ART OF EXCESS: The Shah of Iran
In 1971, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi showcased what he called the ‘Great Civilisation’ of Iran with a three-day party amid the ancient ruins of Persepolis that cost $2.5 billion. It’s to be hoped the Shah enjoyed himself, for it was the high point of the oil-rich Pahlavi dynasty. Originally published in Issue 51 of The Rake, Stuart Husband writes that eight years later, with his country seized by Islamic revolution, the King of Kings was looking for alternative employment.
In 1976, the presiding deity of the art world boarded a plane in New York and headed east, having accepted a commission from another presiding deity. Andy Warhol was on his way to Tehran, to create a portrait of the Shah of Iran’s wife, Her Imperial Majesty Empress Farah Pahlavi. They had met at a White House dinner given for the Shah by President Gerald Ford. “The Shah was cool to me,” reported Warhol afterwards in his typical zoned-out gee-whizz tones, “but the Empress was really, really kind and sooo beautiful.” A dozen schoolgirls in gold brocade greeted the Warhol entourage on their arrival at Tehran airport and pinned pink roses to their lapels. “Then we were whisked off in a limo to the InterContinental Hotel,” said Bob Colacello, the editor of Warhol’s Interview magazine who accompanied him on the trip, “where Andy immediately began ordering caviar from room service for only $10 a portion. He loved that. He did it all day long. He was all, ‘Oh, wow, how glamorous’.” This unanticipated impression was reinforced over the next few days, as the Warhol party attended a polo match, sat down to a state dinner thrown by Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, “a former film critic who knew everyone from Elia Kazan to Lena Horne”, and toured the city. “The Tehran we saw that summer was a growing, prosperous, modern city, just as the Iranian society we encountered was dynamic, affluent and cosmopolitan,” Colacello wrote. “The very rich, a group that included a high proportion of Christians and Jews, lived in the hills on the northern side of town. Their villas wouldn’t 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.” It was only when they ventured into an “old bazaar” in the south of the city that they encountered women in head-to-toe black chadors. “It was there,” said Colacello, “that the sound of our American accents elicited the occasional ominous hiss from within the jostling crowds.”
Warhol and co. couldn’t have known it then, but they were witness to history in the making: the dying days of the Shah’s mission to transform Iran into a ‘Great Civilisation’, a modernisation project founded on the secularisation of Iranian life and the emancipation of women. In 1973 he’d coined the slogan ‘Prosperity for all’ on the back of ballooning oil exports (they’d just quadrupled to $20 billion a year), yet alongside the western liberality manifested in Dior swimsuit shows and broadcasts of The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran a virtual police state, with 6,000 prisons, 60,000 secret police agents, and the banning of Shakespeare and Molière for their criticism of monarchical and aristocratic vices. This aroused the ire of the Shia clergy in general and a certain Ayatollah Khomeini in particular; from his exiled redoubt in the holy city of Qom, he lambasted the Shah for “selling out our country, selling us all out”. By the time Warhol had agreed to create the Shah’s portrait, in 1978 — the silkscreen showed him in all his white-tuniced, gold-embroidered collar-and-epauletted pomp — the “ominous hiss” of a few years previous had grown into the full-throated roar of revolution. “We were all set to go to the Shiraz arts festival in September 1978, where the portrait would be unveiled,” wrote Colacello, “when a telegram arrived from the ministry of culture: ‘Due to illegal manifestations by extreme xenophobic groups, we regret to cancel the event’.” Four months later, the Shah and the Empress fled the Imperial Palace, and the Ayatollah arrived to assume the mantle of Supreme Leader of ‘God’s Government’. Party time was over. Despite the slew of ‘eternal’ titles the Pahlavis accorded themselves — King of Kings, Shadow of the Almighty, Light of the Aryans, God’s Vicar, The Centre of the Universe, and Head of the Warriors being among the less coy — the reign of the Shahs on the Peacock Throne was as fleeting, and every bit as ostentatious, as that bird’s springtime plumage. Reza Shah Pahlavi, the first Shah, was a ruthless and extremely ambitious soldier — the first Persian to command the elite, Russian-trained Cossack Brigade — with a personality every bit as bristly as his luxuriant moustache. Insubordination was treated with a swift kick to the groin (not a glancing blow, coming as it did from a muscular, barrel-chested man who stood at 6’4”), and his eldest son (the third of his 11 children) and future Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, described him in his autobiography as “one of the most frightening men I’ve ever known”. Four years after conducting a coup against the pro-British government of Iran, Reza was appointed as its legal monarch by the constituent assembly in December 1925. He immediately signalled his modernising intentions by banning Iranian chess and the wearing of chadors, levelling the mosques and massacring rebels, decreeing the wearing of European suits, and, for good measure, forbidding the photographing of camels.
Reza’s tenure also saw the building of roads, railways, schools, offices and airports, but he abdicated in September 1941, under pressure from the British; he was an outspoken admirer of Hitler, less from ideology than his identification with the German leader as a Nietzschean Übermensch. “History is made by great men,” he was fond of saying, “and a real leader is an autocrat.” He was funnelled into exile in Johannesburg, where, according to the celebrated Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, in his book Shah of Shahs, “he loved reading books about himself and looking through albums published in his honour, where he could be seen unveiling his monuments and portraits”. His son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi now assumed the throne at the tender age of 23. ‘Tender’, in this instance, is the operative word: where his father was domineering and almost pathologically macho, Mohammad Reza was scarred and insecure. While his father resembled a pugilistic Omar Sharif, Mohammad Reza called to mind a compromised matinee idol — Ronald Colman, perhaps, without the velvet voice. And where Reza was imposing, well… as Kapuściński wrote: “Height was not (Mohammad’s) strong point. Photographers shot him from angles that made him look taller, and he wore elevator shoes, which his subjects kissed nonetheless.” Mohammad had grown up being cosseted by his sisters and his formidable and superstitious mother, Tadj ol-Molouk, who sacrificed lambs to bring good fortune and scare away evil spirits, and clad her children in protective amulets to ward off the power of the evil eye. She inculcated in her son an almost messianic belief in his destiny, to the point where he could declare, in his autobiography: “From the time I was six or seven, I have felt that perhaps there is a supreme being who is guiding me, a mystical force, from whom I receive messages.” Mohammad was educated at the Swiss boarding school Le Rosey, where he picked up a taste for French poetry, and the Tehran military academy, where he became obsessed with flying, to the extent that he would always insist on piloting his private plane, never passed up a chance to sport the uniform of Marshal of the Imperial Iranian Air Force, and, in 1974, almost succeeded in buying Pan-Am. Despite a first marriage in 1939 to Princess Fawzia Fuad of Egypt (who had a propensity for bathing in milk), the Crown Prince lived a gilded playboy life, holding masked balls, skiing in St. Moritz, and driving round Tehran in his Italian and German sports cars (he was eventually to amass nearly 150 of the latter, including one of only six Mercedes-Benz 500K Autobahn Cruisers ever made, and a Maserati 5000 GT, named the Shah of Persia). As an habitué of the fleshpots of Italy, France and the U.K., he was romantically linked to the likes of Gene Tierney, Yvonne de Carlo, Silvana Mangano and Grace Kelly, and he certainly carried a whiff of danger along with the air of licentious leisure, having been the target of five assassination attempts.
As Shah, Mohammad courted popularity by promising broad socio-economic reforms, not unlike the populist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who’d been deposed with the help of the C.I.A. in 1953 after going a little too far in proposing the nationalisation of the oil industry (the Shah was, conveniently, dallying in Rome at the time). His youthful fervour fully re-ignited, he talked of his desire to “save” Iran with grandiose schemes like the White Revolution and the Great Civilisation: “With oil, I will create a second America in a generation,” he pledged. Alongside him was his third wife, Farah Diba (a second marriage, to the German-Iranian Soraya Esfandiari, had been dissolved, like the first, after a failure to produce any sons and heirs). They’d been married in the Marble Palace in 1959; she wore a YSL gown and two-kilo Harry Winston tiara, while granting 150 caged nightingales their liberty and being sprinkled with sugar by the queen mother. Trained as an architect, she was educated, cosmopolitan and ambitious; she rescued lepers, founded the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art by buying up Monets, Picassos and Mirós (and engaging the services of Warhol), and turned the city into a global hub of artistic and cultural activity, presided over by a ‘petro-bourgeoisie’, their $1m villas the setting for the oil-fuelled, Iranian dolce vita that Warhol and Colacello witnessed. That sweet life, however, wasn’t for everyone. The last years of the Shah’s rule were marked by a yawning inequality and a pervasive paranoia that made revolution all but inevitable. The SAVAK secret police’s network of three million informants, as pervasive as the East German Stasi, made sure that many ‘subversives’ ended up being tortured behind bland suburban facades. Meanwhile, the Shah decided to showcase Iranian progress with 1971’s ‘Party of the Century’, the three-day, $2.5 billion bash amid the ancient ruins of Persepolis that was intended to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. The guest list, dispersed among the prefab city erected for the event — along with a golf course and a motorway to ferry the 250 limousines — reads like an International Criminal Court Who’s Who: Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu; Tito of Yugoslavia; Haile Selassie. Fifteen thousand trees were flown in from Versailles, along with 50,000 songbirds to roost in them (all quickly felled by the unsparing heat of the desert). Maxim’s of Paris supplied a menu of French lamb with truffles, served with a ram’s head, and ‘Imperial Peacock Surrounded by Its Court’ (which turned out to be hundreds of quail stuffed with foie gras), washed down with 1945 Château Lafite. The food was served at a 70-metre serpentine table draped with a single bolt of linen; Orson Welles directed and narrated the souvenir video. Ayatollah Khomeini denounced those attending the “shameful” party as “traitors and vultures”. He encouraged hungry, dispirited Iranians to rise up against their ruler. With the failure of the Great Civilisation — there was no infrastructure or intelligentsia to support it, with Iran’s best minds exiled or imprisoned, while the influx of foreigners the Shah enlisted as advisers and overlords added to the native humiliation and loss of face — the end wasn’t long in coming. The king of kings’ reign was abruptly terminated in January 1979, as Iran became a theocracy. The deposed royals drifted into a typical peripatetic exile life, moving between luxuriant villas in Egypt, Morocco, the Bahamas and Mexico. President Carter’s decision to admit the Shah to the U.S. for medical treatment later that year precipitated the Iranian hostage crisis — when militants seized control of the American embassy in Tehran, holding the diplomats for 444 days — and his own downfall. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the second and final Shah, died of cancer in Egypt in 1980. Some years after the Shah’s death and the demise of the Peacock Throne, and some years more after Andy Warhol’s original trip to Tehran, Bob Colacello sat down once again with Farah Pahlavi. America was now the ‘Great Satan’, Hezbollah’s assault-rifle-adorned flags now fluttered over those streets that had once conjured the moneyed ease of Bel-Air, and the collection of modern masters that the Empress had once amassed now languished in walled-up storage. Did she know what had become of the portraits of herself and the Shah, Colacello asked. Yes, she answered: “French television showed a film of some of the paintings in the basement of the museum, and those portraits were cut by a knife.” Not only had the Shah failed to adorn the walls of his Great Civilisation with pop-art trophies; in the end he had been been well and truly effaced. This article originally appeared in Issue 51 of The Rake.