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.
The Shah with his second wife, Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari, on a skiing trip in Iran, 1952 Photo by Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

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.”


Stuart Husband


January 2021


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