The Racine Journal-Times Sunday Bulletin from Racine, Wisconsin on January 7, 1962 · Page 49
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The Racine Journal-Times Sunday Bulletin from Racine, Wisconsin · Page 49

Racine, Wisconsin
Issue Date:
Sunday, January 7, 1962
Page 49
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Page 49 article text (OCR)

Though 30 years apart, the Aga Khon and the Besum were profoundly close. The Begum Aga Khan, widow By ELSA MAXWELL "TI7"7HO IS THAT beautiful woman?" W visitors on the French Riviera ask when the Begum Aga Khan passes. And invariably the answers are elaborated with comments on the Begum's enormous wealth, her clothes, jewels, villa, and her yacht anchored in the Cannes harbor. Interestingly, the Begum looks every inch a patrician althouRh she was born a bourgeoise. She also has that intangible air which attaches itself to those who have known high position. For 13 years she was the wife of one of the richest potentates in the world, Aga Sultan, Mohammed Shah, the Aga Khan, who claimed descent from Fatima, daughter of the prophet Mohammed. On each of his birthdays, the 20 million Mo.slems of the Ismaili sect, whose temporal and spiritual leader he was, matched his weight—all 275 pounds of it—in gold, diamonds, or platinum. His weight, as I recall it, was once matched by $840,000 worth of platinum, and the sum was used to build schools and other community projects. For many years the Aga was my dear friend, as was his son Aly. I, alas, was responsible for Aly meeting Hollywood's Rita Hayworth. Knowing his love for beautiful women, 1 seated him next to her at dinner. 1 first met the Begum in 1944, shortly after she and the Aga were married. He was then 66 and she was 35. As I entered a restaurant, Escargot D'Or, where they weie dining, the Aga came over and we embraced. "Elsa," he said, "thi.s is my wife." The Begum, who wore a sari and had paused a few steps behind him, came forward and took my hand. "How beautiful she is," I said to the Aga while I smiled at her. "She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen," he said, also smiling at her devotedly. It was the Begum's dark loveliness, first as beauty x^ueen of Lyons and tlien as France of llt.'iO, that carried her, Yvette Labrousse, the daughter of a Cannes streetcar conductor, from the little town of Sette. where she had worked as a dressmaker, to the high place as the Aga's wife. She met the Aga in Geneva when she was a war refugee and went to work as his .secretary. At this time a Spanish girl, the Aga's caddy on the golf course, was believed to be his favorite. But his caddy was ensconced elsewhere in the town and Vvette Labrousse. living in his house, was on hand to look after him when he was cut on the face by flying in an accident. She nursed him with the quiet selflessness that always marked her attitude toward him. The Begum knew no one in society when she married the Aga. I became her friend and often went to her beautiful Cannes villa, "Yakymour," a name taken from her nickname "Yaki." I believe the Begum loved the Aga. As his wife, it was her pleasure to do only what pleased him. And as he grew older and more frail, he came to depend upon her for everything. Her pilgrimage to Mecca—a feat few women would have been able to equal, for she walked barefoot in the intense heat, fasted, and underwent rigorous religious rituals—forever insured her place in the Aga's heart. When she made a short trip to the United States during the last year of his life, she telephoned him every day. She made this trip because he wished it. No one ever said why, but you can be sure he had good reason. And when the Begum, traveling to California incognito as Miss B. Smith, appeared on "This Ls Your Life," she took a film of the program back to the Aga. who watched it many times with delight. Before the Aga died, he did everything he could to .save the Begum from the fate common to the widows of potentates and rulers—becoming a forgotten woman. In his will, in which he passed over his son Aly Khan to name as his successor Aly's son. Prince Karim. he advised: "Be guided when necessary by Her Highness, Begum Aga Khan . .. because of her vast knowledge of Ismaili affairs." Thus he sought to create an advisory position that would keep her in the hierarchy. Karim Was Friendly at First In the days following his grandfather's death. Prince Karim was most considerate of the Begum. At the Swiss villa where the 79-year-old Aga had died and where the 48-year-old Begum was prostrate with grief, he saw those who came with condolences and he made her excuses. On the plane that flew the family—and the old Aga in his white-draped coffin—from Geneva to Cairo, he waited upon her solicitously. He was most sympathetic on the launch that took the family across the Nile to A.swan for burial. (She wept on this trip because the Aga's body was being ferried across on a barge normally used to haul cement.) But it was not long before he and the Begum were not seen together with any frequency. I think Aly influenced his son to discourage any interference. He was convinced that the Begum had influenced his father to deprive him of his rightful inheritance. Certainly, she had had both reason and opportunity to do this. Constantly at the old man's side, ministering to his wants and deferring to him in every way, she had his confidence and his devotion. And since between her and Aly there had been no warmth, she must have known that if he became the Aga she could expect no quarter. I had urged Aly to change his attitude toward his stepmother. "Look here." I told him once. "when you allow your dislike of the Begum to be so evident, you risk doing yourself an injustice. Your father adores her. And she influences him more all the time." There were occasions when Aly would listen to me. This was not one of them. "I know! I know^I" he said. But his mouth set in the sullen way women seeking to sway him remember too well. Aly loved the Aga. And the Aga loved Aly. It never occurred to Aly that he would be bypassed in the succession. When his father's will was read, he reacted with shock and bitterness. He told me, shortly before his fatal automobile accident, that when he died he wanted to be buried in Syria. "I would not lie beside my father," he said, "and have his widow—who sits and collects bounty from the thousands of faithful who visit his tomb—lining her pockets over my body!" Aly Buried at L'Horizon Teniporarily. Aly lies at his well-loved Chateau L'Horizon. With the current unrest in Syria, it may be a long time before his body can be taker, there for official buria'.. Since Aly's death the distance between Prince Karim and the Begum ha.s, if anything, increasea. Now, I suspect, it is Karim's mother. Princes.'Joan, who tends to obstruct the a.ssociation. Princess Joan and Aly were divorced, but they saw each other and were friendly. She knew how deeply he felt about the Mo.slem countries, of the countless journeys to the Fast he made for his father, performing marriages, oflficiating at funerals, ir. every way serving his people. She's aware, too. of the brilliance and dignity with which he conducted himself as Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations. It would be reasonable for her to deplore, if not actually resent, the way Aly was bypassed. And I, for one. should not be surprised if Princess Joan had not in her quiet British way determined that her son should not be a pawn, however exalted, in the furtherance of anybody's plans. I have never understood why the Begum had enemies. Their animosity was not, as so often happens, the other side of the coin of friendship, for she neither belonged to any .social group nor formed one of her own. Nevertheless, there were many. When, for instance, a car in which she and the Aga were riding was held up and a fortune in jewels stolen, the Begum's enemies were quick to spread the rumor that she had staged this episode. They underestimated her. She had no need of such dime-novel tactics. While the Aga lived, she got ever.vthing she wanted—with one exception, which I will come to later. 1 would be surprised indeed if at the Aga's death the Begum was not already an enormously wealthy woman, quite independent of the fortune be<iueathed her. I would guess her total riches to Famity Wpplcii/. Jfuinari/ 7. I96i*

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