Traveling to Iran With Andy Warhol

An interview with the artist's biographer
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Bob Colacello

Longtime Vanity Fair contributor Bob Colacello has said he was the Andy Warhol biographer who knew Warhol for more than 15 minutes. He was editor of Warhol's Interview magazine from 1971 to 1983, and became actively involved in all aspects of life—business and social—at The Factory, Warhol’s studio, including procuring celebrity clients for Warhol's famous silkscreened portraits. Colacello's book, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, came out in 1990. Not one to be pigeonholed, Colacello also published an expansive biography of Ron and Nancy Reagan in 2004.

In 1976, Colacello traveled to Iran with Warhol. He now lives on New York's Upper East Side and gave this interview by phone:

First, can you describe what brought about your trip to Iran with Andy?

Well, it happened because we had gotten to know the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Fereydoon Hoveyda, and he actually arranged for Andy to do a portrait of the Shabanu, or the Empress, Farah Pahlavi. So the purpose of the trip was basically for Andy to take polaroids of her, which then would be made into portraits.

What was your general impression of Iran at that time before you went?

I think my impression of Iran was different than the general impression of Iran. I was criticized for running an interview with the Empress in Interview magazine. Andy's politics were, you know, he was a democrat, but he also was fascinated by world leaders. He had already done the portraits of Golda Meir and Willy Brandt of Germany. We were trying very hard to get Imelda Marcos to commission portraits because we thought she would get thousands done for every post office in the Philippines. 

When we went [to Iran], it was obvious that while you probably couldn't stand on a street corner and denounce the Shah, Iran seemed to be a rather free society. Particularly women were free. Tehran, anyway, seemed to be a largely westernized city, or modernized city, I should say, because you definitely felt you were in the Middle East — prosperous, thriving, and growing. So many of the people we met — admittedly we met mostly the upper classes — were Christians, Jews and Baha'is, all of whom were forced out or killed when the Ayatollahs came in. I mean, my point of view on Iran is coming from a different place than I think a lot of others.

Were you surprised by anything you saw there?

I was surprised to the degree of how open the society was and modern. And, you know, on the superficial level, the life in the northern part of Iran then was rather enchanted because these people were successful and making money.

We went to a polo match. We went to a state dinner that the brother of Fereydoun Hoveyda, who was the prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda — it just happened while we were there — he had a state dinner for Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan. And that was fascinating, but still kind of haunting. I remember the toast Bhutto and Hoveyda made to each other about the eternal friendship of Pakistan and Iran, and both of those men were gone in a couple years time. Hoveyda assassinated by the Ayatollahs and Bhutto executed by the Pakistani generals.

We went one day to the souq, or bazaar, which was in southern Tehran and there were a few women in chadors. We went to Isfahan and there were a few more people in chadors, but everything was totally peaceful, and prosperous and clean. Everything seemed normal and nice. I never heard the word "shiites" in the 10 days we were there.

How did you describe what you saw in Iran to your friends?

It reminded me of Beverly Hills, except that they had Persian carpets by their pools. Caviar was plentiful, as it was in the Iranian Embassy in the U.S. Hoveyda ran the most sophisticated embassy in New York in terms of the social life because he had been a film critic for Cahiers du cinéma in Paris. So he would give dinners for François Truffaut, Rudolf Nureyev — many cultural figures — people like Lena Horne and Sidney Lumet. I remember one of the first times I met Rupert Murdoch was at a dinner there. It'd be a mix of diplomats, business people, socialites, entertainment people, artists. I mean his parties were great — they were really interesting.

What did Andy think of Iran?

Well, Andy was like, "Oh gee, oh wow, how glamorous." He loved the fact that we could call room service at the Hilton Hotel and get caviar all day long for $10 an order. We met Barry Goldwater in the lobby of the Hilton. Again, Andy's politics are different. I was republican and Andy was a democrat — we would kind of tease each other about it. Barry Goldwater, I remember we thought he was so good looking. He had the white hair. He was wearing a white suit with a black bolo tie, white shirt. He came over and introduced himself to Andy, which was sort of remarkable because the press always portrayed Barry Goldwater as this ultra right-winger, this John Bircher, and they always left out the part that his family was half Jewish and they work in the retail business, which would spoil the John Bircher label people tried to pin on him.

All in all, we had a good time. It was the summertime and the heat was a little much for Andy. Not in northern Tehran which was sort of in the foothills of the mountains, so it was cooler there. But when we went to Isfahan we were dazzled by the beauty of the city, of course, but it was so hot that Andy just couldn't really take it. We had to cancel our planned visit to Shiraz the following day.

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Dan Washburn is managing editor at Asia Society Online. He has written for Slate, Foreign Policy, Financial Times and The Economist and is founding editor of Shanghaiist.

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