By Celia Walden
Source: The Telegraph
Just outside Tehran there once stood a statue of Farah Pahlavi, the last Empress of Iran. “It was bronze, and nearly three metres high,” explains the widow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, overthrown by the Iranian Revolution in 1979. “They tried to smash it into pieces after we’d left but they couldn’t. So in the end they gave up and pushed me into a lake.” Her eyes crinkle as she breaks into a half-smile: “Anyway I like to think that one day I’ll resurface.”
It is 40 years to the day since the final curtain came down on the rule of the woman dubbed “the Jacqueline Kennedy of the Middle East” and her husband – who had been driven from their country a few weeks before. The Shah had angered clerics by trying to westernise the country and was hated by many for his autocratic reign. The Empress remembers the day of her family’s exile with mixed emotions: “I tried not to lose all hope and think that it really was the end,” she tells me. “But I will never forget the tears in the king’s eyes as the plane took off.”
Life in exile has been tough. The Shah died of cancer in Egypt just months after being forced off the throne, and over the last 18 years the Empress has lost two of her four children to suicide; in 2001, their 31-year-old daughter Princess Leila died of a drug overdose in London, and in 2011 the couple’s 44-year-old son, Prince Ali-Reza, shot himself in Boston.
According to the Empress, her children “never overcame the shock” of what had happened in their formative years.
In the discreet but opulent Paris flat where she now spends most of the year, the 80-year-old Empress is surrounded by memories of her glamorous past life. Among the paintings and sculptures are nestled photographs of the husband she still refers to as “the king” and their offspring – Crown Prince Reza (now 58 and a political activist, living in the US) and Princess Farahnaz (aged 55 and living quietly in New York), as well as Leila and Ali-Reza.
There are also formal portraits of a staggeringly beautiful and bejewelled young bride.
Farah Dibah, as she was born to an upper-class Iranian family, became the Shah’s third wife (the previous two having failed to produce an heir) in 1959, wearing a gown designed by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior. Such was her dedication to her charity work and popularity that, in 1967, the Shah took the significant step of making his Queen consort a “Shahbanu” – the first Empress of modern Iran.
On the day of her coronation, she wore a Van Cleef & Arpels crown, set with 1469 diamonds, 36 emeralds, 34 rubies and 105 pearls, and weighing almost two kilos. “It felt like more,” she says.
It was only when our Queen visited Iran, that the Empress understood why.
“After the official dinner, I escorted her back to her apartments and she took off her crown with this big sigh of relief. ‘Now I can breathe,’ she said. ‘Because it’s so very heavy.’ And I felt envious because on my crown the gold would dig into my head, but on hers there was a sort of velvet cushion to make it more comfortable”.
It would be wrong, though, to see that anecdote as a metaphor for how heavily the Empress’s royal duties weighed upon her.
Although she was only 21 when she married the Shah, Empress Pahlavi relished her 20-year reign, during which she became a pioneer in the arts – something unusual for a woman at that time and in that part of the world.
The story of the extraordinary collection she amassed for her country – worth a reported $3bn and comprising over a thousand works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Bacon, Rothko, de Kooning and a young Andy Warhol, who paid a visit to the Royal Palace to paint her portrait – recently became the subject of a book by Australian author Miranda Darling and London-based art adviser Viola Raikhel-Bolot, for which the Empress wrote the foreward.
Looking back over her art has brought back poignant memories of the past. Since many of the works have remained hidden in a vault beneath the Tehran Museum of Art, “this [book] is probably the closest I will get to seeing the collection again,” she sighs, adding “I could go back to Iran, but I would never leave.”
In the weeks after they were exiled, the Empress received a message “from the madmen who had assassinated so many people back home. They said that if I could kill my own husband – poison him – then I would be allowed back into Iran. And if that doesn’t prove what kind of people they are then I don’t know what does.”
She shakes her head. “Thinking of my home country now splits my heart in two. There’s so much poverty: children are begging in the streets and sleeping on graves. That just didn’t happen in our time. People don’t have enough to eat, workers are not being paid, and there’s so much corruption that journalists and artists are being thrown into prison, tortured and hanged.”
Women, she says, have also suffered. At the time of her 1967 coronation, the Empress felt that what she was doing “was for all women.. Because in our time women were active in all sorts of different areas. At one point, the number of Iranian women going to university was more than the men.”
But they “are now abused and disrespected and have had their rights taken away,” she adds. “And yet they’re so incredibly brave”.
The Empress knows this from the daily emails she receives from young women and men – many of whom still see her as the embodiment of an idealised version of the nation that existed before the Islamic Republic. “‘We dream of seeing you back here,’ some of them write to me. And it’s so touching that with all they’ve been told about us, they still feel that way.”
Although the internet is controlled in Iran, with social media intermittently blocked, it has been hard for the government to wipe out the Empress’s footprint entirely – despite, she believes, circulating “fake news” of her death.
“Yes, it’s curious: I’ve died several times,” she shrugs. “But thanks to the internet people do know all the things that I did. Of course there are very religious, brainwashed women, but a large number of them just want to be liberated and equal. My greatest hope is that they will one day be allowed their freedom.”
The Empress needs to prepare for a trip to Maryland, where her oldest son Reza now lives. And as she sees me out, she points to a photograph of herself in a gold and ruby gown, Iran’s snow-covered Mount Damavand just visible in the distance. “I could see that volcano from my bedroom window at the palace,” she says, wistfully. “But now there’s so much pollution that I’m told you no longer can.”
She hopes that Iran will “one day get the regime it deserves. And I do believe that the seeds you plant with love and hope never dry out – that light will reach even the darkest dark,” she says. “Even if I’m not there to see it, my children and grandchildren might be.”
Iran Modern: The Empress of Art, by Viola Raikhel-Bolot and Miranda Darling (£650), with a foreword by HIH Empress Farah Pahlavi, is available from assouline.com