One can make any excuse to visit Rome no matter the season, although I must confess that the decision to stay at the famous Hotel Excelsior was a deliberate choice. Not only was it meant to treat my wife but also to satisfy an insatiable curiosity about a place that had once played a small role in Iran’s royal history.
Fifty years ago the Shah and Queen Soraya had been driven out of their country by a revolution. It was at the height of the oil crisis and the nationalist leader Dr Mossadegh had stripped the young monarch of much of his personal wealth and disbanded the trusted Imperial Guard.
Fearing that a mob, fuelled by the passion of the Tudeh communists, might threaten their lives, Mohammed Reza Shah had decided that he and Soraya should go into temporary exile.
Boarding a Beechcraft with two of their loyal servants, the Shah and Soraya had flown to Iraq with a few suitcases containing clothes and essential belongings. In Baghdad the Iranian royals had been taken to see King Feisal. Everything had happened so quickly that Soraya had not even had time to change out of her sorry looking linen-dress she had been wearing back in Iran.
For two days, the exiled Shah and his wife stayed in the White Palace in Baghdad. The world’s press reported that the Pahlavi dynasty was doomed and that, indeed, seemed the case. Avoiding the risk of being kidnapped or even assassinated in Baghdad, the Shah and Soraya flew to Rome, which they reckoned to be safer. They arrived at Ciampino Airport on 18th August 1953 accompanied by Colonel Khatamy, the Shah’s pilot and Atabai, his majesty’s aide-de-camp.
Expecting a welcome from Iran’s Ambassador in Rome, the Shah was sorely disappointed. The fickle envoy and many of his staff had thrown in their lot with Mossadegh, thinking that the monarch would never regain his throne. Angry, sad and exhausted, the exiled couple had gone to the Excelsior Hotel in a Rolls Royce.
In the lobby, Italy’s high society, among them a group of actors, millionaires, diplomats and a few pretty ladies turned their heads to have a better view of their majesties.
After some negotiation the royal couple were found accommodation on the fourth floor of the hotel after it had been vacated by a loyal Persian industrialist. In the privacy of their suite, the royal couple decided to avoid the paparazzi by giving them the slip.
Escaping from the rear of the hotel they had gone shopping for clothes and shoes on the Via Condotti. As the taxi made its way through the eternal city on that sultry day, I opened Soraya’s memoirs, Palace of Solitude [Persian excerpt] and stared at the famous picture which had appeared on the front cover of the tabloid press.
Taken outside the Excelsior Hotel the photo showed the royal couple walking briskly on the Via Veneto. Soraya, her legendary green eyes hidden behind sunglasses, was wearing a simple red dress with white polka dots that revealed her bronzed shoulders. Next to her was the Shah, one hand in his pocket. Attired in a light grey suit and dark silk tie, he looked tense and uncertain.
Their ex-majesties had reason to be anxious. According to Soraya’s version of events, she and the Shah had spent their first evening in Rome glued to the radio. Hossein Fatemi, Mossadegh’s Foreign Minister was calling for all the Pahlavis to be hanged. The country was in chaos. Mobs were burning their portraits.
The Shah, his jaw taut, had remained impassive. The future looked bleak. Soraya had placed a hand on his shoulder and murmured: “Never before have I felt so close to you.” That night they had embraced as though clutching on to life.
Half a century later, on the Via Veneto the buildings glowed like melting butter in the glorious sunshine. From my window I glanced at the US embassy building and noted that perhaps the Shah’s choice of the Excelsior had not been a coincidence given the role of the Americans in the subsequent events that would change his fortunes. The embassy, a former residence of an Italian count, was only a block away with its iron gate and unmistakable stars and stripes.
Beneath the giant trees, mostly tall elms and a few weathered palms, the elegant restaurants were packed with smart-looking Italians and a few Japanese tourists. It was almost lunchtime in Rome and on that sunny Friday the waiters were setting the tables at the Doney restaurant and adjusting the parasols.
It is not so difficult to understand the appeal of the Excelsior without appreciating the hill on which Via Veneto winds its way past fashionable cafes, bookshops and night clubs which in the 1950s and 1960s in particular was home to the glitterati and international jet set. But the days when movie stars like Sophia Loren or Marlon Brando used to be chased through the lobbies of the hotels or restaurants seemed to belong to another frivolous period.
At the entrance of the Excelsior a uniformed porter standing on the red carpet descended the steps and opened the taxi door. Another person took charge of our luggage.
We whisked through the revolving door and entered the grand marble lobby with its pinkish Roman columns. There was a hive of activity that day due to a business event. The smell of Cuban cigars and expensive perfume filled the air. We had to wait a little before being checked in by friendly staff. A tiny mirrored lift took us up to the fourth floor. Our porter led us politely to Room 454.
All the time I wondered where the Shah’s suite could have been only to realise that all the rooms from the basement to the sixth floor had been given a $40m face-lift by the Westin owners. The hotel we were told had 284 rooms, 32 suites of various sizes and like a cherry on top of a cake there was the Villa La Cupola exquisitely decorated and purposely designed to overlook the city.
Our room was a deluxe and although a bit expensive it was decorated beautifully in Empire style. The “heavenly bed” dominated the bedroom which was surrounded by red satin walls and antique Italian furniture. A huge chandelier hovered above the bed, suspended from a perfectly plastered ceiling.
No sooner had we unpacked that a tray of fruits and a box of chocolates arrived courtesy of the manager. We shut the thick curtains to keep the strong sunshine out. Feeling tired we plunged into our soft bed and fell asleep in the air conditioned room.
It was almost five in the afternoon when we awoke from our nap. After a shower and a change of clothes we headed out of the hotel and into the warm street.
Leaving my wife at the Grand Hotel where she planned to have a haircut I headed down the winding streets passing the Swiss Institute, the Eden Hotel and the house of Hans Christian Anderson. Only when I descended the Spanish Steps did I finally feel the magic of Rome. Inevitably, I recalled the famous 1953 film Roman Holiday withGregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn flirting on the steps.
Strolling through the Roman streets I admired the shops and the well-dressed inhabitants as they left their offices to mingle with the crowds in the cafes and restaurants. An ice-coffee and ice-cream later, I made my way back to the hotel where my wife was lounging on a soft sofa surrounded by bags of shopping. Her new haircut suited her and I could tell how much Rome was spoiling her.
That night we met Angelo, our barman. He was a young Italian who spoke good English. He told us about his love of London and made me try a fine bottle of Italian wine accompanied by a plate of delicious cheeses, honey and olive bread.
The following day, after a trolley breakfast in our room, my wife and I headed for the Via Condotti. We must have walked into a dozen or more shoe and leather handbag shops that day. In the evening, after a long rest, we took a tour of Rome in a horse-drawn carriage. We got off at the floodlit Trivi Fountain where I imagined the voluptuous Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni getting wet in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The crowds were unbearable that night and we were continuously pestered by Asian boys trying to sell us flowers.
Eventually, after a few wishes we tossed our Euro coins into the fountain for all our unmarried friends. We were convinced it would work – it did for us anyways.
Night had enveloped Rome. At the Pantheon and the Baroque Piazza Navona happy people dined by candlelight. It was late when we returned tired and exhausted, finding our way back to the hotel through the lively streets and up the Spanish steps. It was almost midnight when we reached the Excelsior where we collapsed on our comfortable bed for a most deserving night’s sleep.
In the morning after a strong cup of coffee in our room I lingered in my marble bathtub soaking my aching body. While my wife agonised over what clothes to wear I immersed myself in Soraya’s memoirs. I was curious to know how she had spent her time with the Shah during the burdensome wait and the discomfort of their precarious situation. “Those days spent in Rome were like a blessing to me,” Soraya had written. What else could a couple do in a luxury hotel?
Alone for most of the time, the Shah and Soraya spent time drinking tea, reading books and press articles. When bored the Shah entertained the journalists in the piano bar downstairs. But there was also time for true romance, that of looking into each other’s eyes, holding hands and countless small kindnesses “which a man and a woman lavish on each other when they love being together.”
I was aware that a movie was being filmed by Luxe Vide called Sad Princess, with Italian actress Anna Valle in the role of Soraya and German actor Erol Sander in the role of the Shah. So I went and asked the hotel staff if they knew anything about it. Unfortunately, nobody at the hotel knew what I was talking about. Worse, nobody had heard of the Shah or Soraya as if they had never existed.
On the other hand, everyone knew Frank Sinatra. That Sunday, at the Doney restaurant my wife and I went for a Jazz champagne brunch. Our table overlooked the Café de Paris a favourite Sinatra hangout in the days when he was madly in love with Ava Gardner.
In the afternoon we visited a bookshop on the Via Veneto and made our way into town again. At the Forum we found a few lazy cats sleeping between the ruins. Later, we climbed up to the Campidoglio where a beautiful Italian couple posed for their wedding pictures in the setting sun.
Too tired to walk we caught a taxi back to the Excelsior. In the lobby Angelo brought us glasses of wine and some cheese. I showed him my book. He seemed intrigued.
Soon I was telling him about the Shah and Soraya. My wife was too tired to listen to me and very gracefully retired to bed. Angelo was enthralled. He wanted to know more.
“Once upon a time the lobby was crowded with members of the paparazzi waiting to snap a photo of the royal couple,” I said.
“You don’t have that sort of glamour these days,” he said, looking at the photos in my book.
Later, as I sat alone in the chandeliered lobby with its rich furniture, carpets and mirrors, I tried to imagine the excitement that must have engulfed the hotel on the day when the tables had turned in favour of the monarchy.
It was the second day of their stay in Rome. The Shah and Soraya were having lunch in the hotel’s dining room. Khatamy and Atabai had joined them as well.
They had barely sat down when a beaming young reporter from the Associated Press had rushed towards them and handed them a dispatch. Suspiciously, the Shah took it and read: “MOSSADEGH OVERTHROWN – IMPERIAL TROOPS CONTROL TEHRAN – GENERAL ZAHEDI PRIME MINISTER.”
The Shah, white with disbelief, had taken his wife’s hand and squeezed it as he gave her the good news. They had won. Fellow diners cheered, Soraya cried and the Shah whispered through tear-filled eyes, “I knew that they loved me!”
That day, 19th August 1953, an uprising had brought down Mossadegh’s government. The hotel switchboard was jammed by all the telephone calls they received from Tehran and the entire world. Messages and telegrams of friendship came flooding in from everywhere. At a press conference in the hotel, the Shah announced that he would be returning to Iran as soon as possible.
How silent the lobby seemed that night as I made my way back to my room, my head spinning from the wine. In the morning I went for a walk in the lovely gardens of the Villa Borghese. It was here, on the terrace of a restaurant on the Pincio that the Shah had told Soraya of his immediate plans. “It would be better if I returned to Tehran alone,” he had said casually. “You will stay in Rome!”
At midnight on 20th August, the KLM Constellation, chartered by the Shah, took off from Ciampino Airport, without Soraya. For several days, Soraya remained in her room. She was suffering from sleepless nights and nervous exhaustion.
Every night, she sat in her room at the Excelsior waiting for her husband’s phone calls from Saadabad Palace. Soraya’s German mother and Princess Ashraf who had driven to Rome from Cannes a few days earlier kept the sad Queen company. She could hardly smile anymore until the day when the Shah, finally secure on his Peacock throne, sent word that it was time to come home.
On Monday, our last day in Rome, I sat in the bar sipping one of Angelo’s famous drinks. He had given me a brochure of the hotel after hearing the end of my story.
“And what happened to Soraya,” he asked. “Oh, she went back to Iran where she stayed for six or seven years before the Shah divorced her in 1958 for not bearing him an heir,” I replied. “The Shah later married Farah Diba, his third wife and last empress of Iran. In 1960 she bore him a son, Crown Prince Reza.”
I explained how Soraya had moved to Rome for a few years where she made a movie and fell in love with the Sicilian film director, Franco Indovina. In 1972 he was killed in a crash. Soraya was devastated. The press continued to haunt her. In 1979 a violent revolution brought down the house of Pahlavi and the Shah was forced to go into exile, this time there would be no triumphant return.
After the Shah’s death in 1980, Soraya moved out of her Roman villa and went into seclusion at the Plaza Athenee Hotel in Paris. Ironically, she took a suite for a year where she had once stayed with Mohammed Reza in happier times. The memories were too painful and when her heart stopped in October 2001 many of her photos were found in her apartment, including a few taken at the Excelsior.
“That is a sad ending,” Angelo said. “What is even sadder,” I told him, “is leaving Rome.”
It was two in the afternoon when my wife and I checked out of the Excelsior with a heavy heart. The weather was overcast. Sitting in the back of the taxi which was to take us to the airport, I wondered what would have happened if Mohammed Reza Shah and Soraya had never left Rome. Would history have been different?
Holding my wife’s hand, I slowly turned my head and stared quietly through the rain swept window at the Via Veneto until the hotel had slipped away from my view >>> See photos