After 43 years in exile, it would be easy to withdraw and resign oneself to bitterness. But speaking from her home in Paris, where she has spent part of almost every year since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Her Imperial Majesty Farah Pahlavi fondly—and frankly—looks back at the two decades served she Iran by Mohammad Reza Shah’s side. It has been nearly five decades since her 1975 sitting with Town & Country, and the empress’s relaxed, regal communication remains remarkably unchanged.
“It was a beautiful time,” the empress remembers during our visitation, the type of which she rarely grants anymore. “His Majesty and I were busy—I with my activities in different fields and closeness to the people and those who were working for us, and he with his work for the development of Iran in every field. We received many official personalities in Iran, and I had the chance to meet so many wonderful people, starting with kings and queens and presidents, artists, writers, and musicians. It was a very full life.”
The Pahlavis reigned over the country and its glittering capital, Tehran, which was frequented by the international jet set, foreign dignitaries, global tycoons, and Hollywood celebrities. (Elizabeth Taylor famously accompanied her then-companion, Iran’s ambassador to the US Ardeshir Zahedi, on a well-documented trip.) But underneath the glitter, the shah fast-tracked the country’s modernization and advancement, and the empress played an instrumental role.
French-educated, with impeccable taste and elegance, the empress had a vision of her own to better the lives of Iranians, from education and literary concerns to women’s rights. She was to her country what Jacqueline Kennedy was about to become to Americans: an instant living icon.
In a region where female forces have historically kept a private profile, the empress was highly visible and took an active role on the cultural and educational front, traveling the country to meet with her compatriots in cities and villages and gracing the covers and pages of countless magazines worldwide. Forty-seven years ago, T&C paid a visit to Iran’s royal summer residence for a cover feature on Pahlavi. The scene exuded a charming sense of royalty-to-reality. Ten dogs ran around the estate, and there were enough animals—pets and otherwise—for a zoo, all while the “working empress,” as she was known, described her daily routine, from official meetings to family time.
She was indeed the first modern monarch, the OG Queen of People’s Hearts who touched the lives of people in the same way Diana did decades later, and who paved the way for future female royals of the Middle East, such as Queen Rania of Jordan and Qatar’s Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. “She understood that improving Iranians’ lives was as much about food, health care, and education as it was about safeguarding their dignity and celebrating their culture.” She did it all, and she did it with quiet elegance,” says Nazee Moinian, a fellow at the Middle East Institute. “She held her own. She understood the burdens of being a queen and wasn’t victimized by it. She’s unique, because she represents the best of being an Iranian woman: intelligent, elegant, and feisty. Many Iranians, after 43 years of inhuman theocracy, miss their king. But they always missed their queen.”
I was born and raised outside of Iran, but the culture of my paternal ancestors was conveyed in the poetic sounds of the Farsi language and the delightful fragrance of the foods we enjoyed. But it was also in the photos of the royal couple that were displayed in our home, which reminded me that there are more than enough reasons to feel a sense of pride in my heritage. More than four decades later, Empress Farah still inspires this sentiment, and among the Persian diaspora she represents the hope for what Iran could one day be again.
Her Majesty credits the shah with allowing her to fulfill her dreams for Iran and, in a historic first, elevating her from queen to empress during his 1967 coronation, when he placed a majestic Van Cleef & Arpels crown, adorned with gems from the National Treasure Including 36 emeralds, 36 spinels and rubies, 105 pearls, and 1,469 diamonds, on her head.
“Frankly, [the moment was] not so much about me but the importance the shah gave to women,” she says, humbly. “The moment he put the crown on my head, I felt he was putting the crown on the head of all Iranian women. He was right for the Iranian women… When you see their courage during all these difficult years, with all this suffering…they were the only group that stood up against the revolution.”
As both queen and empress, Pahlavi was devoted to social issues, with a strong personal passion for art and culture. Her involvement and devotion often expanded beyond ribbon cuttings and openings. Layla Diba, the wife of Pahlavi’s cousin Mahmoud Diba, was the director and chief curator of Tehran’s Negarestan Museum and an art adviser to the empress. At the museum’s 1975 opening, Diba was asked to give a tour of the exhibits to the empress and visiting Princess Sofia of Spain, which, as she recalls, was “a very daunting assignment for a young beginner. I remember distinctly at one point faltering in my explanations. Without missing a beat, Her Majesty stepped in and gave the tour like a pro…an example of grace under fire and a cool head, as well as great kindness to a nervous young curator.”
Pahlavi was also a champion of modern art and built a collection for the new Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Valued today at an estimated $3 billion, said collection includes import-ant works from Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, Salvador Dalí, and David Hockney.
“I thought, The world has so many great objects of Iran, and we don’t have anything,” the empress says, explaining her impetus to amass such a collection.” We could not afford getting old pieces from the rest of the world , so we started to buy contemporary and modern art and sculptures.” Of all the pieces in this collection, Andy Warhol’s portraits of her are arguably the most prominent.
Pahlavi first met the artist at a 1975 White House State Dinner given for the shah by President Gerald Ford. Bob Colacello, then the editor of Warhol’s Interview magazine, accompanied the artist to DC but did not attend the glamorous affair. “Andy didn’t get home until 2,” Colacello says,”and I remember him saying, ‘The empress was following me from the Red Room to the Blue Room to the Green Room, and I was so afraid she was going to ask me to dance, I kept running away from her.’ When I told her this recently, she said,’I was just trying to talk to him, this great artist I was excited to meet. And he kept slipping away.”’”
A year later Warhol, with his manager Fred Hughes and Cola-cello, traveled to Tehran for the portrait sitting. “After Andy finally went to the palace to take photographs, he came back to the hotel and said she was so great, beautiful, nice, and gracious, and she knew a lot about art,” Colacello recalls. “[At the time]Iran was booming, and the north of Tehran was like Beverly Hills, except there were Persian carpets next to the swimming pools.”
As for the empress’s impression of the moment,”I was very proud that Andy Warhol did this, and I am very happy that [the artworks she amassed] are still there, at the museum,” she tells me. “Many years ago I saw a program on television, and they went into the basement of the museum. One of the paintings of me by Andy Warhol was torn. They should have kept it [intact]. They could have [just] sold it.”
By “they” she means the Islamic regime that replaced the Pahlavi dynasty after the revolution, which she describes with forthrightness.”I don’t think that we didn’t have problems. But even today, when I think about it, these were not problems to the point that they would lead to what happened. Countries change, governments that change for something better are not bad—but to go from Cyrus the Great to this is unbelievable. It was very sad, and very hard, and we couldn’t understand why our people were going in this direction when Iran was doing so much and moving forward. When we look back, we think, What if we had done this or we had done that? But as the French say, ‘With all the ifs, you can put Paris in a bottle.’”
In later life Pahlavi has endured personal losses, with the death of her daughter Leila at age 31 and son Ali Reza at 44. She has worked through her grief in myriad ways, including meditation, yoga, and exercise.
“What happened was so hard,” she says. “I thought, I have to be strong for my other two children—for Reza and Farahnaz—and for my grandchildren, but also for the many other mothers in Iran who have suffered the same loss.”
Interesting her hope is unrelenting—for the freedom of her country and, especially, the women of Iran, who are among the country’s most visible and inspiring voices for change.
“Light will overcome the darkness, and Iran will rise from her ashes. They should keep strong,” she says. “I always say that the seeds you plant with love and belief and respect never perish. And that is what happened.”
This story appears in the May 2022 issue of Town & Country.
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