In certain corners of the world, someone only has to whisper the name “Queen Soraya” to conjure up a story of sweeping beauty, royal betrayal, and lasting tragedy. From a teenage marriage to her mysterious end in a Paris penthouse, Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary’s heartbreaking life is worthy of a twisted fairy tale. There’s a reason they called her “the sad-eyed princess.”
Queen Soraya of Iran Facts
1. She Was a Spoiled Heiress
Soraya was groomed for a royal destiny from the very start. The only daughter of Iranian nobleman Khalil Esfandiary and his wife, the German heiress Eva Karl, Soraya grew up in luxury, spending her adolescence shuttling between Berlin and Isfahan while attending the best finishing schools. Yet even with this regal upbringing, Soraya still stumbled into queenhood…
2. She Had a Temper
Half Iranian and half German, Soraya was famous for her beauty even as a gangly teen—but beauty wasn’t the only part of her charm. She had a notoriously Teutonic, brusque manner underneath her feminine good looks, and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind directly and openly. But this very outspokenness would get her into big trouble.
3. A Single Photo Made Her Queen
Soraya’s legendary beauty preceded her…literally. Around 1948, the Queen Mother of Iran, Tadj ol-Molouk, was on the lookout to get her son Shah Mohammad Reza a new wife. After simply seeing a photo of Soraya, the brassy dowager sent her daughter to investigate. Just like that, Soraya’s destiny—and tragedy—crept one step closer.
4. The Royal Family Tested Her
The Shah’s sister dutifully flew over to see what the young, beautiful Soraya was made of. Well, our girl must have passed the test, because the princess became convinced that Soraya was perfect for her brother. She quickly informed her family that they had found Iran’s new queen. Then she gave Soraya a shocking proposition.
5. She Attended a Royal Try-out
The Iranian royal family didn’t mess around. After meeting Soraya, they immediately invited her for a visit to their palace in Tehran. On the surface, it was a little meet-and-greet with the clan. But everyone knew what was really happening: This was an audition to be queen. Soraya was still a teenager, but her world would change overnight.
6. She Fell in Love at First Sight
When Soraya went to the royal palace, she was beyond swept away by her promised fairy tale. The strapping Shah strode into the reception room wearing his crisp, pressed military uniform, and the sight turned Soraya love-struck. She described him as “magnificent.” Yet that didn’t mean she was ready for what came next.
7. She Was Betrothed Overnight
Soraya and Shah Mohammad Reza both experienced passionate love at first sight, and the Shah knew he simply had to have Soraya as his bride. So, he got her. The very next day, Soraya’s father sat his daughter down and informed her, “The Shah liked you very much. Are you ready to marry him?” To her regret, she said yes.
8. Her Husband’s Family Was a Nightmare
Though Soraya was much too naïve to question her groom, she…should have. Her new in-laws were notoriously dysfunctional. The Shah’s father had withheld love to make his son more “manly,” while the Queen Mother was smothering and jealous with her own affection. Not exactly best environment for producing good husbands. But that wasn’t even the worst part.
9. Her New Beau Had Major Baggage
Mohammad Reza was over a decade older than Soraya, and had already been married to the equally beautiful Princess Fawzia of Egypt. That marriage? Let’s just say that it didn’t end well. Sure, the couple fought, but there was also the little fact that the Shah cheated on Fawzia constantly with a series of glamorous mistresses. Oh yeah, this is going to work out well for Soraya.
10. Her Wedding Had a Bad Omen
The wedding was set for the fast approaching date of December 27, 1950—until a horrific event occurred. As if the entire universe were saying “don’t do it, girl,” Soraya fell violently and terrifyingly ill with typhoid on the very eve of her wedding. Yet when he heard about his fiancé’s illness, the Shah responded with a legendarily romantic gesture.
11. Her Fiancé Made a Grand Gesture
Though the Shah was disappointed to delay the royal ceremony, he really pulled out the Prince Charming stops for his delirious, bedridden bride. According to lore, the Shah came to Soraya’s bed every day for the entirety of her sickness just to place a jewel on her pillow. Okay, maybe I’d keep this guy around for a bit.
12. Her Wedding Day Was a Secret Nightmare
Eventually, though, the Shah couldn’t wait any longer. He re-set the wedding date to a mere six weeks later on February 12, 1951. It was much too soon—and Soraya paid a high price. The morning of her wedding, she was so weak that she could barely stand, and so cold that she shivered in her bridal room. Did this stop the Shah? Nope…
13. Her Dress Has a Chilling Back Story
Today, Queen Soraya’s wedding dress is a iconic part of fashion history. Designed by Christian Dior, the silver lamé gown was a pearl-studded confection trimmed with marabou feathers. Yet most people don’t know the truth underneath it. Soraya was so weak that she trembled beneath the gown; she had to wear a wool vest and socks under her finery to stop her from shaking. And that wasn’t all.
14. She Nearly Collapsed at the Altar
Soraya’s lavish dress weighed an astonishing 66 pounds, and the ailing bride nearly collapsed under its heavy weight. Minutes before the new couple was due to walk down the aisle, the Shah even had to cut off the dress’s train just to make sure his queen could make it through the ceremony. Now is this a bad omen, or is this a bad omen?
15. She Threw Tantrums
Soraya’s marriage was doomed from the start. For one, Soraya was still a fiery 18-year-old, and very prone to childish outbursts. When the couple bickered one evening at a public dinner, she stunned their guests by picking up a priceless vase and smashing it against the wall. And that was just what went down in public.
16. She Manipulated the Shah
In these early days, Soraya wasn’t above withholding intimacy from her husband to get what she wanted, and she was darn stubborn about it, too. After yet another fight, she banned the Shah from their marriage bed for weeks on end, forcing him to sleep outside her door on a cot. And when someone politely objected to this state of affairs? Well…
17. She Made a Devastating Comeback
After seeing the royal couple’s obvious bedroom rift, one courtier worked up the courage to delicately suggest that Soraya let His Majesty come back to her bed. Soraya’s response was incredibly brutal. The vengeful ice queen pointed at a corner of her bedchamber and snapped, “He can put his bed over there!”
18. Her Private Life Was Surprising
Despite their explosive arguments, Queen Soraya and her Shah were deeply in love with each other—but their private life together is probably surprising to many people. Although Soraya brought out his fiery side, the Shah was a very stiff and shy man, and even in private he often addressed his wife with the formal Persian “you.”
19. She Was a Bad Queen
Today, Queen Soraya’s beauty and elegance has made her an icon, but that doesn’t mean she was a good queen. She disdained royal customs, often refused to wear formal clothes, and shirked her “boring” duties, earning her the scornful nickname “that German woman” at court. But there may have been a dark reason for her disobedience.
20. She Had a Monster-in-Law
Soraya’s mother-in-law Tadj ol-Molouk and her new sisters-in-law weren’t exactly welcoming to the new girl in the family. Actually, let’s call a spade a spade: They were straight-up awful. They saw every gesture of love the Shah made to Soraya as a threat to their relationship with him, and, as we’ll see, developed horrific ways to freeze Soraya out.
21. She Had a Jealousy Problem
Soraya wasn’t any angel herself when it came to jealousy—in fact, she could be downright diabolical. The Shah had a daughter, Princess Shahnaz, from his previous marriage, and Soraya did not take to the girl. She felt so threatened that she once threw a tantrum when her husband made her visit the girl at school. But it got so much worse.
22. She Was an Evil Stepmother
Queen Soraya wanted the Shah all to herself, and she wasn’t about to let his daughter take all his attention. Almost immediately after the wedding, Soraya carted the little Princess Shahnaz off to boarding school and nearly cut her out of the Shah’s life entirely. But her horrific treatment might have come from an incredibly dark place.
23. She Had One Awful “Failing”
If Soraya didn’t like the Shah’s daughter, it may have come from her own fears about children. One of her main duties as queen was to give the Shah an heir, and three years into the marriage, she had not even announced a pregnancy. With a sense of dread, the Shah asked Soraya to travel to America for a medical check-up. The results were heartbreaking.
24. She Received a Heartbreaking Diagnosis
The first doctors that Soraya saw in New York had good news: They claimed that the stresses of the past two years had naturally made it difficult for her to get pregnant, but there was nothing wrong with her. Yet her second doctor in Boston smashed these hopes. According to him, the Queen of Iran was infertile and could never give birth to an heir.
25. She Knew How to Hit Where It Hurt
During the worst parts of their relationship, the Shah and Soraya went back and forth at being horrible to each other. But at one dinner party, their dysfunction turned into an utterly chilling spectacle. When the Shah said lightly to his guests that the queen was exactly his type of woman, Soraya cruelly drawled, “Well, I cannot say the same for His Majesty.”
26. She Had an Infamous Role Model
Soraya adored masked balls, but her costume ideas were more than a little improper. The queen stirred up drama one year when she attempted to dress up as the notorious and beautiful French mistress Madame de Pompadour. The uptight palace said “non” and made her go as the pious tomboy Joan of Arc instead. No fun, guys.
27. She Endured a Family Crisis
By 1954, Soraya and the Shah were careening toward a break down, while still frantically trying to hold onto the scraps of their love. That October, they met certain ruin. On the 26th of that month, the Shah’s only full brother perished in a plane crash. It was never more important for the Shah to have an heir…and his idea about how to get one couldn’t be more scandalous.
28. Her Husband Made an Indecent Proposal
Knowing that Soraya would likely never bear him children, the Shah came up with an unsettling solution to their Great Matter: He proposed taking a second wife. When the jealous, volatile Queen Soraya heard the Shah’s brilliant plan, what do you think her reaction was? She rejected it point-blank…and made her own strange suggestion.
29. She Want to Disturbing Lengths to Stay Queen
Desperate to keep her marriage and her position as Iran’s only queen intact, Soraya begged her husband to…change his country’s entire constitution. According to her, everything could be fixed if the Shah just amended the document to let one of his half-brothers rule after him. Sadly, this opened up an entirely new heartbreak.
30. Her Husband Told Her an Enormous Lie
Instead of just telling Soraya that he wasn’t going to amend the whole freaking constitution, the Shah told his wife a bitter lie. He said he’d consider it, but “the Council of the Wise Men” would have to approve it first. Here’s the thing: There was no such council. The Shah didn’t want to say no to Soraya, so he just…passed the buck to some made-up committee. Great move, bud.
31. Vicious Rumors Swirled About Her
During this trying time, Soraya got the opposite of support from her in-laws. In fact, they were downright vicious. Jealous of Soraya’s status, the Queen Mother and the royal princesses actively spread gossip around the court about her and her “barren” womb. But then Soraya’s mother-in-law took her cruelty to the next level.
32. She Was Under Surveillance
When there was still a scant hope that Soraya would give Iran an heir, the dowager Tadj ol-Molouk had her courtiers spy on the young queen and keep an eagle eye on her waist and eating habits. One day, she even came up to Soraya and snapped, “So when are you going to give my son a boy?” Whew, somebody hold me back.
33. She Caused an International Incident
In the 1950s, Queen Soraya was embroiled in yet another scandal—this time on an international scale. On a visit to her American friends stateside, she water-skied in Miami while wearing a revealing bikini. It was an absolute catastrophe at the palace, and the photo was even banned in Iran. But a much bigger moment of infamy lay ahead.
34. Her Divorce Was Heard Round the World
In March 1958, Soraya crossed a boundary she could never take back. Marital negotiations between her and the Shah broke down completely. On March 14, Iran officially announced that the royal couple was divorcing and that Soraya would no longer be the queen. Yet that was the public show…it was much different behind closed doors.
35. She Wasn’t Ready for the Split
Soraya, who had been living in Europe away from the Shah at the time, claimed that she was all but blindsided by the announcement. Shah Mohammad Reza had called her nine days earlier and begged her to let him take a second wife or he’d have no choice, but Soraya thought she still had time to turn things around. She was so, so wrong.
36. Her Husband Broke Down
For all their drama—and let’s be real, there was a lot of it—not even Soraya’s most bitter enemy could say the Shah didn’t love her. When Mohammad Reza spoke to the Iranian people during the divorce announcement, he wept openly. A British Ambassador even admitted that Soraya was the Shah’s “only true love.” But Soraya’s tragic love story was far from over.
37. Her Ex Gave Her a Parting Present
Soraya didn’t exit her lush royal life and enter poverty, oh no. The Shah gave her a parting gift of a luxe penthouse suite in her beloved Paris, a hefty monthly allowance, and other more “modest” presents like a Rolls-Royce Phantom and a juicy Bulgari ruby. They were supposed to be farewell gifts, but the royal couple had an incredibly hard time saying goodbye.
38. She Couldn’t Move on
Soraya and the Shah just couldn’t quit each other, and although the royal palace wanted the people to believe the situation was cut and dry…it really wasn’t. Everybody knew the Shah was still in love with his ex-wife, and they reportedly met several times after the divorce. As we’ll see, their reunion didn’t even end there.
39. She Became a Hollywood Starlet
After ending her tenure as the Queen of Iran in tragedy, Soraya had a strange second life—as a film star. Hollywood had always fascinated her, and with her legendary beauty, she snagged roles in classics like The Three Faces under only her first name, which is how you know she was legit. But with Hollywood fame came Hollywood drama…
40. She Started a Steamy Affair
While shooting The Three Faces, Soraya followed in many an ingénue’s footsteps and started a steamy affair with one of her directors, the Italian dynamo Franco Indovina. There was just one big problem. Though Indovina was the “second love of her life,” he was also very, very married. And the drama didn’t end there.
41. She Experienced a Fatal Tragedy
In 1972, Soraya had been through enough pain to last a lifetime, but fate wasn’t through with her yet. That year, her illicit lover Indovina perished in a fiery plane crash, leaving Soraya bereft and severely depressed. She retreated to Parisian high society, intending to live the rest of her life quietly. That’s not exactly what happened.
42. The Shah Replaced Her
In 1959, Soraya had to endure one of her most excruciating experiences yet. That year, her ex-husband the Shah remarried the beautiful, young, and fertile Farah Diba in a lavish ceremony. Then things got even crueller. A single year later, Empress Farah gave birth to a son, the Crown Prince Reza. That one had to hurt.
43. She Had an Arch-Enemy
In some ways, it’s a miracle the Shah and Soraya lasted a long as they did. Besides not getting along with his family, Soraya also didn’t get along with his friends. She considered his best friend, the courtier Ernest Perron, as her mortal enemy. She publicly called him “cunning, perfidious and Machiavellian.” Then one day, Perron gave Soraya even more reason to hate him.
44. The Court Aired Her Dirty Laundry
Even according Soraya, the Shah could be an aloof, closed off man—but he apparently trusted Perron with his dirtiest secrets. One day, Perron visited Soraya and suddenly started regaling her with “lewd” advice about her bedroom life. It turns out that the Shah had kissed and told about all their troubles. Soraya was so incensed that she kicked Perron out of her chambers.
45. Her Throne Was in Danger
Soraya’s brief, seven-year reign as Queen was tumultuous. Even as she dealt with infertility, the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh started trying to take over her royal husband’s powers. When the Shah grew depressed and inactive over the strife, Soraya reacted in the exact opposite way. She reportedly went full Lady Macbeth…
46. Her Husband Disgusted Her
One day, Soraya was so sick of her husband moping around his palace, she marched up and demanded he do nothing less than launch a coup against the government. He refused—and her reply was chilling. She was utterly disgusted, later confessing, “I could no longer bear the weak man he had become.” I don’t know about that one, Raya.
47. She Earned a Tragic Nickname
Soraya’s incredibly tragic history earned her the nickname “The Sad-Eyed Princess.” I mean, can you honestly say it doesn’t fit?
48. She Wanted a Fairy Tale Romance
Even while she was married to the Shah, Soraya complained bitterly that he was willing to throw her aside for the sake of his crown. She hopelessly wished he would behave like her friend King Edward VIII, who gave up the throne in a gesture of commitment for his divorcée lover Wallis Simpson. Little did she know, she’d almost get her wish.
49. She Was Full of Self-Hatred
Throughout her reign as queen, many Iranians accused Soraya of prejudice against their culture. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to deny the merit of these accusations. Though Soraya always struggled with her nomadic up-bringing and never felt at home anywhere, she also explicitly favored Western European culture over Iranian customs.
50. She Wrote the Shah One Final Letter
In 1979, Soraya was still reeling from her immense losses and dragging her past behind her when she received some shocking news. Her ex-husband the Shah was now dying of cancer, with absolutely no hope for recovery. So after more than 20 years apart, Soraya wrote him a letter. Its contents were heartbreaking.
51. She Requested a Secret Meeting
In her heart-felt letter to the Shah, Soraya exposed her deepest secret: She still loved him, and she had never stopped loving him. But Soraya didn’t leave him with just words. She also swore that if he would have her, she wanted to see him one last time before he passed. All that was left to do was wait for the Shah’s reply.
52. She Had a Romeo and Juliet Love Story
Soraya and her Shah truly were fairy tale lovers, because his response back had Cinderella beat. Mohammad Reza confessed that he, too, had never stopped loving her, and that he was desperate to say goodbye to her in person. Sadly, this never happened, and the reason why is even more tragic than you think.
53. She Was a Star-Crossed Lover
Though the Shah wanted to see Soraya, he could never do it in the presence of his current wife, who was always by his bedside. Instead, he wanted to wait until they could meet, secretly and alone, in Cairo. The only thing that stopped him? Death itself. He passed before the star-crossed lovers could manage to arrange a meeting. And if you think that’s dramatic, just wait.
54. She Met a Mysterious End
Soraya spent the rest of her life in the chic, right-bank neighborhood of Elysee in Paris, keeping up her social circle of duchesses and celebrities. But her end was anything but elegant. On October 26, 2001, the former Queen of Iran passed under mysterious circumstances. As we’ll see, questions still linger about her ultimate fate.
55. We May Never Know the Truth About Her
There are strange things about Soraya’s passing that remain unanswered. Chief among them, no reliable source has ever come forward with the cause of her demise. Yet there’s something eerier: Just a week later, her younger brother passed as well, leading some papers to report that there was foul play involved. This is unlikely, but it doesn’t make her end any less of a mystery. Rest in peace, Queen.