Leila Pahlavi: The Peacock Princess

Wed, Jun 13, 2001


The Independent / By Rose George

She was born with a golden spoon in her mouth, she died alone in a London hotel room, miserable and half-starved – but the story of the beautiful daughter of the last Shah of Persia, is no ordinary tragedy of pointless privilege

According to the Spanish gossip magazine Hola!, she was “like a princess from A Thousand and One Nights”. Certainly, Her Imperial Highness Leila Pahlavi ­ youngest daughter of the Shah of Iran, Emperor of the Peacock Throne and notorious exile ­ fitted the exotic bill perfectly. It was almost as if she’d read the “Tragic Princess” checklist and ticked off the categories, one by one: thin; beautiful; big, black smoky eyes; a jetsetting life and mysterious sources of money. And then, as of Sunday, came the final category: a lonely death in a hotel suite off Marble Arch, and a suitably princess-like air of mystery about her final moments. There is talk of a sleeping pill overdose, that Leila suffered from the debilitating condition ME, that she was anorexic, depressed. But the Persian-born writer, Shusha Guppy, who knew her, has a simpler explanation: “I think her heart just gave out. She was a very sweet, sensitive girl with a heart of gold. She never got over the shock.”

The shock came when she was nine, when unrest in Iran ­ and the force of Ayatollah Khomeini’s clerical zeal ­ drove out Shah Mohamad Reza Pahlavi, his wife Farah, and their four children Reza, Frahnaz, Ali and Leila, after a 38-year rule. The family had lived in palaces, with a private zoo, and a private school for the Pahlavi children within the palace grounds. Petro-dollars funded an opulent lifestyle, and Leila lacked for nothing. But outside the palace, though the Shah dispensed petro-dollars on improving women’s rights, land rights, education and health, his increasingly autocratic rule ­ he banned a multiparty system in 1975 and imposed the Iranian National Resurgence Party as the sole political force ­ and conspicuous consumption made him increasingly unpopular. The unrest was fanned from abroad by the militant Muslim cleric Khomeini, kicked out by the emperor in 1963 and living in France. The Shah’s reaction ­ oppression by the hated Sevak secret services and the shooting of demonstrators ­ only fanned the flames. By January 1979, the country was in a state of virtual civil war, and he fled, in severe ill-health, forced to tout for refuge among his former friends.

In an interview last year, Leila recalled the exile vividly, telling how the children had to leave three days before their parents, but “thank god, our governess brought the photo albums”. A year later, her father was dead in Egypt, the only country that deigned to take him in.

“She went from having a father who was top of the world,” says Mahnaz Afkhami, an Iranian exile who runs the Foundation for Iranian studies in Washington, “to being forced to roam the world with a sick father, no one accepting him, with him simply looking for a place to heal himself. She never got over that.”

Eventually, the family went to the United States, buffeted by a reportedly huge fortune ­ of millions or billions of dollars, depending what you believe ­ that the Shah took from Iran. They entrusted much of it to a cousin, the rumours go, and lost an enormous amount, with no legal means of recuperating it. The Crown Prince, as he was then, was forced to sell his huge house, situated in a Washington DC suburb and complete with private discotheque and cinema, and the family was forced to cut back on spending. Leila was deeply upset, but complaining about it would have highlighted how much the Shah had managed to siphon from the country. Even so, though no one in the Iranian diaspora likes talking about it much ­ “those are private matters,” says Guppy ­ the Shah’s family was wealthy. Leila’s suite at the Leonard Hotel in London, where she spent much of the past two years, cost £3,500 a week.

Like the best princesses, she never really had a job, though she had a degree in comparative literature from Brown University in the US. Instead, like her elder and more glamorous sister, Frahnaz, Leila’s job seemed to be gracing the society pages of Hello!, appearing at high-society weddings with people called Hohenole, Miller and Von Furstenburg. There were boyfriends, but no husband, though her brothers and sister were married. Drifting between America and Europe, Leila fell in love easily, and lost her lovers as quickly. She was a beautiful woman, but each photograph shows her getting progressively thinner. Like many exiles, Leila tended to have Iranian friends, including a network of cousins. “But I didn’t know she’d been in London,” says an Iranian contemporary (also thrown out of her country as a young girl). She speaks with a good deal of surprise; news usually travels fast among those who live what Guppy calls a “Persian life”.

She started working with good and noble causes, including the Mihan Foundation, and the Iran Heritage Foundation, which puts on exhibitions and promotes Iran through art and culture. “They’re élitist and snobby,” says one young Iranian. “They’ll organise balls, with tables for young people at £100 a head!” None the less, this was one of the few anchors Leila had, though she was very close to her family, she told Hola! magazine last year. But her mother lived in Paris, her brother in the US, and Leila spent most of her time living nowhere at all, a true exile.

“She was lost,” says Guppy. “She never got over the trauma. Her brothers and sister were older, so they coped better.” She never stopped expecting that the family would be allowed back to Iran. Last year, in an interview with a US newspaper, she recounted a dream. “There’s one dream as scary as hell. I’m in the palace and I’m not supposed to be there. If someone catches me I could have my head cut off.”

Her brother, the self-styled “young Shah” Reza, has no such nightmares about returning. Now 40, with a secretariat in Falls Church, Virginia, and an imperialist website, he has become the flag-bearer for the Shah’s family. His mother Farah, a regal presence in her Paris apartment, also runs a website, where commentaries and speeches and interviews are royally dispensed. Leila, though “she was very supportive of her brother” according to Guppy, had no website, no flag, no particular cause; she was more often seen in fashionable nightclubs and boutiques. She was on call for royal duties, though (she visited Egypt last year for the 20th anniversary of her father’s death), and was conscious that the Pahlavis still command respect in the Iranian diaspora, a strong, close-knit community spread between Paris, London, Washington and Los Angeles. Even so, says the contemporary quoted earlier, “I bet she was sick of the royal thing, with her brother shoving it down her throat all the time”. Last year, Leila told one newspaper that she didn’t miss the privileges of royalty. “When you’ve been through what we have, formality isn’t what counts.”

Twenty-one years after the death of her father, Leila still remembered him vividly. The evil emperor, the pillager of petro-dollars, the satanic royalist castigated by Khomeini, was to her simply her dad. “He had great presence and dignity,” she told Hola!, “but he was actually a shy and honest man. His only passion and his only obsession was his country, and the progress of his country.”

“Leila’s situation has really drawn attention to the human suffering that goes into these cataclysmic events,” says Mahnaz Afkhami, who has edited a book on Iranian women in exile, and runs the Foundation for Iranian studies in Washington. “Her death has really shocked the Iranian community. It’s brought to light the whole generation of young people who were moved from their surroundings in such a violent way.” The family situation ­ spread over continents, in apartments in America and Paris ­ was typical of exiled families too. Leila and her family resonated with Iranians in life; her death speaks even more powerfully of the debris of history.

Back in Iran, an entire generation, bred on equally violent politics and history, is starting to look to the young Shah. “People are getting nostalgic,” says Afkhami. “They remember when Iran was known as the country of roses and nightingales; now it’s known for mullahs and terrorists.”

The Iranian exiles were always fondly remembering the days when they were floating on petro-dollars, with considerably more religious and cultural freedom than in clerical Iran. Now, with more e-mail, satellite and radio access and a population of which 70 per cent is under 30, there is disillusionment in Iran with the old crusty stubborn mullahs. The young Shah has a better chance than ever to present himself as a credible alternative to the clerical guard. “He still has to make a case for himself,” says Afkhami. “But he speaks very convincingly about placing himself on the side of democracy. Not being the only alternative, but as part of a democratic solution. I think there’s a chance he will go back, and I don’t think there’ll be the need for a violent revolution this time. More like South Africa, where there is dramatic change. There’s such a huge population, and they’re so open to ideas of cultural diversity, separating church and state. I think it could happen.”

But too late for Leila, who saw sleeping pills as a happier alternative to yet more years in exile, who never found anything stronger than bad nightclubs and posh weddings to replace a beloved father and happy memories of a homeland. “If it had been her brother who died,” says a young Iranian who views the family with cynicism, “then maybe it would affect the family’s chances. But Leila was irrelevant.” And this was her tragedy.

“You will quote me on what I said, won’t you?” says Shusha Guppy. “She was a warm and lovely girl. But sensitive. Too sensitive.” Afkhami provides Leila’s epitaph, simply and awfully. “There is great sympathy in the Iranian community for a nice girl who is dead.”


About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more