'An Enduring Love': The Last Empress

The shah and his wife, Farah Diba Pahlavi, with three of their four children in the Bahamas in April 1979, two months after the Iranian revolution.

Associated Press

The shah and his wife, Farah Diba Pahlavi, with three of their four children in the Bahamas in April 1979, two months after the Iranian revolution.


Published: May 2, 2004

IN a television interview with Barbara Walters in 1977, two years before he was overthrown in a popular revolution, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi talked bluntly -- about women and his wife.

The interview went like this:

Walters: I'm quoting Your Majesty. ''In a man's life, women count only if they are beautiful, graceful and know how to stay feminine. You may be equal in the eyes of the law, but not in ability. You have never produced a Michelangelo or a Bach or even a great cook. You are schemers. You are evil. All of you.'' Your Majesty, you said all these things?

Shah: Not with the same words, no.

Walters: Well, the thought, ''You've never produced a Michelangelo, a Bach, or even a great. . . .''

Shah: This I have said.

Walters: So you don't feel that women are in that sense equal, if they have the same intelligence or ability.

Shah: Not so far. Maybe you will become in the future. We can always have some exceptions.

Walters: Here and there? Do you feel your wife is one of these rare exceptions?

Shah: It depends in what sense.

Walters: Well, do you feel your wife can govern as well as a man?

Shah: I prefer not to answer.

At the time, the shah was married to Farah Diba Pahlavi. A commoner 19 years his junior, she was also beautiful, graceful and knew how to stay feminine. She was chosen to replace Soraya Esfandiari Bakhtiari, whom the shah divorced because they failed to have children. He divorced his first wife, Princess Fawzia, the sister of King Farouk of Egypt, after she produced only a daughter.

''An Enduring Love,'' well translated from the French by Patricia Clancy, describes in detail the charmed life of an Iranian queen. For her wedding, the Carita sisters created a special hairstyle for her; Harry Winston designed a tiara that weighed more than four pounds. Wherever she went in Iran, people cheered her and struggled to touch her. She was told that Charles de Gaulle liked her more than any other first lady, even more than Jacqueline Kennedy.

Fortunately for Farah Diba, or the shahbanou, as she was known at the time, she gave birth to a son, Reza, 10 months after the wedding. An honor guard marked the moment by firing their guns, and ''there was dancing in the streets,'' she writes. A second son and two daughters followed, solidifying her position.

Despite the shah's attitude toward women, Farah Diba was loyal to him throughout his reign. She fled with him into exile on the eve of the revolution that ushered in an Islamic republic in 1979 and followed him from country to country until he died of cancer 18 months later. In her memoir, she portrays him reverentially, as a loving husband and father and an enlightened leader who was betrayed by the world, particularly the Carter administration.

This could have been a reflective account of Farah Diba's life with the shah -- what went wrong in the last years of his reign and the wisdom she has gained in the quarter-century since. Instead, she tries to refute the historic image of the shah as a weak leader, indecisive and impulsive, and to tell her grandchildren ''how cruel history was'' and how ''unfair'' it had been to their grandfather. Farah Diba is so full of anger and bitterness that her memoir distorts more than it enlightens.

She omits, for example, the fact that it took a coup orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency to restore the shah to the throne in 1953, saying of his return only, ''The king returned to Tehran to great acclaim.''

She defends the shah's lavish celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire at Persepolis in 1971, estimated at the time to have cost as much as $200 million. (Elizabeth Arden created a new line of cosmetics and named it Farah; Lanvin designed the court's uniforms, Baccarat the goblets. Maxim's of Paris led the team of chefs and caterers. Except for caviar that was served in quails' eggs, the food and wine were flown in from Paris.) ''I tried constantly to explain to foreign correspondents how unfair it was to attack us,'' she writes, noting that the celebrations were a wonderful exercise in public relations.

She minimizes the terror engendered by Savak, the shah's secret police, who spied on, arrested, tortured and killed the shah's political opponents. ''Some Savak agents no doubt went too far and it is said committed indefensible acts,'' she writes.

She says that when she and the shah fled the country on the eve of the revolution, ''We were leaving on a 'trip,' disappearing for a while to allow people to come to their senses and their anger to calm down. After a few weeks, they would understand.''

But it is doubtful that she really believed the cover story. At another point, she says that many of her husband's top aides begged him not to abandon them, and that she even offered to let him leave without her. ''You don't have to be Joan of Arc,'' the shah told her.

The shah's cabinet, staff and generals did not have the opportunity to leave; many were executed by the clerics who took power. That saddened her, she says. When she received the news that Gen. Hassan Pakravan, the head of the dreaded Savak, was executed, she reports, ''it upset me dreadfully.''

She defends the shah's decision to arrest Amir Abbas Hoveyda, his longtime prime minister, to help deffuse the political crisis, adding that when he was killed by the revolutionaries, ''no one of us could have supposed that his detention . . . would end in this way.''

In Farah Diba's view, the revolution was not a popular uprising that united all classes of society against the monarchy; it was a well-financed conspiratorial movement in which religion was ''shamelessly'' used by the Communists to stir up the people, in which each component of the revolutionary coalition was manipulating the other for its own selfish ends.

Sadly, she is still in denial. ''I left everything,'' she writes of her departure, but says nothing about how she and her family have managed to support themselves all these years. (Her son Reza is believed to have lost about $25 million of the family fortune through the mismanagement of his financial adviser several years ago.)

There is a strong subtext to the book that may suggest a reason it was written. ''An Enduring Love'' is an emotional appeal to restore the crown to her Reza, who is leading an opposition movement against the Islamic Republic from his residence and his office, outside Washington, and a Web site.

That goal is revealed in an emotional encounter in Panama in early 1980 with Lloyd Cutler, who was then President Carter's legal adviser. Cutler, she said, offered the ex-shah the possibility of medical treatment in Houston if he would formally abdicate. The ex-queen says she replied: ''If he were to abdicate, the throne would come to our elder son Reza. And if our elder son dies, it will be the second son. And if our younger son is prevented from succeeding, it will be someone else from our family.'' At another point, Farah Diba writes, ''Only the kings were legitimate rulers in our country.'' Indeed, Reza has already crowned himself shah, in a quiet ceremony in Egypt on the day in 1981 that he turned 20.

But the royal bloodline runs only so deep. What Farah Diba doesn't say is that Reza Shah, her father-in-law and Reza's grandfather, was an army colonel who seized power in a coup in 1921 and four years later deposed the reigning shah and was crowned king himself.

Elaine Sciolino is The Times's Paris bureau chief. Her latest book is ''Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran.''