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Fragments of a life

By Cyrus Kadivar
June 25, 2002
The Iranian

At times Nasser Amini's words resembled an Oriental fairy tale, or those sad lamenting Persian songs wafting through the air. He spoke tenderly about the woman whose beauty had won a king's heart, with intimate, lively affection. The legend of Soraya refused to go away.

"She had the most captivating eyes in the world," he said as we walked hurriedly down the chic and fashionable Avenue Montaigne in Paris. "They had such a rare intensity, deep green like the rarest of emeralds."

To satisfy a curious public eager to cast an eye on Soraya's belongings, the ultimate souvenirs of a lost love and vanished world, the Paris auctioneers, Beaussant-Lefevre, had staged an exhibition.

According to the catalogue the items that were due to go under the hammer in five days included a collection of her important jewellery, her wardrobe, accessories, historical photographs and films, Persian rugs, manuscripts, artworks, antique furniture and a Rolls Royce.

The sweet scent of jasmine and roses filled the corridors of the auction house at Drouot-Montaigne. "Soraya loved flowers," Amini told me with a sniff. "These were sent by her florist to evoke a Persian garden."

We passed under the arched flowers, down the marble staircase making our way towards a crowded room draped in thick, red velvet. Every item in this room evoked the sad tale of one of the most popular and media-hunted women of the latter part of the 20th century.

"We are paying homage to Soraya," Eric Beaussant, one of the auctioneers, told me proudly. For him, the former queen would always remain a mysterious beauty. "In selecting the items here we took care to preserve her image in a dignified and graceful manner."

Beyond the fascination of genuine collectors and the European and American visitors during the exhibition, I witnessed a certain uneasiness in the melancholic faces of a few Iranians touring the room.

Everyone knew her story, perhaps that was part of the attraction she generated. Hers was a fairy tale with an unhappy ending. Born on 22 June 1932, to a German mother and a father who was a member of Iran's powerful Bakhtiary family, she had grown up in Isfahan, the enchanting city of turquoise domes, roses and blue skies.

When the Shah of Iran, having recently divorced Fawzieh, an Egyptian princess, was looking for a suitable bride, his sisters had shown him a photo of Soraya. When they finally met it was love at first sight.

At the end of the room stood a fading white female Mink cape worn for the first time by Empress Soraya on her wedding day 12 February 1951.

Clearly the Shah adored and spoilt his young wife with numerous gifts. Inside the glass cases I admired a gold Cigarette Case, the lid applied with a platinum and diamond Pahlavi Crown; a five-strand pearl necklace; an emerald ring with a damaged hoop; and a diamond bird Brooch given to Soraya on her Caspian honeymoon.

One wealthy Iranian lady was asked if she would like to own any one of Soraya's sapphire and diamond necklaces. Her reaction was typically Persian. "Never," she exclaimed. "It would bring me bad luck."

When Soraya failed to give the Shah children they decided to go their separate ways. After having packed her souvenirs and burnt all her personal papers, Soraya took leave of Iran on 13 February 1958.

After her divorce, Soraya had thrown herself in the sad twirls of an erratic life. Though she had lost the title of empress the Shah had conferred on her the title of "royal princess". A chapter of her life had ended.

In exile she became a glamorous nomad, reconstructing her life in the Italian film world of the 1960s. Among the items being auctioned: a rare copy of her only film Les Trois Visages D'une Femme.

After the tragic death of her soul-mate, the director Franco Indovini, she moved to Paris in 1976. Until her death on 25 October 2001 Soraya never gave up her zest for life whilst learning to cope with her past.

"What a pity that all this will be gone in a few days," Nasser Amini said as he stroked the exquisite ivory silk rug with its flowers and birds. Like a proverbial magic carpet it had followed Soraya around the world.

"Maybe if the revolution had not happened," Amini revealed whilst casting a sharp eye on the selected contents of her Paris apartment, "The Iranian government would have ordered me to buy this great collection for a future museum dedicated to Queen Soraya."

In his heyday, Nasser Amini, now aged 79, had been among the Shah's diplomats in Paris. Besides his official duties at the Imperial Iranian Embassy he had been given the enviable task of buying various Persian antiques and objects on behalf of his country's museums.

"I was with Soraya on most of her state visits," Amini told me as he examined a framed photo of the former empress sitting on an elephant. "I still remember how the frogs had frightened her at the Taj Mahal."

Next to her leather-bound engagement and wedding albums was a marble table. On it a small statue, a token of her only voyage to Egypt. In 1988 while in Cairo Soraya had accidentally paid a visit to the tomb of Mohammed Reza. Chance or fate had decreed this last rendezvous with a man she had once so dearly loved in Tehran.

"When did you last see her?" I asked. "Almost a year ago," Amini replied. "We had tea at the Plaza Athenee with Dandy, her little white dog. I wanted to introduce her to a few Iranians curious to meet her."

Over the years Amini had come to know Soraya. He found her Isfahani accent charming. "She played the piano and recited verses from Goethe and Hafez," he recalled. "But despite all her attempts to appear jovial she remained a very timid and lonely woman."

"Naturally, I was devastated when she passed away," Amini admitted. "She was only 69. Her only brother Bijan died in a space of a week after her."

Last November, Amini had assisted in staging a memorial service for Soraya at the American Church in Paris. "Over 500 people attended," he whispered. "Darya Dadvar, a talented Iranian suprano brought tears to us all with her serene rendition of Ava Maria."

I parted company with Nasser Amini and headed for the Plaza Athenee for a drink. This legendary hotel popular with royalty, honeymooners, old aristocracy and designers, was Soraya's favourite refuge.

Luigi Colombetti, the chief barman, spoke freely about Princess Soraya. "We used to chat together in Italian," he explained. "I knew her since the 1970s when she rented a suite at the Plaza. I used to do her room service until she bought her apartment. She was a stunning lady."

When her looks began to fade, Soraya continued to fill her empty life with endless partying. "Eventually she burned herself out like a candle," Luigi said. "I still don't believe she's gone. We all miss her."

From 29-31 May 2002, her private life was auctioned away, piece by piece. Over $6 million was raised and divided among her three favourite charities. At the end, all that remained, was a scent of jasmine.

Soraya Esfandiyari Bakhtiary wanted to believe in the durability of love. "Even if life fragments," she once wrote, "it nevertheless goes on."

What ill fortune it would be if a bird such as you

Were to lose its way in the country of sorrow?


Book of the day
Soraya's autobiography: Kaakhe Tanhaaee

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Cyrus Kadivar

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