Stardust memories: Darius Kadivar recalls the story of Soraya, the beautiful but tragic second wife of Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran.
In the summer of 1950, the shy young Soraya was introduced to the Shah of Iran, who had previously only seen a photograph of the teenage beauty.
The Shah, who was constitutional king for nearly nine years after taking the oath on the eve of his father's abdication in 1941, had no particular desire to be married again, indeed he was known as something of an international playboy, particularly after his divorce from Egyptian-born Princess Fawzia, who had given him a daughter, Shahnaz but no male heir to the Peacock Throne.
The arranged marriage of the Shah to his Egyptian bride was dictated by his father Reza Shah for reasons of state, not love. A bachelor for many years following his divorce, both the Shah's family and his government ministers were becoming impatient. However, the Shah's growing feelings for Soraya seemed to be very different from anything he had known with other women. "One just had to see them together" revealed a close family friend. "Soraya had a combination of western and Persian qualities in her that seduced the western educated man the young Shah had become."
Sooner rather than later, the Shah was to court the young lady and a genuine romance was to grow between the two.
Their engagement was celebrated in October of that year. A sudden illness however nearly prevented Soroya from attending her own wedding. Unknown to anyone at the time, it was this very illness that would cause her to be infertile. Her inability to provide a male heir made Soroya an unacceptable wife for the monarch and the divorce was announced to the Iranian people in 1958, by a weeping Shah. The former queen was given and kept the title of Her Imperial Highness the Princess Soraya of Iran, and her poignant situation inspired French songwriter Francoise Mallet-Jorris to write a poem that later became a hit song, Je Veux Pleurer Comme Soraya (I Want to Cry Like Soraya).
The years that followed were to put the princess in a situation which has rarely been equalled in the annals of royalty, apart from perhaps Britain's King Edward VIII who abdicated his throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, or in more recent years, Princess Diana after her divorce from the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles: all three became members of the international jet set by virtue of their royal connections.
Courted by celebrities and chased by paparazzi, Soroya's new life was subject to all sorts of rumours and often unsubstantiated stories of romance. She was said to have ignored the seductive advances of macho Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas, to have formed a relationship with Frank Sinatra, to have been dated by Italian gigolo Massimo Gargia (who gained fame and fortune for being Greta Garbo's lover in her later years) and also by German millionaire Gunter Sachs. Her name was linked with that of actor Mel Ferret and even gay actor Rock Hudson was not indifferent to her charms. True or false one thing was certain, Soraya's enigmatic beauty left no one indifferent.
This was certainly the case for Italian film studio Cineccita's young ambitious director/producer Franco Indovina. The latter was to contact famed Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni and together they suggested a part for the princess in their upcoming film, I Tri Volti (1965).
The film was explained to the princess as a three-part sketch, a very popular genre in the 1960s. It was also a way of illustrating the wide spectrum of her abilities as an actor, passing from comedy to drama.. She was to be supported by a cast of talented and recognised actors such as rising Irish star Richard Harris and Italian comic Alberto Sordi.
Indovina was to write part of the script, which was read to the princess for final approval. After some hesitation, Soraya was to accept the offer with some excitement. This film experience, she believed, would certainly allow her to earn a living and also alter the public's perception of her as a sad and lonely princess. Italy was one of her favourite destinations and Cineccita Studios was in its golden years thanks to co-productions with Hollywood Studios in such mega productions as William Whyler's Ben Hut and Joseph Mankiewicz Cleopatra.
In addition, Italy was where she and the Shah had stayed during their short-lived exile in 1953, during the oil nationalisation crisis that brought Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadeg to the international spotlight. In 1953 Italy had greeted the royal couple warmly and it was even said that the Shah had hesitated to return to Iran to regain his throne, although he finally bowed to the insistence of his political advisors.
The princess proved to be particularly photogenic and Antonioni captured her presence and humour in the film.. However no kisses were allowed due to her royal status and in order to avoid rumours. Richard Harris was later to declare in the Italian press that the princess had star quality and had impressed him with her natural professionalism and talent.
The film was presented at the opening of the 1964 Milan Film Festival. By then news of Soraya's film debut had reached the Shah's court. The monarch seemed amused and genuinely pleased for his ex wife but the news was censored in the Iranian press.
Soraya's autobiography was published in the same year. It was to become an immediate international bestseller but was also to be censored in Iran.
The then unknown Ayatollah Khomeini had encouraged riots in 1963 by using religious arguments against the Shah's reign and his western sympathies. Iran also had its new Queen Farah who had recently given birth to Crown Prince Reza, heir to the Peacock Throne. The country was eagerly waiting for news of the announcement of the coronation of the royal couple, which was to take place several years later in October 1967 and so any news of Soroya was deemed inappropriate.
Soraya was courted by many celebrities and the most serious relationship at the time was with Swiss-German actor Maximillian Schell. Soraya and Schell shared German roots and enjoyed each other's company. However, the true depth of their friendship remains unknown.
Further films were to follow but true stardom as an actress was to elude Soroya, perhaps not least because the Iranian government feared that a screen career for their former queen would create a scandal. Pressure was put on the producers to exclude the princess from future projects, which would deliver a fatal blow to any hopes of a future acting career.
In the meantime the princess' relationship with Franco Indinova was to grow stronger and deeper in the years that followed. The two even spoke of marriage. Indinova was her first genuine love since her divorce from the Shah. The two were eventually engaged and she was determined to marry him. The Shah gave the couple his approval and Soraya was even invited to Tehran on a private visit.
Her love for the Shah never altered, as she confirmed in the reedited edition of her memoirs, but she felt that Indinova could give her the love and happiness she needed. Sadly, it was not to be: a tragic aircraft accident in the early 1970s killed Indovina on his way back from a business trip shortly before their wedding day. That year, Mallet-Jorris' poem Je Veux Pleurer Comme Soraya was put to music by singer Marie-Paul Belle and the song became a chart hit. The princess never quite recovered from her loss.
The accident was to make headlines and underline Soraya's tragic fate. Still the 'princess with the sad eyes', she was to join iconic female figures such as Jackie Kennedy Onasis and Maria Callas, whose lives were linked to personal tragedies.
After Indovina's death, she spent the remainder of her life unhappily, by her own admission, wandering through Europe, buying antiques and high couture, appearing at social events in a desultory fashion, and generally becoming known as a serious depressive.
Soraya is said to have died of natural causes at age 69 and is buried in Munich. In 2002, her tomb was defaced with the words: 'miserable parasite', followed by the phrase: 'Didn't work from the ages of 25 to 60'. The vandalism made headlines throughout Europe.
Since Soraya's death, several young women have come forward claiming to be her illegitimate daughter, reportedly born in 1962, according to the Persian-language weekly Nimrooz: the improbable claims have never been confirmed. The former queen's belongings were eventually sold off at auction in Paris. Her wedding dress, made by Christian Dior, brought $1.2m.
Soraya's great tragedy was that she was never entirely loved or accepted for being just who she was. Her inability to produce an heir caused her rejection by Iran; her royal affiliations made it impossible for her to pursue her chosen career. The only, much loved daughter of a proud Bakhtiary father and a German mother, Soroya was caught between East and West, an itinerant ambassador of a vanished kingdom that no longer belonged to her.