Bette Midler’s Iranian Connection

Or: How The Pahlavis Became "Down and Out in Beverly Hills"

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | December 26, 2013                    

Bette Midler 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.

The back story to this Iranian exodus, of course, was the political unrest that stirred in Iran for years under the U.S.-installed military dictatorship of the Shah.
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.

'Death to the Shah' — Police Drive Back Iranians From Home of Shah’s Mother in Beverly Hills
Beverly Hills mob

Beverly Hills mob 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.”

Beverly Hills mob There were dozens of injuries in their clash with police, and several protesters 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.

Bette Midler tweeting on Twitter — December 8, 2013

It isn’t clear whether Bette’s December 8, 2013 comment on Twitter meant that this was the first she had ever heard that the U.S. helped destroy a democratic government in Iran, or simply her delayed reaction to the news that the CIA had “finally” admitted to their hand in it four months prior (probably the latter).

In any case, the Hawaiian-born entertainer is not as far removed from that 60 year old episode – occurring when she was age seven – as one might assume.
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.

Bette Midler on the December 1991 cover of Vanity Fair, photographed by Firooz Zahedi 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.

Firooz Zahedi, 2012 interview “Diplomacy itself is an art because you learn to be totally someone you really are not. You have to be constantly gracious and polite and know how to bulls**t. Well that training certainly helped me in Hollywood!!”

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.

Andy Warhol and Ardeshir Zahedi in 1977

Listen: Andy Warhol in Iran   

"Beautiful Butchers: The Shah Serves Up Caviar and Torture" — The Village Voice, November 14, 1977

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.

Brigadier General Nasrollah Zahedi 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].

Associated Press on May 4, 1953:

“In a communiqué Saturday, the government charged that Zahedi’s nephew, retired Brig. Gen. Nasrollah Zahedi, had been a leader in the plot. The uncle was asked to visit the police within 48 hours.”

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...

Firooz Zahedi's cover photograph of Bette Midler for her 2008 compilation album "Jackpot! The Best Bette"


Related links:

Iran: How The Mess Came About | The Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1980

Operation Ajax Was Always An Open Secret | A Timeline

The State Department’s ‘How-To’ Guide To Installing Dictatorship in Iran (1953)

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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