The inspirational story of the Queen Farah Diba Pahlavi’s life is a complex one of fairy tales, politics and tragedy.
A commoner and young architecture student, she was chosen to replace the King Shah Mohammed Reza’s second wife, Soraya Esfandiari Bakhtiari, after she failed to produce an heir to the throne. Their engagement in November 1959 was announced to the world via the cover of Life Magazine where the glamorous ‘soon-to-be’ Queen was pictured wearing a stunning dress by Dior.
One month later, aged just 21, and 19 years the Shah’s junior, Farah Diba married Shah Mohammed Reza garnering worldwide press attention. Dressed in a gown designed by Yves Saint Laurent and wearing a newly commissioned Diamond Tiara designed by Harry Winston their marriage announced the arrival of possibly one of the most loved, stylish, forward thinking and inspirational royals to have ever reigned.
Just 10 months after the wedding she gave birth to a son solidifying her position; the occasion was marked by dancing in the streets. A succession of children followed; another son and two daughters.
After the birth of the Crown Prince the Queen was free to dedicate more time to activities that interested her. As time progressed the she became much more involved in government affairs. Using her husband’s influence and proximity she drew attention to causes that concerned and interested her, particularly in the areas of women's rights and cultural development.
Over time she became one of the most vocal and highly visible figures in the Imperial Government and became the patron of 24 educational, health and cultural organizations. Her significant contributions to social reforms and her influence in the emancipation of women played a vital part in bringing Iran into the modern era. During her reign women played an increasingly important role in public life and occupied important positions in all areas of administration; parliament deputies, senators, ministers, ambassador, lawyers, judges etc.
During the early 1970’s, her humanitarian role earned her immense popularity. She travelled a great deal within Iran, visiting some of the more remote parts of the country. Wherever she went, people cheered her and struggled to touch her. She would meet with local citizens earning her the title ‘The Empress of Hearts’.
Her popularity was not just confined to Iran, it was told that Charles de Gaulle liked her more than any other first lady, even more than Jacqueline Kennedy!
The Imperial Government in Tehran was aware of her popularity this was exemplified when she was crowned as the first Shahbanou, or Empress, of modern Iran. The naming of a woman as Regent was highly unusual for a Middle Eastern or Muslim Monarchy.
Visiting the former Royal Palace of Niavaran the Queens love of architecture becomes blatantly apparent. Designed by Mohsen Foroughi and finished in 1968 the building mixes traditional Iranian architecture with 1960’s contemporary design. The huge eccentric electric retractable roof has a hint of James Bond baddie lair about it whilst traditional Iranian furnishings bring the design back down to earth.
Located nearby, in a beautiful piece of 1970’s contemporary architecture, is the Queen’s personal library. The interior is designed by Aziz Farmanfarmayan and consists of three levels: the main reading room, a balcony and an underground basement for storing artefacts and paintings. Untouched for over 35 years the library is a fascinating time capsule, the collection of over 22,000 books reveals and typifies the Queens interests.
Mainly comprising of books about art, philosophy and religion, a quick glance across the shelves reveals a sneaky peak at how Iran’s future could have turned out radically different had the royal family not been ousted. Books about Islam share shelf space with titles like ‘Eastern Religion and Western Thought’ and ‘Western Modern Art’.
The library also houses a fascinating collection of autographed books, including a Walt Disney signed book presented to the young Prince, that highlight the relationship Iran had with the U.S. at that time.
Amongst her many patronages she supported the often controversial Shiraz Arts Festival which ran from 1967 until 1977. The festival featured live performances from Iranian and Western artists including avant-garde performances by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
The Queen’s interest in Contemporary art is also expressed throughout the entirety of the palace although the majority of the collection is now housed in a designated gallery. Impressive works by Warhol, Dali and Picasso share wall space with a fine collection of Iranian contemporary art from the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Her love of contemporary art was exemplified in 1976 when Empress Farah commissioned Andy Warhol to do her portrait after they met at a White House dinner hosted by President Ford. In the summer of 1976 Andy Warhol spent a week in Tehran to photograph the Empress with his Polaroid camera.
The Empress’ most enduring accomplishment was the founding of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. In the early 1970’s the Queen began assembling an absolute collection of modern and contemporary art, from the Impressionists (Monet, Pissarro, Renoir) right through to the cutting edge minimalists of the 1970’s (Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin). The Empress took advantage of a depressed art market and led a panel of experts who toured European and American auction houses in order to build the prestigious collection. More than 300 significant works were purchased, reportedly for less that $100 million. The collection was seen as a gift to the people of Iran. The museum opened in 1977. Two years later Ayatollah Khomeini deemed the collection to be unfit for Islamic eyes and the newly formed anti-western Islamic Republic promptly put the collection into storage where it remained mostly unseen for 25 years.
The collection which includes prominent works by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Braque, Miró, Magritte, Dali, Pollock, Johns, Bacon, Warhol, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Stella and Richard Smith, who I had the pleasure of working with in 2002, is estimated to be worth as much as $5 billion. It is considered the most comprehensive collection of modern art outside of Europe and the U.S.
The Queen was not only interested in contemporary art she took an active interest in promoting traditional Iranian art and culture to the world. Under her direction and through her patronage numerous organizations were formed to promote Iranian heritage inside and outside Iran. She oversaw the return of hundreds of historic Persian artefacts from foreign institutions and private collections and built national museums to house the recovered antiquities.
During her reign Queen Farah Diba Pahlavi was the epitome of style, the essence of sophistication and an embodiment of how far women had come under her husband's reign. Her significant contributions to social reforms and the emancipation of women continue to be associated with her name. She was an intellectual and stood up for the things she believed in, the quintessential Queen.
The Last Empress of Persia is now in her 70’s and has lived in exile since the Iranian revolution in 1979.