Recently I acquired a collection of LIFE magazines from 1971, and was curious to see what was making the news back then. You can probably guess some of the topics (e.g. the Vietnam War) and you’ve probably forgotten others (the opening of an airport on the Seychelles). As for me, I was particularly interested in the October 29th issue, not because of the David Cassidy cover but because it promised a report on “Kings, Queens, Emperors at the Shah’s Party.”
I’ve been interested in Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, ever since I read Ryszard Kapuscynski’s The Emperor some years back. The party in question - held in the ruins of Persepolis to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire - is described in Kapuscynski’s book as a nadir for Pahlavi’s regime, the point at which the gulf between the Shah’s autocratic excess and his people’s poverty became unbridgeable.
Of course, it’s easy to pronounce that type of judgment when you have hindsight. The interesting thing about the LIFE article was that the journalist had no idea that within eight years the Shah’s regime would be history. For all he knew the Shah’s policies - rights for women, friendship with the United States and Israel, a glorification of the pre-Islamic past, secret police imprisoning Marxists - would continue forever. His report was an awe-struck report on powerful people consuming conspicuously:
“They came from 69 nations: one emperor, eight kings and a cardinal, grand dukes, crown princes, and sheikhs, presidents, premiers and vice presidents…They dined sumptuously on roast peacock, drank the finest wine… Fifty gold-threaded uniforms for (the) royal court cost $1,000 each…Colored light bulbs alone cost $840,000.”
The pictures were impressive too - especially the one of Iranian troops dressed as Parthian cavalry circa 250BC. The most interesting thing about the article, however, was its description of the guests, a motley assortment of figureheads, second-in-commands and tyrants, almost all of whom - much like the Shah - met with sticky ends.
• Emperor Hailie Selassie of Ethiopia, who toured the ruins of Persepolis with Cheecheebee, his pet Chihuahua. Three years later he would be dead, his ancient dynasty destroyed by Stalinist nut jobs. In 1992, his bones were found under a toilet. I hope he enjoyed the roast peacock.
• Or how about the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceasescu? In 1989 he and his wife, Elena, would be lined up and shot, much to the delight of a disgruntled populace.
• Then there was Imelda Marcos, very glamorous amid the Shah’s silk tents. Largely remembered today for her enormous shoe collection, she and husband Ferdinand ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986 until revolution forced them to flee.
Other illustrious guests represented countries that have since ceased to exist, such as the U.S.S.R.’s Nikolai Podgorny (kicked off the Politburo in 1977) and Ludvik Svoboda of Czechoslovakia (removed from power in 1975). Marshal Tito may have made it to the grave in glory, but the country he built, Yugoslavia, dissolved in a bloodbath not long afterward.
Even Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s deputy, would be out of a job within two years - the only U.S. vice president to ever resign due to criminal charges.
It was eerie. I felt like an oracle, watching the high and mighty of 1971 from far above, aware of fates they could not imagine. From my prognosticative perch, afforded me by the fact I was located 40 years in future, these great men and women seemed not powerful, but powerless. I understood why the Ancient Greeks envisaged Fortune as a cosmic wheel, rising only to fall again.
Of course, given events around the world in the last couple of months, we can see that the Greeks were absolutely correct. This time last year could ex-President Ben Ali of Tunisia have imagined that he would be lying on a bed in Saudi Arabia, an exile, a stroke victim, wanted by Interpol?
Or what about Hosni Mubarak? One day he’s a close ally of the U.S. intent on installing his son Gamal in the presidency as his successor, the next he’s living under house arrest, facing possible criminal charges.
Then of course there’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi - former recipient of tongue baths from Tony Blair, shamelessly courted by European governments and prestigious institutions of higher education … and the next minute the very same sycophants are dropping bombs on him.
And let us not forget Moscow’s own ex-mayor, Yury Luzhkov - master of the city one minute, unemployed billionaire pensioner the next.
So we see that the Shah’s Party of the Damned is an ongoing affair, even if the actors have changed and the locations vary. And the truth is, ordinary folk like you and me are also invited - it’s just that nobody will be looking at our pictures in LIFE 40 years after we have stumbled and fallen.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.