As the protests against the Iranian government were followed by so many across the globe, we are continuing our series about the female members of the late Shah of Iran’s family. This post will focus on Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary, her life after being Queen of Iran. Read more about her life as Queen here.
Born on 22 June 1932 in the English Missionary Hospital in Isfahan, Iran, Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary was the elder child and only daughter of Khalil Esfandiary-Bakhtiary and his German wife, Eva Karl. Soraya was introduced to the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1948. The Shah had recently divorced his first wife, Princess Fawzia of Egypt. At the time, Soraya was studying in English in London, and they were soon engaged after the Shah presented her with a 22.37-carat diamond ring in 1950.
She married the Shah on 12 February 1951 in Tehran’s Marble Palace with the bride in a Christian Dior gown and heavy snow outside. Their marriage was an unhappy one, and a divorce later occurred due to her lack of providing an heir. The Shah had suggested that, as allowed in Islam, he have a second wife to provide a male heir, but Soraya was opposed as she believed in the “sanctity of marriage.” She was hated by the Shah’s mother, who pressured her son to divorce his wife. 25-year-old Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary would flee to her parents in Cologne, Germany, to be with her family as the union was so unhappy. The Shah would attempt to convince her to come back to Iran via her uncle, Sardar Assad in early March 1958. It was unsuccessful, and the Shah demanded she return home and allow him to take a second wife. If she did not agree, he would file for divorce. On 14 May, it was announced that the couple were divorcing.
It was a week later on 21 March that a crying Shah of Iran addressed the people to tell them of the divorce. The British Ambassador to Iran would later say that Soraya was his one true love. As part of the divorce, the Shah bought her a $3 million penthouse in Paris and provided her with a $7,000 monthly alimony until his overthrow. She was also referred to as Her Imperial Highness Princess Soraya of Iran.
Soraya, who had returned to the Catholic faith, began a short-lived film career while in France. Going by only her first name, she was in the films I tre volti (The Three Faces) and She (1965) – in the latter her character’s name was Soraya. She was also supposed to portray Catherine the Great in a film by Dino De Laurentiis, but that project never happened. In 1964, she appeared as an uncredited belly dancer in The Saint and a nightclub dancer in She in 1965. In 1975, she appeared in one episode of The Two Ronnies and in 1991, she appeared in one episode of Doctor at the Top.
During this time she started a relationship with the Italian director Franco Indovina which lasted until his death in 1972. He died when Alitalia Flight 112 crashed on approach to Palermo. The former Queen of Iran wrote a memoir in 1991 called Le Palais Des Solitudes (which was translated into English as The Palace of Loneliness) where she admitted that she had suffered from depression since the Italian’s death. This was her second autobiography after Princess Soraya: Autobiography of Her Imperial Highness.
Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary remained in France venturing out to the occasional social event. When she heard that the Shah was in his final days, she wrote to him to request to see him one last time, admitting that she still loved him. Her feelings were reciprocated, and the Shah wanted to see her. His wife, the Empress of Iran, he knew could not be present during their final meeting. The Empress stayed by his side daily as the Shah was succumbing to cancer, but in 1980, Soraya made plans to visit him one last time in Egypt. He would sadly pass away before she made the trip.
Her last acting credit was in 1998 when she appeared on television show Legenden as herself.
On 26 October 2001, at the age of 69, Soraya died in her Parisian home. The cause of death was never determined. Her death devastated her younger brother, who died just one week later. The funeral took place on 6 November 2001 in Paris at the American Cathedral with the Shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf Pahlavi and half-brother, Prince Gholamreza Pahlavi in attendance. Soraya was buried alongside her parents, as was her brother, in a Munich cemetery.
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