Dame Margot Fonteyn and the Panama sanitary towel coup

Margot Fonteyn exits BOAC plane on her return from Panama

It was one of the world's stranger coup plots, described by British diplomats as a "slapdash comedy", with the famous prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn and her Panamanian husband trying to topple the government of Panama with the help of a flighty British model, Judy Tatham.

"It was all so amateur. She did it for a lark," says Tatham, about the escapade more than 50 years ago.

"Margot thought that [her husband] would end up as head of the country, and that she would be Queen of Panama. Her role was a romantic one. Mine was to help a friend."

Sitting at her home in the picturesque Tuscany countryside, Tatham, now 87, is keen to share her memories of her famous friend and of the almost comical coup.

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Media captionMargot Fonteyn plays it cool answering reporters' questions

Tatham has rarely spoken before about what were clearly thrilling though slightly terrifying times for the well-spoken daughter of a solicitor from north London. Her "sense of good manners", she admits, prevented her from asking too many questions.

Image caption Judy Tatham (L) and Dame Margot in London, a week after the failed coup

It was early April 1959, and Tatham - by her own admission "flighty and rather naive" - was working in New York, having landed a modelling job thanks to Dame Margot's contacts. The ballerina was in town with her husband Roberto "Tito" Arias, the son of a former president of Panama, whose liberal-leaning family opposed the authoritarian rule of the then president, Ernesto de la Guardia.

The three of them met for breakfast one morning at New York's Plaza Hotel. And it was then that Dame Margot and Arias made a rather strange request. "They said, 'can you get me some shirts?' I said yes, of course, thrilled at having the chance to do something for Margot.

"'How many?', I asked, thinking perhaps two or three. 'About 500,' Tito replied."

Taken aback, but not wanting to seem rude, Tatham then asked about sizes. "Small, medium and large," he replied. The conversation was getting odder every minute. "And what colours?" Tatham inquired. Dame Margot thought for a moment, then, looking down at the hotel's bright green carpet, said quickly: "Like this, Kelly-green. On no account khaki."

That was not all. Tito and Margot also wanted Tatham to use her connections with the New York rag trade to get them a similar number of armbands to be used over the shirts.

Now it was Tatham's turn to ask for something. Neither Dame Margot nor Arias had offered any explanation of what they were up to, but a clearer idea was beginning to dawn on her.

"No revolution was mentioned and I was too polite to ask. But at that point I said to Tito, 'If you are planning something, I have an Easter holiday coming up and I'm not going to be out of it. I want to be part of it'"

"'All right,' he said almost immediately. 'You can bring the armbands with you.'"

So she ordered the 500 Kelly-green shirts, handed them over to Arias, and then went to the workshop of "a rather grubby man somewhere in east New York" to get the arm-bands made. But as Judy packed her bags in preparation for her trip to Central America, she still had to work out how she would smuggle her cargo through customs.

She is still clearly very pleased at her own resourcefulness and she laughs loudly before continuing the tale: "I was walking through [the New York department store] Macy's when I saw some large boxes containing sanitary towels. So I bought one."

Leaving the contents back at her flat, she stuffed the armbands into the box and headed for the airport. No-one thought to stop the pretty young model - or ask why she needed so many sanitary towels in her luggage - as she swept through the airport in Panama City and headed for the Arias family home.

For the next week, with Dame Margot nowhere to be seen, Arias showed Tatham around his native Panama.

"It seemed very primitive," she recalls. They ate out at "very rough restaurants in the jungle" and went to parties. But there was never any mention of the coup.

"I thought it bad manners to ask," Tatham says. Eventually however, Arias's sister, Rosario brought up the subject, much to Tatham's relief. But Rosario just told her not to worry - "overthrowing presidents is what our family does". Tatham returned to New York none the wiser.

Strange as it might appear, Tatham says she did not find out about the extent of Dame Margot's involvement in events in Panama - or what happened to the uniforms and armbands - until many years later.

Confidential British government files from 1959, released in 2010, describe "a slapdash comedy" brought to the attention of the then British Ambassador to Panama, Sir Ian Henderson, in the early hours of 21 April 1959. That was when he first received news of Dame Margot's shock arrest in Panama city.

She and Arias, aboard their luxury yacht in the bay of Panama, had been supposed to land and collect ammunition and men to seize a major highway. But they were given away by local fishermen and forced to flee. When Dame Margot was arrested, Arias was still on the run. A group of students had been supposed to rise up in the capital, but gave themselves away before the agreed time, alerting the authorities. And rebels supplied by Cuba's Fidel Castro, meant to land on the Atlantic coast, never arrived.

Henderson wrote in an official telegram that he was not impressed by Dame Margot's behaviour and did not regard her conduct "as fitting in any British subject". With the help of embassy staff, the ballerina was freed from custody and put on a plane to the US. She called Tatham from the airport. She was characteristically tight-lipped about what she had just been up to. And once again, Tatham says she did not want to intrude.

On the insistence of British diplomats in New York, the pair were soon on a flight back to London.

"I was shovelled out of the plane by the pilot's door, while she went out to face the press," Tatham recalls. News footage of the time shows the composed ballerina laughing off the journalists' insistent questions about her or her husband's role in the foreign coup.

"Did you carry a gun in Panama," one reporter asks. "I won't answer that, because you can guess whether I carried a gun or not!" Fonteyn replies.

Tatham has never been back to the US, where she had left behind friends, a flat and a job. She and Dame Margot fell out shortly after their arrival back home and never saw each other again. Dame Margot and Arias did eventually return to settle in Panama, where the dancer died in 1991.

More than five decades on, Judy is reluctant to judge her one-time friend too harshly. "Margot had no imagination whatsoever. She couldn't imagine that anything could actually go wrong," she says. "For her it was a lark, a bit of an adventure. She thought it was exciting… so did I."

Mike Lanchin interviewed Judy Tatham for the BBC World Service programme Witness. Listen to the programme via BBC iPlayer Radio, or download a podcast.

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