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Stardust Memories...: Princess Soraya's Hollywood Temptations


By Darius KADIVAR 

(First Published in IC Publications The Middle East Magazine 01-APR-07)


photocomposition ©DK



... Hundreds have looked for you
and died searching
in this garden
where you hide behind the scenes ...


- Jalalud'din Rumi



Queen she was, then only Princess, but Legend she certainly became.


Soraya the "princess with sad eyes" as she was to be known in the Western Press, after her tragic divorce to the Shah of Iran in the late 1950's, was certainly one of the most beautiful and photographed Women of the 20th century. Empress of Iran and second wife of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, she was born in Isfahan on June 22nd, 1932. Daughter of Khalil Esfandiary - Bakhtiari, later Ambassador of Iran to the Federal Republic of Germany, and Eva Karl (German citizen but born in Moscow Russia) , she was named after a constellation of "Seven Stars, the Haft Peykar" that can be seen in the Skies of Persia's most beautiful city of a 1001 nights: Isfahan. Little did she or her parents know that her name and beauty were to capture the heart of a future King and the eyes of film producers under the Sunny Starlight's of Hollywood and Cinnecita.


(Left) : Soraya on cover of the Christmas issue of German magazine REVUE 1958 with Grace Kelly. Soraya was half German by her mother and therefore got very much coverage in the German People Press. Interestingly the Shah was also to court Hollywood actress Grace Kelly  ( before she met Prince Rainier of Monaco) as would be wife after his divorce with Soraya (Right) With the Shah on a state visit to West Germany as the newly Wed Queen of Persia.


In the summer of 1950 a shy Soraya was introduced to the Shah of Iran. Little did they suspect that day that both their lives and hearts would be affected for ever. The Shah had seen only a photograph of her given to him by his elder sister Princess Shams. The Shah who was reigning quite democratically as Constitutional King for nearly 9 years since taking oath on the eve of his father's abdication in 1941, was in no particular mood or intention to be married. He was known for being an insatiable playboy particularly after his divorce with Egyptian Princess Fawzia (who had given him a daughter Shahnaz) but no male heir to the Peacock Throne. The arranged marriage of the Shah was dictated by his father Reza Shah for "Reason's of State" and not "Love". Now a bachelor for many years, his own family and ministers were getting impatient with the King's hesitations. However this time, 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" confessed 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."


It was indeed difficult not to be attracted if not intrigued by such a meeting be it arranged by the royal family. Soon the cordial presentations were followed by jokes and compliments on both sides. "Time and charm would do the rest "  thought confidently Princess Shams hoping to convince an ever impatient Taj Ol Moluk, the Shahs Queen mother. Sooner than later the Shah was to court the young lady and a genuine romance was to grow between the two love birds.


They fell in love and the engagement was celebrated in October of that year. A sudden illness however nearly prevented her to attend her own marriage. Unknown to anyone this illness had made her infertile. This was the main reason why the divorce was announced several years later in 1958 to the royal couples dismay. A weeping Shah announced their divorce to the Iranian people. The headline-making divorce inspired French songwriter Françoise Mallet-Jorris to write a poem that later became hit pop song, "Je Veux Pleurer Comme Soraya" (I Want to Cry Like Soraya). Soraya was nevertheless granted and kept the title of "Her Imperial Highness the Princess Soraya of Iran".


The years that followed were nevertheless to put the princess in a unique situation. One which was rarely equaled in the annals of Royalty since Britain's King Edward VIII abdication, who married an American divorcee Wallis Simpson and in recent years Princess Diana Spencer: That of a Jet-Set celebrity...


Top : Courted by Playboy Gunter Strass.  Middle: With Austrian actor Maximillian Schell at the Berlin Film Festival. Bottom :Soraya with Jet Set on the French Riviera: (Left to right) actress Liza Minelli, Playboy Gunter Strass (dated Soraya) and French Crooner Sacha Distel mid 60's.



Courted by celebrities and chased by Paparazzo's her new life was to be subject to all sorts of rumors and often unproven romances. She was said to have ignored the seductive advances of Hollywood macho Kirk Douglas, to have spent a night with Frank Sinatra, one with Cowboy TV Actor Hugh O'Brien, to have been dated by Italian gigolo Massimo Gargia (who gained fame and fortune for being Greta Garbo's lover in her last years), and German Millionaire Gunter Sachs, or to have succumbed to the charms of Mel Ferrer and that 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 Cineccita's young ambitious director/producer Franco Indovina. The latter was to contact famed Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni and together they made up to suggest to the princess to cast in their upcoming film entitled "I Tri Volti" aka "Three Faces of a Woman" (1965).


The film was explained to the Princess as what was to be a three part sketch, a very popular genre in the 60's. It was also a way of illustrating the wide spectrum of her abilities as an actor passing from comedy to drama or enigmatic personifications.  She was to be supported by a cast of talented and recognized actors such as rising Irish Star Richard Harris (future King Arthur of the Musical Hit Camelot) and Italian comic Alberto Sordi.



(Left) Spanish and Turkish posters of Italian film with Princess Soraya: THE THREE FACES OF A WOMAN (1964). Piero Tosi, Ralph Serpe, Richard Harris, Alberto Sordi, Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, Mauro Bolognini, Franco Indovina. (Middle) Turkish Poster illustration was drawn by Turkish painter Kemal Bortucen. (Right) Princess Soraya. From the collection Mujeres Celebres October 1, 1968. 32 pages, full color. Comic book in Spanish issued in Mexico by Editorial


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 inner excitement. She had already accepted to pose as Model for several European Magazines between  interviews but never on a professional basis. This film experience would certainly allow her to earn her life and also change her image in the press from that of the "sad and lonely princess".


Italy was one of her favorite destinations and Cineccita Studios was living its Golden years thanks co-productions with Hollywood Studios in such Mega productions like William Wyler's Ben Hur and Joseph Mankiewicz "Cleopatra" or in prestigious European co-productions like Lucino Visconti's "Il Guepardo" aka "The Leopard" that launched Hollywood Star Burt Lancaster's European career.



Soraya poses as Model in the 1960's shortly after her divorce with the Shah. The decoration is the famous order Haft Peykar (Seven Stars) made especially for Soraya (who was to maintain her royal status as Princess despite her divorce ) by French Jewel designer Artus Bertrand. ©pictory


In addition Italy was where she and the Shah had stayed during their short-lived exile in 1953 during the Oil Nationalization Crisis that brought Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadeg to the International spotlight. Italy had greeted the royal couple warmly. The Shah had at times hesitated to return and regain his throne was it not for the insistence of his political advisors. Soraya often wondered how different her life with the Shah would have been had the latter decided differently. So maybe after all it was a sign of the Stars above to catch up for the missed opportunity ...


Soraya was to play three different parts according to the script : As herself (segment "Il provino") as Linda (segment "Gli amanti celebri") and as an enigmatic Mrs. Melville (segment "Latin Lover")



These are  rare editions of the Italian Magazine * LA DOMENICA DEL CORRIERE* a tabloid-style weekly which featured brightly colored and sensational lithographic  illustrations on both the front and back covers. (Left tot Right) lithographic illustration's respectively of  The 53' Coup which has succeeded in Tehran. Next is The "Repudiation of Soraya". The third and last features a trial probably for tax evasion in Italy of the former Princess who was a popular figure in the European Jet Set. ©pictory


The Princess proved to be cooperative and particularly photogenic while Antonioni perfectly captured her presence and even sense of humor. The collaboration was genuine and without useless protocol. Soraya wanted to give her best including in intimate scenes with Richard Harris. However no kisses were allowed for obvious reason's due to her royal status and not to spread rumors. Harris was to declare in the Italian Press that " The Princess had the Star Quality and talent of a dark haired Grace Kelly" and was impressed by her natural professionalism and talent for the screen.


The film was presented out of competition for the opening of the 1964 Milan International Film Festival. By then the news of Soraya's film debut had reached the Shah's court. The monarch seemed amused and even pleased for her but the news was censored in the Iranian Press. Soraya also published her auto-biography the same year (See Below Authors notes **) which was an immediate international bestseller but was also to be censored in Iran in order not to shock or provoke the religious authorities. The then unknown Ayatollah Khomeiny 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 an imminent news of the announcement of the Coronation of the Royal Couple which was to take place several years later in October 1967.


Producer and scriptwriter Franco Indovina seemed infatuated by her new égerie but no romance had been reported during the movie's shoot. Soraya was courted by many celebrities and the most serious at the time was Swiss German Actor Maximillian Schell. 


(Top Left) Soraya dances with Hollywood Star Rock Hudson. Top Right With lover Maximillian Schell at the Airport. Color Insert with co-star Richard Harris at the premiere  of Three Faces of a Women at the 1964 Milano Film Festival. Bottom Right Still Queen she was Greeted at La Comedie Française during a State Visit to France. ©pictory


Soraya and Schell shared German roots and enjoyed eachothers company. She would often be seen with him on location during his film shoots. Schell was an ambitious actor and their romance was to become more of a friendship than an enduring love. The two would tease one another for being seen together on Magazine covers or tabloids. 


(Left )Soraya visits Lover actor Maximillian Schell on film set of Return of the Ashes (1965) at Pinewood Studios in London with Co-Stars Samantha Egger and actor husband Tom Stern ©Universal Artists (Right). Hollywood tabloid the Police Gazette of the same period. ©pictory


Schell was to introduce her to rising Swiss star Ursula Andress who had reached Star Status in as the first James Bond Girl in Terrence Young's Dr. No. Andress suggested her to cast in a new upcoming film SHE and proposed her a Cameo role for fun where she would play the role of a Dance club girl named Soraya.


Produced by Hammer Productions and based on the classic 1887 fantasy adventure novel of a love starved eternal queen Ayesha (Ursula Andress) who seeks the reincarnation of her long dead lover. The plot was interesting and quite Indiana Jones like so to speak in "Spielbergian" terms today:

"Three men back from the war, Maj. Horace Holly (Peter Cushing), Job (Bernard Cribbins), and Leo Vincey (John Richardson) are just aching for adventure. While having a good time in the local bar in Palestine, Leo is vamped by a beautiful exotic girl Ustane (Rosenda Monteros.) He gets abducted and is confronted by a mysterious and mesmerizing timeless beauty Ayesha (Ursula Andress). She gives him a ring and a map and says find me. His friend sees the ring and the map and says treasure. So they are off in the desert. They will soon find more than they expected ...."


Despite the  interesting plot it was not a very good film and Soraya's participation was not credited in the cast. The main reason however was that the Iranian government feared that the film's subject and Soraya's innocent participation would create a scandal. Pressure was put on the production to exclude the Princess from the general cast. Her name does appear as "Soraya the dancer" but without any particular reference to her royal credentials.

Princess Soraya was cast in the cameo role of  "Soraya the club dancer" (She didn't appear on the credits) in what was in fact an Ursula Andress film SHE (1965). The latter had just been revealed as the First James Bond Girl in Dr.No ©MGM


The entertaining yet badly produced Hollywood film was also to compromise Soraya's promising film debut in Italy.

The American producers of this second film had misjudged Soraya's importance as a sensitive and talented actress, while ignoring her Royal Status. It was a cheap shot and truly a pity for it put a fatal blow to Soraya's future film projects.


In the meantime The Princess' relationship with Franco Indinova was to grow stronger and deeper in the years that followed. The two spoke of marriage. Indinova was the first genuine love since she divorced from the Shah. The two were 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 was to remind it in her reissued memoir's but she felt that Indinova could give her the love and happiness she needed.


Unfortunately a tragic aircraft accident in the early seventies killed Indovina on his way back from a business trip shortly before the wedding day.



Je Veux Pleurer Comme Soraya aka I Want to Cry like Soraya Françoise MALLET-JORRIS' poem composed for the repudiated Queen in the 1960's  was put to music by Marie Paul Belle in the 1970's in a successful Album. ©photocomposition Darius KADIVAR


Soon the tragic accident was to make headlines in Tabloids across Europe and underline Soraya's tragic fate once again as "The Princess with Sad Eyes" and truly as a "Femme Fatal" unable to escape her destiny.

Any pretext was good to associate her to the most tragic figures of Greek tragedy. She was to join the iconic female figures such as Jackie Kennedy Onasis or Maria Callas whose lives was linked to personal tragedies.


French writer Françoise Mallet-Jorris' poem "Je Veux Pleurer Comme Soraya" was put to music by Pop Singer Marie Paul Belle and the song became a hit in the music charts of that year. The Princess was to never recover emotionally from that loss.




Stardust Memories : (Top Right) Anna Valle (Soraya) and Erol Sander (The Shah) ©LUX VIDE in mini series on the Princess with Sad Eyes as Soraya was known in the Western Press. Raison d'Etat was to put an end to the genuine Love story of the Shah and Soraya.  It probably also explains why the former Queen was never quite comfortable to pursue a new chapter in her life as a promising actress or model. ©photocomposition Darius KADIVAR


Life and destiny did not spare the former Princess' life. She was blessed with an unmatched beauty to this day. The Monica Belluci's, Paris Hilton's or other beautiful Stars that make today's headlines certainly lack the class that the Persian Princess' natural distinction and hypnotizing beauty inspired.

Soraya is said to have died of natural causes at age 69 and is buried in Munich, Germany. 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.

Upon learning of her death, her brother Bijan, who died one week after Soraya, sadly commented, "After her, I don't have anyone to talk to". 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 sold at auction in Paris after her death. Her wedding dress, made by Christian Dior, brought $1.2 million.

After Indovina's death in a plane crash, she spent the remainder of her life unhappily, by her own admission, wandering through Europe, buying antiques and couture, appearing at social events in a desultory fashion, and generally becoming known as a serious depressive.

However Soraya's greatest tragedy was certainly that of not entirely being loved or accepted for who she was. The only daughter of loving parents, a proud Bakhtiary father and a German mother, caught between East and West, she was the itinerant ambassador of a vanished kingdom that no longer belonged to her. Eternally in search of a futile future in the arms of handsom lovers of a one night stand or that of real or fake princes of the Jet Set. All these romances could only have made sense to her had she been able to give life in turn.

That however was not to be, no more than her illusive yet promising Hollywood temptations ...



photocomposition ©DK



Authors Notes:


(*) This article and photos cannot be reproduced or duplicated without the author's written permission .


Recommended Watching:


Princess Soraya's performance in an excerpt of I Tri Volti aka Three Faces of a Woman opposite Alberto Sordi (here)


Recommended Readings:

On Soraya:


(**) Princess Soraya wrote a memoir of her tragic life, "The Palace of Solitudes" in 1991 a reissue of her intial biography in the 1960's. As well as an interesting  historical novel in French called Princesse d'argile published in 1995.

Soraya: Fragments of a life by Cyrus KADIVAR (

Michaelangelo Antonioni Tribute


EYES WIDE SHUT: The World of Cinema mourns for Antonioni and Bergman by Darius KADIVAR

Iranian Diaspora in Italy:

PERSIAN BELLA RAGAZZA: Maya Sansa European Cinema's Rising Star by Darius KADIVAR
Iranian film director Parvin Ansary in Italian Cinema interviewed by Brian Appleton (

Royalty News:

A Labour of Love: Brief Encounter with Shahbanou Farah Pahlavi of Iran By Darius KADIVAR

Empress of the Arts By Darius KADIVAR

Enduring Friendship : Alain Delon and Farah Pahlavi by Darius KADIVAR

Alzheimer Research Fundraising Gala 2005 Presided By Shahbanou Farah Pahlavi by Darius KADIVAR 
Monaco's Persian Heartthrob by Darius KADIVAR
HAIL BARONESS AFSHAR!: First Iranian Woman In the House of Lords by Darius KADIVAR

CHAMPAGNE SAFARI: Rita Hayworth and the Persian Prince by Darius KADIVAR
Farah Pahlavi at Maurice Béjart 80th Birthday Party By Darius KADIVAR
Being Princess Shams: Mathilda May portrays Late Shah's Sister by Darius KADIVAR
Remembering Princess Leila Pahlavi by Darius KADIVAR

Honoring A People's Princess: Shahbanou Farah at Lady Diana's Tribute in Paris by Darius KADIVAR

Musical Ode To Cyrus The Great In Paris by Darius KADIVAR

When Giants Meet: The Queen of Persian Pop greets the Shahbanou of Iran in NY Live Concert by Darius KADIVAR
Interview of Shahbanou Farah in Point De Vue Images du Monde translation by DK
Rainbow High: Farah Pahlavi at Paris Dior 60th Anniversary Gala by Darius KADIVAR


About the Author: Darius KADIVAR is a Freelance Journalist, Film Historian, and Media Consultant. He is also contributes to OCPC Magazine in LA/US and to the London Based IC Publications The Middle East Magazine and Persian Heritage Magazine.

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