Belgrade, Oct. 20: Jovanka Broz, who spent three decades as Yugoslavia’s First Lady but was left stateless and forgotten as war shattered the socialist federation built by her husband Marshal Tito, died today in a Belgrade hospital. She was 88.
Her life would end in dismal poverty and bitter resentment, but in the good times Jovanka had been a truly international hostess, living a life of luxury.
Her husband and Yugoslav communist leader Josip Broz — known as Tito — had established his independence from Moscow, founded the Non-Aligned Movement and was courted by political leaders and celebrities from east and west.
Jovanka travelled the world with her husband, and at the various residences in Yugoslavia itself, she played host to everyone from the Queen to Fidel Castro, Pope Paul VI to Leonid Brezhnev.
She helped cement her husband’s extraordinary network of friendships across borders and boundaries, making Yugoslavia such a fashionable diplomatic destination. Tito was the toast of non-aligned nations like India. In 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru was given a rousing welcome at Tito’s Belgrade.
Dressed regularly in French fashion, furs and diamonds, riding in Rolls-Royces, Jovanka loved the glamour of the film world too, entertaining Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on a yacht.
She seemed to have made herself indispensable to her husband, handing him vital notes, nudging him awake when long speeches put him to sleep, trying to ensure that overindulgence in his beloved whisky did not embarrass him and nursing him as his health deteriorated. Even in the bunkers designed for wartime, Jovanka was provided for with rooms painted in pink.
Nursing helped bring the two figures together in the 1940s, when both were active in the partisan movement fighting Nazi occupation.
Their secret relationship became a public marriage in 1952 when Jovanka was 28, and Tito was 60 — it was announced that “President and Mrs Josip Broz Tito” would be receiving the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, at a reception.
Yugoslav communist mythology built up the story of Jovanka as a kind of communist Cinderella who had saved the life of their leader and would now live happily with him ever after.
But Jovanka’s closeness to Tito meant that she could not escape the power struggles that intensified as Tito’s health deteriorated. In 1977 she suddenly stopped appearing at his side, and was rumoured to have been detained for a while.
The marriage was visibly in crisis. Tito moved out of their home in the mid-1970s, though the couple never formally divorced. She did appear at Tito’s funeral in May 1980, standing tearfully next to his sons from other marriages.
After Tito’s death, Jovanka ensured much public hostility by filing a lawsuit laying claim to villas, vineyards, motorboats, five cars and around 100 medals, some decorated with diamonds. The Yugoslav state rejected the claim.
She was thrown out of her official residence and was more or less kept under house arrest in a decrepit house with a leaking roof and no heating.
After the end of the 1990s war, she was given back a passport, told she was free to move around and granted a modest pension in 2006.
She began speaking out and said in an interview: “I played my whole life on just one card — that I am the wife of Marshal Tito.” In the convulsions of life in Yugoslavia, that was indeed a hazardous card to have played.