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Princess 'overdosed in despair at TV reports'

The Times, London
JUNE 13 2001

THE youngest daughter of the late Shah of Iran took a fatal overdose of sleeping tablets, apparently after watching television reports of elections in the country from which had been banished.

Princess Leila Pahlavi, 31, is said to have been deeply depressed at the realisation that her family would never return to Tehran to regain the so-called Peacock Throne. She had come to despair at her inability to carve out a meaningful role for herself away from the gilded but often aimless world of Iranian exiles.

"She had no idea where she was going, and what she was doing with her life," said one of her friends from the New York suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut.

"All she knew is that there was no way back to the imperial grandeur of the past."

The Princess's body was found on Sunday evening by staff at the Leonard Hotel, near Marble Arch in London's West End, where she retained a £3,150-a-week suite for occasions when she was in Britain. It appeared she had taken a fatal overdose of sleeping tablets as results trickled in from Tehran, where President Khatami, a reformer, was being swept to a second term.

A post-mortem examination proved inconclusive, and police were yesterday awaiting the results of toxicology reports. They were also searching through the Princess's belongings to establish whether she had left a note.

Her funeral is expected to take place in Paris, the city which her mother, the former Empress Farah, made her home after the Shah was overthrown during the revolution of 1979.

A notice posted on her mother's personal website yesterday, headed "Communiqúe to my Compatriots", sought to pin the blame for the Princess's death on those who forced the family to flee the country.

"For the past few years, Leila was very depressed," it said. "Time had not healed her wounds. Exiled at the age of nine, (sic) she never surmounted the death of her father, His Majesty Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to whom she was particularly close.

"She was never able to forget the injustice and the dramatic conditions of our departure and the erring which was to follow. She could not stand living far from Iran and shared wholeheartedly the suffering of her countrymen."

The Princess was the youngest of the Shah's four children by his third wife. Before the revolution she lived a childhood of opulence and privilege in the Niavaran Palace, where she had her own six-room apartment, where there were colour photographs of President Carter's wife, Rosalynn, and daughter, Amy, hanging on the walls, walk-in wardrobes, and a telephone by the bath.

She was shadowed wherever she ran or played by Imperial Guards, and grew accustomed to hearing her father addressed as Shahanshah, the King of Kings, Light of the Aryans, Superior Presence, the Vice-Regent of God.

The family was so rich the Shah's first wife bathed in milk, and to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the Peacock Throne he threw a £60 million party at Persepolis, the ancient capital, flying 165 chefs from Paris to serve guests more than a ton of caviar.

When the time finally came to fly into exile, he did so at the controls of his personal Boeing 707. The eight-year-old Princess had been flown to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey a few days earlier, and within weeks she was being scorned by Tehran Radio as "the Bloodsucker's Daughter". Her father died of cancer the next year, aged 60, and her elder brother, Cyrus Reza Pahlavi, was declared to be the new Shah.

The Princess was sent to the £6,000-a-year United Nations School in New York City, where her identity was kept secret from classmates. "Most people had no idea she was a royal princess until her graduation, when her family turned up a stretch Mercedes limo," one schoolfriend recalled yesterday.

"As far as I am aware, she didn't have bodyguards and she walked to school like the rest of us. But she wasn't allowed to date, which was a real shame because she was absolutely beautiful and there wasn't a guy at the school who didn't fancy her."

The Princess spent four years studying comparative literature at Brown University, Rhode Island. She does not appear to have worked since graduating in 1992, and jetted between Connecticut, her mother's apartment in Paris, and the Leonard Hotel. The hotel manageress, Angela Stoppani, said: "I don't know of anything that was troubling her."

Her brothers, Cyrus Reza II Pahlavi, 40, Prince Ali Reza, 35, and sister Princess Farahnaz, 38, all live in outer surburbs of Washington DC, and help to run the Mihan (homeland) Foundation, an organisation which promotes the family's claim to the Iranian throne. The Shah had a fifth child, Shahnaz, now 60, by his first wife.

Although she clearly hoped to return to Tehran, she also admitted to being frightened by the prospect, and told an American journalist last year that she suffered recurrent nightmares about Iran.

"There's one that's scary as hell," she said. "I'm in the palace and I'm not supposed to be there. If someone catches me, I could have my head cut off."

Kamran Beigi, her elder brother's political adviser, said: "It was a terrible, terrible time when they were forced to flee, and many people close to the family died. It was something that remained vivid in Leila's mind throughout her life. Then soon afterwards her father died. She was her father's favourite, and from an early age, she carried the troubles of Tehran on her shoulders."

The Princess was also unable to find romance, and friends of her mother said that they were not aware of her having a boyfriend. However, in a magazine interview last year she indicated that it was aimlessness, rather than loneliness, that gnawed at her most.

Asked whether she hoped to find love, she replied: "The most important thing is to find yourself, to find a reason for existing, to find a direction in life - a goal."

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