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Alireza Pahlavi: The Lonely Life of an Exiled Prince

Jan 8, 2011 – 6:41 AM
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Dave Thier

Dave Thier Contributor

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- Alireza Pahlavi, the youngest son of the late shah of Iran, had lived in exile since he was 13. Captivating, glamorous and tragic, he and his family are the Kennedys of Iran. But while Pahlavi's suicide this week came as a shock to some, it is also the continuation of the sad story of a royal family isolated from its homeland.

Pahlavi lived his life in the shadow of history, and of his father. He was an academic -- he didn't seem to display the same political drive of his older brother, or the hardness of the shah. He struggled with depression, as well as the loneliness that comes from both status and exile. In his Boston apartment on Tuesday, at age 44, it became too much.

Alireza Pahlavi
Lionel Cironneau, AP
Alireza Pahlavi attends Prince Rainier III's funeral procession in Monaco in 2005. Pahlavi, son of the late shah of Iran, was found dead of an apparent suicide at his home in Boston on Tuesday.
Immediately after the family's escape from revolutionary Iran, Pahlavi's exile began in a less-than-glamorous location -- in Williamstown, a small college town of 6,000 in western Massachusetts.

The family moved there because Pahlavi's older brother, Reza, had spent two years at Williams College before leaving to be with his ailing father, who died in Egypt in 1980. But the country also afforded a degree of security unavailable in a bigger city -- a big house swarmed by guards on a road just out of town.

Pahlavi attended Mount Greylock Regional High School, the public school in Williamstown, from 1981 until 1984. To his classmates, he was a mystery -- exiled royalty seemed like something from a movie. Grim, armed bodyguards stood watch at the entrance to the school.

"I just remember thinking he was very quiet, very shy. ... I don't recall that he was good friends with anybody -- don't think he could be," one of his classmates, Liza Barrett, told AOL News. "He was sort of an enigma."

She remembers that he was a good square dancer, and that he "clearly carried himself like upper crust."

Pahlavi's U.S. history teacher, Thomas Murray, remembers him similarly. He was sharp and hard working, but there was a barrier between him and the other students.

"I got the feeling that there was a definite something there between himself and the common folk," he said. "And it was kind of understandable."

By coincidence, another young Iranian, Mahboud Zabetian, had also fled to Williamstown, and he attended Mount Greylock at the same time. Murray remembers them talking in French and Farsi, listening to short-wave radio for news about the revolution.

"I remember looking over and thinking, 'Oh, my God, that's the exiled son of the shah,' " Zabetian said.

Despite both being Iranian exiles in a small high school, Zabetian never felt intimate with Pahlavi. The prince retained a royal distance, and Zabetian was never even sure how to address him. But they became closer when they both went to Princeton and joined the same eating club -- a social club that met a private dining hall.

At Princeton, all sorts of people gravitated toward the mystique of royalty.

"I would seem him dealing with other kids on campus -- he would just sort of put on a royal smile and nod to people he knew," Zabetian said.

At the eating club, however, Zabetian says Pahlavi would loosen up when the beer started flowing. They'd talk about the world, Iran and the new regime. Zabetian was a liberal, but he describes Pahlavi as a cynic -- the revolution hadn't left him with much faith in humanity.

Their conversations carried the undercurrent of Pahlavi's father. Was he the man the revolutionaries said he was? Did he really do those things that they said he did?

Zabetian never asked. In the sober light of morning, Pahlavi's royal veneer would return.

After college, Pahlavi never became politically vocal like his brother, Reza, an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime. The younger Pahlavi continued in academia and eventually went into a Ph.D candidate program, studying ancient Iranian history. Zabetian moved to San Francisco, and he would talk to Pahlavi on the phone sometimes and saw him a few times when he traveled. As in high school, Pahlavi still never seemed to develop any close friends.

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"I sort of realized that his best friends were his mom, his sister and his brother," Zabetian said. "They were the only ones that could really trust each other."

When his sister Leila was found dead after an overdose in 2004, Pahlavi seemed to fall into depression. He took time off at Harvard, but continued to struggle after he returned to his studies. On Tuesday he was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

"He lived a tragic life, he had a tormented and tortured soul, but he was a good guy," Zabetian remembers. "He was just somebody who got cards dealt the wrong way."

(Editor's note: David Thier also attended Mount Greylock Regional High School, but not at the same time as Alireza Pahlavi.)
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