When there is pressure, artists become more creative``
Her Imperial Majesty Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran—as she was officially known until 1979, when her husband, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown and replaced by the Islamic Republic of Ayatollah Khomeini—was recently in New York to attend the opening of “Iran Modern,” a major exhibition of Iranian art from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, at the Asia Society on Park Avenue. Tall and still beautiful at 75, she was the picture of elegance and dignity that evening, in a white silk dinner suit embroidered with black flowers, her champagne-colored hair pulled back and tied with a black satin bow for a nice schoolgirl touch. As always, she carried herself with the perfect posture and composed manner of royalty, yet made everyone she met feel as if she was delighted to see them—especially the artists whose work was in the show, though some of them had been fierce critics of her husband’s regime. Back then, the international press often referred to her as the Jacqueline Kennedy of the Middle East, not only for her glamorous style but also for her commitment to historical preservation and her patronage of the arts.
Farah Diba was born on October 14, 1938, in Tehran, Iran, to well-to-do aristocratic parents, she was educated at private Italian and French schools in Tehran, before studying architecture in Paris. She was introduced to the shah at a reception at the Iranian Embassy in Paris in the spring of 1959, and he began courting her when she returned to Iran that summer. They were married in December, in a Shiite Muslim ceremony at the Marble Palace, in central Tehran. In keeping with traditional customs, the bride, wearing a gown designed by Yves Saint Laurent and a two-kilo Harry Winston tiara, set 150 caged nightingales free and was sprinkled with sugar by the queen’s mother. She was 21; the shah was 40. He had been married twice previously, first to Princess Fawzia, the sister of King Farouk of Egypt, with whom he had a daughter; and then to Soraya Esfandiari. As these unions had failed to produce a male heir, both had ended in divorce. Ten months after her marriage, Empress Farah gave birth to Crown Prince Reza, followed by Princess Farahnaz in 1963, Prince Alireza in 1966, and Princess Leila in 1970.
The shah was a complicated and controversial figure who, on one hand, believed in the divine right of kings, and on the other, strove to make his country the most modern in the region, abolishing feudalism and emancipating women as part of his White Revolution of 1963. The empress herself was a symbol of how far women had come under her husband’s reign. She was the first Iranian queen to be named as regent in the event her husband died before the crown prince turned 20. She presided over a staff of 40 and was a patron of 24 educational, health, and cultural organizations, traveling to the most backward parts of the country to inaugurate schools and hospitals. Under her direction, the government bought back hundreds of historic Persian artifacts from foreign institutions and private collections and built museums to house the recovered bronzes, carpets, ceramics, and other objects and antiquities.
In the early ’70s, the empress founded the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and began assembling a collection of nearly 150 works, from the Impressionists (Monet, Pissarro, Renoir) right through to the minimalists (Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden), spending, she has said, less than $100 million. Today the collection also includes works by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Dongen, Picasso, Braque, Miró, Magritte, Dalí, Pollock, Johns, Bacon, Hockney, and Lichtenstein, is estimated to be worth as much as $5 billion. The museum opened in 1977, but with the coming of Ayatollah Khomeini two years later, these treasures were locked away in its basement vault, deemed unfit for Islamic eyes.
In 1976, Empress Farah commissioned Andy Warhol to do her portrait. They had met at a White House dinner given for the shah by President Ford—Andy told me afterward, “The shah was cool to me, but the empress was really, really kind and beautiful.” Although I was editor of Interview at the time, my Factory duties also entailed selling Andy’s art, so I worked out the details with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Fereydoun Hoveyda, a former film critic who often invited us to his caviar-laden dinners, where one might find everyone from François Truffaut or Louis Malle, to Elia Kazan, Lena Horne, and Sidney Lumet. On July 5, 1976, Andy, his manager, Fred Hughes, and I flew to Tehran, accompanied by Nima Farmanfarmaian, a New York Post fashion columnist and the daughter of two well-known Iranian artists, Monir Farmanfarmaian and Manoucher Yektai. A dozen schoolgirls in gold brocade caftans greeted us at the airport and pinned pink roses to our lapels before we were whisked off in a limousine to the Tehran Inter-Continental Hotel, where Andy immediately began ordering caviar from room service for only $10 a portion. The following night we found ourselves at a state dinner for Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan hosted by Iran’s Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the older brother of the ambassador. (Less than three years later, both host and guest of honor would be executed, Hoveyda during the revolution, Bhutto after a military coup.)
The Tehran we saw that summer was a growing, prosperous, modern city—just as the Iranian society we encountered was dynamic, affluent, and cosmopolitan. The very rich, a group that included a high proportion of Christians and Jews, lived in the hills on the northern side of town, near the imperial family’s Niavaran Palace compound. Their villas would not have seemed out of place in Bel Air—except for the Persian carpets beside the pools—and the women wore bikinis by day and haute couture by night. Closer to downtown, vast middle-class housing developments were under construction, including one by that pioneer of affordable American suburbia, William Levitt. Only in the old bazaar in poorer south Tehran did we see women in head-to-toe black chadors, and it was there that the sound of our American accents elicited the occasional ominous hiss from within the jostling crowds.
During the week we spent in Tehran waiting for Empress Farah to find time in her busy schedule to pose for Andy’s Polaroid Big Shot camera, I never once heard the word “Shiite.” Yet, by the following July, when she came to New York to receive a women’s rights award at a luncheon given by the Ecumenical Appeal to Conscience Foundation, hundreds of masked demonstrators were shouting, “Kill the shah!” outside the Pierre Hotel, and police on horseback struggled to push them back across Fifth Avenue. “This is too scary,” moaned Andy, as we rushed inside. In November, Andy and Fred Hughes went to President Jimmy Carter’s state dinner for the shah, where some 8,000 demonstrators surrounded the White House. By then, protests had begun in Iran, and the shah’s regime was coming under increasing criticism in the American press. So was Andy. A few days before the White House dinner, The Village Voice ran a photograph of Andy and Empress Farah on its cover, under the headline “The Beautiful Butchers.” Not long after, Andy’s old friend, Henry Geldzahler, the Metropolitan Museum curator who had just been named New York City Commissioner of Cultural Affairs by Mayor Koch, personally berated him for dealing with “the murderous shah.” That did not stop Andy from agreeing to do the shah’s portrait when Ambassador Hoveyda asked him to in early 1978. As His Imperial Majesty would not be sitting for Polaroids, Andy made his silkscreen from an official photograph of the shah wearing a formal white military tunic with a gold-embroidered collar and epaulets. We were all set to go to the Shiraz Arts Festival in September 1978, where the portrait would be unveiled, when a telegram arrived from the Ministry of Culture. “Due to illegal manifestations by extreme xenophobic groups, we regret to cancel this year’s festival.”
The shah and the empress left Iran on January 16, 1979, and two weeks later, the ayatollah arrived in triumph, going on to become the Supreme Leader of “God’s government.”
For the next several months, the deposed royals moved from country to country—Egypt, Morocco, the Bahamas, and Mexico—seeking refuge while under the threat of extradition and death from the new Iranian regime. In October, President Carter reluctantly admitted the shah to the U.S. for medical treatment; in response, Iranian militants seized control of the American embassy in Tehran, taking its diplomats hostage for what would become 444 days. The Pahlavis were then packed off to Panama and finally to Egypt again, where the shah died in July 1980, of cancer (lymphoma).
President Reagan allowed his widow and children to enter the United States in 1981, but life in exile has not been easy on the family. Princess Leila died of a drug overdose in London in 2001; Prince Alireza committed suicide in Boston in 2011. “The children were thrown from their gilded cages into the jungle at a very young age,” says a family friend, “and could not survive.”
These days, the former empress divides her time between Paris and Potomac, Maryland, where her son, Prince Reza, the once would—be shah, lives. We talked over tea at the apartment of her cousin Layla Diba, the former curator of Islamic Art at the Brooklyn Museum and co-curator of “Iran Modern,” which is on view through January 5.
FARAH PAHLAVI: I’m happy that there are exhibitions about Iran in this country at this time. It’s good for Iranians who are in America to see that their country has been honored, and also for Americans to know a little more about Iran. The exhibition [earlier in 2013] of Cyrus the Great’s Cylinder at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in Washington was a great success. The director told me, “We didn’t even have a show with so many viewers and press.” And the exhibition now at the Asia Society about Iranian modern art is interesting because, after what the American people have seen in the news about what has happened in Iran, it’s good for them to see another image of our country and our people.
BOB COLACELLO: The period the Asia Society exhibition covers—the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s—was the time you were empress, right?
PAHLAVI: Yes. I got married in 1959. And I was lucky, in a way, because I came in a period when Iran was going ahead in many fields—industrial, cultural, and educational. I always say I am grateful to my husband because he supported me and guided me, and helped me to be able to do things in the fields I was interested in, as a person and also in my position. I remember the first time he asked me to marry him. He said, “As queen, you will have a lot of responsibility.” And I said yes, because in my youth, I was a girl scout, and in school, they were teaching us to serve others, to help others. But I couldn’t imagine the scale of the work! It took me a few years to know about the problems and to find ways to help. I’m also grateful to all my compatriots who came to see me, ladies and gentlemen, explaining to me that “We need this” or “We need that”—in social welfare, for example, for children who were sick, or mentally ill, or underprivileged, or who couldn’t see, all sorts of this kind of thing, but also in education, which was the most important thing for our country, and in culture. I was interested in culture. I loved the culture. I wanted to help in any way that I could for the preservation of our ancient and traditional culture. Not just in terms of architecture, but art and literature and poetry and handicrafts. I was also interested in contemporary art and I wanted to support Iranian artists. I believe my interest started in the early ’60s when I first went to the Tehran Biennial that the Ministry of Culture had organized for Iranian painters. And then, slowly, there were one or two galleries—private galleries—which would show Iranian artists. I really admired their work, and I myself was buying. And also I was trying to encourage those who could afford to come with me and to buy because Iranians who were wealthy at the time were more interested to collect ancient Iranian art, and not so much contemporary. I encouraged the Ministry, which had a budget for the decoration, to be involved, too—I said instead of just spending it on ugly furniture, you could order a painting or a sculpture from an artist. I did the same with mayors of cities. And slowly, it took off, and there were many exhibitions and many collectors, and it was a period when we really had great artists. So I’m very happy that Asia Society is showing that period.