By Pamela Vail Lawson
“Did you know there are two Iranian princes buried in Sag Harbor, in Oakland Cemetery? Why are they there?”
A friend asked me this several months ago and I said I would look into it.
Yes, there they were, buried not far from George Balanchine’s grave: Manucher Farmanfarmaian, 1917-2003 and his younger brother, Abol Bashar Farmanfarmaian, 1921-1991, Princes of Iran. And so I began a fascinating lesson in Iranian history.
Their father, Prince Abdol Hussein Mirza Farman Farma, had eight wives and 36 children: his third wife, Batoul Khanoum, was the mother of both Manucher and Abol Bashar. A half sister, Sattereh Farman Farmaian, describes vividly the early years in her book, Daughters of Persia. The Farmafarmaians were wealthy, and members of the reigning royal family, the Qajar Dynasty. The wives had their own houses within the spacious compound in Tehran, surrounded by a 10-foot wall. The prolific father, respectfully called Shazdeh (Prince) by the immediate family members, was a high-ranking officer in the Iranian army before he retired, as the Shah was wary of anyone that might take part in the overthrowing of his reign. Later he served as Minister of War and Prime Minister.
He kept a vast household of over 700, including wives, children, countless paid servants, secretaries and all those who had served him in the past. Every Friday, the children of all the households would line up according to their age and Shazdeh would question them about their studies and have them recite a Persian poem that he had assigned to each one to memorize the week before. Education was considered of premier importance to their father – in most families girls were not educated, but Satti and her sister and half sisters were sent to school.
However, it was the boys of the family that received further education and were sent abroad to England to study at the university level. Satti, however, was eventually able to be the first Persian (the name of the country was changed from Persia to Iran in 1935) to study at the University of Southern California, earning an advanced degree in social work, and returning to Iran to found the School of Social Work…but that is another story.
Her half brother, Manucher, was sent first to France and later studied petroleum engineering at Birmingham University. Upon his return to Iran he became Director General of Petroleum, Concessions and Mines, and in 1958 became Director of Sales for the newly formed National Iranian Oil Company. Iran had gained in prominence especially for the great oil field at Abadan which fueled the British Royal Navy and has the one overland route by which supplies would be sent to Russia during World War II. Manucher played an important part in the founding of OPEC and became Iran’s first Ambassador to Venezuela. On a personal note, he married Verla Gean Miller, an American, in 1952 and had one daughter, Roxane, but the couple parted and eventually divorced. He married again in 1965 to Petronella Kahman, who was on the staff of the Dutch Embassy in Tehran. Two sons were born, Alexander and Teymour, but the couple decided to live separately in 1977, with Petronella choosing to reside in Paris.
But in 1979 life in Iran changed radically, when the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown. Like his father, Reza Shah, the first of the Pahlavi Shahs, he had attempted for years to secularize and westernize Iran. Traditional dress was banned, forcing men and women to don western clothing. Women who continued to wear the chador had them removed from their hands and torn into pieces; nomadic tribes were forcibly settled. Many mosques were closed, and newspapers were shut down. The cleric who led the religious revolt against Mohammed Reza Shah in 1963, the Ayatollah Khomini, was arrested and eventually deported from the country.
By 1978, the people of Iran had had enough and the protests against the Shah’s rule were overwhelming. In 1979 the Shah and Queen Farah left the country, followed closely by the return of Ayatollah Khomini, who was greeted by enormous crowds. Manucher Farmanfarmaian also fled the country, returning to Caracas, Venezuela, where he founded a factory for the manufacture of potato chips. His daughter Roxane, with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, is a writer and lecturer on Iran, and together with her father wrote the book Blood and Oil; Alexander, educated at Princeton, is a fund manager; and Teymour, educated at the Harvard Business School and Duke University, is a sales executive with Google.
Abol Bashar, Manucher’s younger brother, also grew up in the family compound in Tehran and obtained a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and a JD from Columbia School of Law. Returning to Iran in 1956, he practiced international law and taught law at Tehran University School of Law. In 1957 he proposed marriage to Monir Shahroudy; a beautiful young Iranian artist who had come to New York in hopes of eventually reaching Paris, but established a career in the city and made many friends.
Monir had had an unhappy marriage and Abol Bashar had served as the babysitter often to her little daughter, Nima. The proposal came as a surprise, but he persisted and many of the Farmanfarmaian sisters reassured her that he was indeed serious. Abol persuaded Monir to come to Iran for a visit. She did, and after a whirlwind courtship, married him.
In her new home in Iran, Monir saw that her husband had included a studio for her where she was able to focus on her art. She had exhibitions both in Iran and in New York and a second daughter, Zahra, was born; it was a very happy marriage.
But by 1979, the uprising against the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and those who supported him were growing at an alarming rate, and it was decided that it was time to leave the country, hoping it would not be permanent. Leaving behind all their possessions, they were fortunate to be able to get on a plane headed for Paris, knowing that it would be easier to then fly to New York where they both had lived and still had many friends. Slowly they put their lives together again – no large house with servants but finally an apartment large enough with space for Monir to work.
Special vacation times were spent in Southampton and in Sag Harbor, where Abol Bashar, a devoted sailor, kept a boat and happily sailed the surrounding waters. Manucher would visit from Caracas, and it seemed as if the families were secure. But in 1991, Abol died of advanced leukemia. Monir was devastated, but with the help of her daughter Nima and friends decided to put Abol to rest in Sag Harbor’s beautiful Oakland Cemetery, remembering Abol’s happy sailing days. In 2003, Manucher died in Caracas, and as a second plot had been purchased, was buried next to his brother. As his son, Teymour, said “They could no longer return to their homeland – at least they were together to the end.”
Monir, now in her eighties, has returned to Iran to be with her family, the Shahroudys, and to arrange for an exhibition of her work. She plans to return to New York at some point to visit Sag Harbor.
I recommend anyone interested in reading more details to find the following books: A Mirror Garden by Monir Farmanaian; Blood and Oil by Manucher and Roxane Farmanfarmaian, and Daughter of Persia by Satterah Farman Farmaian.
Pamela Vail Lawson writes for the Historical Committee of the First Presbyterian Church of Sag Harbor, NY.