Here's how Andy Warhol ended up in Iran during the Shah's regime

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston.
Seems crazy now to think that Iran was once a key American ally. Washington and Tehran have had a hostile relationship for more than three decades. We are reminded of that today, the 34th anniversary of the 1979 storming of the US embassy in Tehran, and the start of the hostage crisis. But just a few years before that, in 1976 relations were still friendly enough to support lots of cultural exchanges.
That's when Andy Warhol visited Iran. He was invited by the Iranian ambassador to the UN to do a portrait of Empress Farah Pahlavi. Writer Bob Colacello went with him.

Bob Colacello: We were greeted. We stepped off the Air Iran plane and there were a dozen schoolgirls singing songs and showering us with rose petals. But Tehran then seemed quite modern, and it was a city that was booming, there was construction everywhere. We were taken to the Intercontinental Hotel, which was in the northern part of the city. The northern part of the city was the new part and the prosperous affluent part of the city. A few days later we went to the older part in the south, and while nothing... there didn't seem to be any really bad poverty like you would have found in those days, let's say even in Mexico City, but there was a marked contrast between north and south. But for the most part, the world we saw was very westernized, much more modern, I should say.

Werman: At some point, the portrait session happens. How did the original kind of idea for that portrait to be painted, to be commissioned, happen?

Colacello: The empress... for some background, she had studied architecture in Paris as a young woman, and she was very oriented towards the arts. She was responsible for the building of four or five museums in Tehran. Several of them were for the traditional arts, for ceramics, for Persian rugs, but she also personally oversaw the building of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. So it was well known in the art world, in New York and in Paris and London, that she was actively collecting western art, modern art, starting from the impressionists right up through pop artists. And she actually built an extraordinary collection. Probably spent under a hundred million dollars, back then in the 70s. The collection is said to be worth 2.8 billion now.

Werman: Where is it today?

Colacello: It's sitting in that museum, in the vaults in the basement. The way we handled the portrait of the empress by Andy started, was... Andy was invited to a state dinner for the Shah of Iran, given by the president and Mrs. Ford. At that dinner, he had a brief conversation with her. In fact, he kind of -- after dinner -- was kind of avoiding her because he said that he was afraid she was going to ask him to dance. [Laughs] So he was running from the Red Room to the Green Room to the Blue Room, and she told me later all she wanted to do was talk to him some more.

Werman: How did that session go, compared with other portrait sessions?

Colacello: He could only take one person, so he took his manager for adieus. And when he got back to the hotel, I kept asking him, "well, what was she like, what was the palace like," and he kept saying, "oh, she's so great, oh the palace was so beautiful, she's so great, the palace was so beautiful." And I finally realized as he said it, in louder and louder tones, that he was afraid his hotel room was bugged. So he didn't want to say anything that could be taken the wrong way. But no, he liked her, and we had seen her a few times in New York, too, at some events.

Werman: Did Andy Warhol have any compunction about working for this monarch with that security apparatus, and you talked about his concern about his hotel room being bugged. I mean, the Shah's catalogue of abuses at that point as emperor were pretty well documented.

Colacello: Andy was an artist, first and foremost. His grasp of history and politics, I would say, was not that great. Andy saw big politicians, world leaders, as stars, just as he did athletes like Muhammad Ali, and Jack Nicklaus, who he painted. We were criticized, Andy was criticized, I was, for dealing with the Shahs. The Village Voice newspaper, I remember, ran a front page photograph of Andy and the empress standing in front of her portrait, and the headline was, "The Beautiful Butchers," and the opening sentence was "Torture tastes better with caviar."

Werman: Well, Bob, politics aside. What did you think of the portrait in the end, of the empress, and where does it live now?

Colacello: I thought it was one of Andy's more beautiful. He kind of captured a dreamy quality and a certain sadness in her eyes. The portraits... it's unclear how many he actually painted in the end. I always thought there were about 14, and somewhere from six to eight went to the empress herself. She's even unclear of how many are still in the museum. A couple of them can be seen actually at a restaurant in New York called Casa Lever. So the empress is there, hanging with Dolly Parton and Dennis Hopper and Alfred Hitchcock, and it's quite a wall of paintings, actually.

Werman: Bob Colacello, long time Vanity Fair contributor, and Andy Warhol's biographer. Thanks so much.

Colacello: Thank you.