Jovanka Broz, the former first lady of a nation state that no longer exists, died in Belgrade on 20 October, aged 88. Tito’s widow received a state funeral and was buried with full military honours. But she lived the second half of her life in isolation, and by the time she died had been all but forgotten.
Nina Krushcheva may have paved the way for the public role of the wife of a communist leader, but it was Broz who really broke new ground as an Eastern Bloc first lady, in her glamorous international trips with Tito. For Yugoslavs, freer than their Warsaw Pact neighbours to travel to the west, Broz’s eclectic fashion sense reflected a self-conscious celebration of cosmopolitanism.
The romance (and romantic re-writing) of the couple’s meeting as idealistic Partisans resisting Nazi occupation garlanded official versions of their marriage, which was in turn projected as a new ideal of modern life. It was also read as shorthand for the ethos of ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ in the multiethnic federation: she was Serbian, he was Croatian. It’s almost too tempting to see their relationship as a metaphor for the state of the nation, not least because of the protracted disintegration of their marriage in the 1970s.
Tito’s death was announced on national television on the evening of Sunday, 4 May 1980. The mayor of Split interrupted a football game to let the crowd know. The players wept; the 50,000 spectators sang: ‘Comrade Tito, we swear to you, from your path we will never depart.’
The sentiments of brotherhood, unity and ‘After Tito Comes Tito’ did not extend to the newly widowed Broz (they never got divorced). Her fall from grace was swift. In a rare interview later in life Broz spoke of how she was ‘thrown out of her house’ and placed under de facto house arrest elsewhere shortly after Tito’s death: ‘They chased me out… in my nightgown, without anything, not allowing me even to take a photo of the two of us.’ Not much symbolism here, just political jockeying for position among Tito’s successors, though Broz’s recollection foreshadows the many thousands of sudden, panicked departures during the wars of the 1990s.