Or: How The Pahlavis Became "Down and Out in Beverly Hills"
It was not for no reason that in the 1986 movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler’s next door neighbors were Iranian. After the anti-Shah revolution which Islamic fundamentalists hijacked, hordes of people fled Iran, thousands of whom relocated to Los Angeles (often nicknamed “Tehrangeles”).
Ever since, Beverly Hills has spilled over with Persians, with an estimated 22% of its residents being of Iranian descent. By the time Shiraz native Jimmy Delshad was elected Mayor in 2007, the ballots were being printed in English and Farsi. The area would become a safe haven not only for monarchist exiles, but remnants of the fallen monarchy itself. The Shah’s own brother, Mahmoud Reza, later bought a 6,000 square foot, 5 bedroom Beverly Hills mansion, and his sister Shams once occupied an opulent hillside estate there.
1979 was a pivotal year for Iran. At the time, singer and actress Bette Midler was riding high, having recently won her first Emmy, released a greatest hits album, and a starring movie role in The Rose. The cancerous and cancer-stricken Shah, on the other hand, was declining fast, both politically and physically.
While the monarchy was imploding, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi sent his mother and sister Ashraf Pahlavi to stay with Shams at her Beverly Hills hideaway. Yet in January 1979 they were confronted with hundreds of demonstrators outside. The angry mob reportedly torched cars, pelted the mansion with rocks and bottles and stormed the house as the royal family remained shut in inside. “We’re going to demonstrate as long as they are here”, spokesperson Mina Azad told the Associated Press. “We’re not going to let them steal from the Iranian people and then come here and live in peace.”
There were dozens of injuries in their clash with police, and several protestors were struck directly by police cars rushing to the aid of a fellow deputy in distress. Though the Shah’s mother escaped unharmed, she still looked to a future in LA. In May 1979, People reported that she was planning to build “a $25 million compound with lakes, pools and houses for members of the family” in Beverly Hills.
Of course, the full narrative of Iran’s exhausting struggle for a free and democratic society, including the unhelpful impediments of Western intervention – have traditionally been minimized in America, if not concealed altogether.
On at least a couple occasions, Midler posed for celebrity photographer Firooz Zahedi, whose opportunistic Uncle, General Fazlollah Zahedi, replaced Mossadegh as Premier after the violent military coup nurtured by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Born in 1949, Firooz Zahedi was nine when his family moved to England. In 1969, he relocated to Washington, DC, and began a diplomatic career as an attaché in the Iranian Embassy. His cousin Ardeshir Zahedi, Iran’s Ambassador to the U.S., ruled the roost at the embassy, consorting with high society types, dignitaries and celebrities on a regular basis. At the embassy, Ardeshir introduced Firooz to film legend Elizabeth Taylor, whom he was romantically with involved at the time.
Liz took a liking to the young budding artist. When Ms. Taylor visited Iran in May 1976 at Ardeshir’s invitation, Firooz also accompanied her, shooting a series of photographs which would later form a 2011 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. After that crucial foot-in-the-door, and Liz Taylor’s friendly prodding that he pursue this avenue further, Firooz embarked on a career as a Hollywood photographer. Taylor, who Zahedi calls “my guardian angel”, then hired him as her personal photographer on a movie set. He moved to Los Angeles and the rest is history. “I owe my career to her”, admits Zahedi.
Another significant early stepping stone for Zahedi was the golden opportunity to work for Andy Warhol, whom he also met through his family network. Warhol actually published his first set of photos in Interview magazine — the ones he took of Liz Taylor in Iran, and assigned him to be Interview’s Washington DC correspondent.
The iconic artist and noted fame-whore had his own Persian excursion in 1976, in response to a personal invitation to the Shah’s palace in Tehran. Warhol’s editor Bob Colacello, who accompanied him, was impressed with what he saw in Iran. “It reminded me of Beverly Hills, except that they had Persian carpets by their pools”, he observed.
Warhol’s connections with the royal circle rivaled even that of his new Iranian underling. He was a frequent guest at their functions, and in one case, the guest of honor at a Warhol-themed party thrown by Ardeshir Zahedi, complete with Campbell’s soup decor. Warhol was very chummy with both Queen Farah, who collected his work, as well as Princess Ashraf. Another Warhol collector in the royal camp, UN Ambassador Fereydoon Hoveyda, arranged for a series of flattering Warhol portraits of the Shah, Empress Farah, and Ashraf. Association with royalty has its privileges.
Without question, all of these glamorous developments can be traced back to the Zahedi’s power grab in 1953. Firooz Zahedi’s own father, Nasrollah, was allegedly implicated in an earlier attempt to overthrow Mossadegh’s government. The charge came after the gruesome murder of Mossadegh’s loyal police chief, Mahmoud Afshartous. In 2012, The New York Times claimed Nasrollah “played a role” in the coup itself, though we cannot confirm any of these charges. [Wire reports identified him as Fazlollah Zahedi’s nephew or “nephew by marriage”, which is both chronologically impossible and nonsensical. As Firooz and Ardeshir are cousins, this makes Fazlollah Zahedi (Ardeshir’s father) his uncle].
Had there never been a 1953 coup in Iran, there is an excellent chance that Bette Midler would never have found herself posing for a Zahedi. But then, a lot of things would be different if America had chosen its “Friends” more wisely...
In August 2013 CIA formally admitted it was involved in planning and execution of 1953 coup against Iranian PM Mossadegh. How'd I miss that?— Bette Midler (@BetteMidler) December 9, 2013
Iran: How The Mess Came About — The Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1980
Operation Ajax Was Always An Open Secret — A Timeline
REVEALED: The State Department’s ‘How-To’ Guide To Installing Dictatorship in Iran (1953)
MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”