been an inspiration for literature and popular music throughout the years.

Raúl Torre and Juan José Fenoglio, two Argentinean criminal forensic experts, who, for the past 14 years have been trying to trace Carlos Gardel's past, last week released the results of their investigation. The report has caused an uproar, given that it has tarnished the mythical singer's legend. They claim that in his youth, Gardel, the most famous tango crooner in history, had been, in effect, a swindler.

Using computer software, they compared the fingerprints of a long-considered lost criminal record to the singer's Uruguayan passport and concluded that "it is the same person." Gardel tried to erase any clues to his past and, with the help of President Marcelo T. de Alvear, his criminal records had been scrubbed.

In a phone interview, the two experts say they plan on conducting further investigations by carrying out DNA tests on hair found on Gardel's clothes brushes. Their goal is to lay to rest all of the uncertainty about whether he was actually related to his mother, Berthe Gardes. Just two months ago, a study concluded that Gardel had been born in Toulouse, France. Another piece of research identifies his birthplace as Tacuarembó, Uruguay, and a third investigation maintains he was born in La Plata, Argentina.

In Buenos Aires slang, being "Gardel" means you are part of the in crowd

And then, of course, there is more general conflicting information that has surfaced over the years: he had different identities; had been imprisoned in Ushuahia; was a homosexual; and was romantically involved with several women, and not just the actresses Isabel Martínez del Valle and Mona Maris, who have been traditionally linked to him. Some believe that he can perform miracles for anyone who so requests at his grave in La Chacarita cemetery, Buenos Aires.

It was also said shortly after his death that he did not die in a plane crash but in reality was still touring Latin America wearing a mask to hide a deformed face.

Carlos Gardel is one of Argentina's major icons and his memory dwells in the collective imagination of all Argentineans. He epitomizes the humble guy who, with his talent, became a global icon. But above all his name is constantly present in conversations that take place in the Southern Cone nation. In the best Buenos Aires slang, being "Gardel" means you are part of the in crowd. And if someone is facing a complicated situation, they might say: "I feel like Gardel on a plane."

According to the latest book on the singer, El padre de Gardel (Gardel's father), which was released this year, Charles Romuald Gardes (his real name) was born on December 11, 1890 in Toulouse. It is said that his father, who died when Gardel was very young, was a French thief who was constantly fleeing to avoid paying for his misdeeds. His mother took the future star to Argentina to get away from the sneers of relatives and neighbors, who did not look kindly on single mothers raising a child. As a boy, he was known as Carlitos in the Abasto de Buenos Aires neighborhood. "Gardel grew up in a sector that had a large public market and where poor immigrants lived. He himself was one of them," says Colombian poet Darío Jaramillo, a Gardel expert.

The singer tried to erase his past and most of his criminal records were wiped

When Gardel was a teenager, struggling to look like a dandy, he began singing at gatherings of friends and family. He made sure he was heard by the singers at the theater where he worked as a stagehand.

In the spring of 1935, Gardel began touring with the intention of traveling throughout Latin America, but his plans were dashed. On June 24 of that year, he died in a plane crash at the airport in Medellín, Colombia. Thousands attended his wake and funeral and his legend has grown ever since.

In 1998, the Center for Gardel Studies contacted Torre and Fenoglio, the two forensic investigators who also say they are big Gardel fans, to determine the true nationality of the tango singer. They began tracking down all documents from public and private collections, which led them on tangential investigative paths.

Finally, they concluded that Gardel was constantly changing his identity - name, place of birth and parents' names - to prevent his criminal past as a scammer from being discovered and damaging his career. He was also trying to avoid - as had been written in the past - the draft in France during World War I. Torre and Fenoglio also claim that several of Gardel's early songs were written by Andrés Cepeda, who was known as the "prison's poet." Cepeda was a con artist who spent much of his life in prison "which suggests that they were both arrested by police and spent some time in prison together."

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