Born a peasant, she fought with the partisans, lived as a glamorous First Lady, only to wither away lonely. Leandra Bias profiles Jovanka Broz, Tito’s widow, who has died at 88 after three decades of isolation.
“With her one last major figure of former Yugoslavia has departed – the First Lady everyone simply addressed by ‘comrade’”, said Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic at Jovanka Broz’s funeral on 26 October. She died a week before on 20 October, a day that couldn’t have been more symbolic: it was that day, when she and other partisans entered Belgrade in 1944 to liberate it from the Fascists. Even in her last days she was a true fighter. According to her doctor Rislic, she would never complain of any pain – maybe because pain had become a constant part of her life. For 25 years full of zest at the side of Josip Broz Tito, had been followed by over thirty years of a bitter life in quasi-arrest. This probably made her the most intriguing personage of the post-Yugoslav era. But who was that women with her characteristic bun next to Tito?
It wasn’t serendipity that Jovanka Broz became Tito’s fourth wife. His third wife had just died of tuberculosis and he was deeply depressed. His entourage was worried he’d be seduced by some bourgeois girl. Jovanka with her attractiveness and robustness should bring the “old man” under control. When they got married in 1952, Tito’s mother apparently said: “Thanks God, now there’s finally someone above Tito in Yugoslavia”.
Jovanka born Budisavljevic, proved early that she could hold her own. As a peasants’ daughter she joined the partisans at only 18. She fought in the sixth Lika-Division, the first one to be solely composed of women and which later made Tito affectionately call her “my Licanka”. Afterwards, she served as a nurse in a military hospital and, finally, after the war, was purposefully appointed Tito’s private secretary. As the biographer Milovan Djilas puts it “the security staff put a beautiful girl next to Tito and let nature take its course”. Tito was a well-known philanderer, who would soon come to like the girl 22 years younger than he.
The story, however, wasn’t all that romantic. As Tito’s secretary, she had to give up all social life, but most importantly, she was soon accused of abusing the “old man’s” loneliness. Six years she endured, determined to sacrifice her youth to serve the deity she dreamed about. The turning point came in 1951, when she took care of Tito after a gallbladder surgery as if he were her husband. The marriage followed a year later.
She was soon to become a famous public figure. Although she never looked at ease in the opulent clothes and heavy jewellery, her good humour and friendly manner made her an efficient icebreaker in international circles. She welcomed Fidel Castro and became friends with Indira Ghandi and Muammar al-Gaddafi. Jovanka seems to have particularly pleased Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. Rumours have it, that on his first visit to Yugoslavia he tried to kiss her. When he failed, he prompted the new trade agreement with Yugoslavia should include a clause declaring “the agreement for null and void if Marshall Tito refuses to exchange his wife with Nikita’s”.
However, many Yugoslavs, especially women, started hating her for “too much laughter, adornment, smugness, excess, excess”. Mischief reached the leadership, too, which feared Jovanka had too much influence. Officially, she never had a political post, unlike the spouses of Honecker, Ceausescu, or Hoxha.
Her main duties were to look after her husband and the household. It was also her, who took care of protocol. Although she was present during political meetings, her role was too small to make a Jiang-Qing affair of. Yet this was exactly what Tito’s entourage accused her of. In 1977 she suddenly disappeared from the scene without any explanation. Whether the reason was intrigue or another women remains unknown. The two were never seen together again. For Jovanka all sacrifices lost meaning. Her deity turned out to have feet of clay.
Things became even bitterer after Tito died in 1980. One night, armed men stormed Jovanka’s place, confiscated all her belongings and took her dressed only in a nightgown to a dilapidated villa. Here she was to spend the rest of her life: 33 years in a house with no heating, a leaking roof and broken windows. She wasn’t given a passport, nor any pension until 2009. The only time she would appear in public was on Tito’s birthday.
No one, including herself, ever understood the reasons for her isolation. Was it because she as a Serbian and Tito with his Croatian origins represented the ‘brotherhood and unity’ that was extinct during and after the years of the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia? Whatever the reason, Jovanka remained faithful to Tito. In her memoirs she wrote “God gave me many beautiful years on Tito’s side, and afterwards many more years of suffering and injustice. But I was lucky to be a loved woman”. Her last wish was to be buried next to him, and it was granted, with her funeral accompanied by military honours. Government’s representative and members of the diplomatic corps attended to bid farewell to one of the last comrades with the partisan anthem “Bella Ciao” in the background.