Dyed blond hair piled high. A yellow Dior dress straining across a bulging stomach. A canary diamond on a fat finger. The Iranian lady in Seat 1A was one big yellow bird. She sat next to her husband, Farid Sabbah, a rich businessman, sipping Moet and demolishing the mixed nuts on the drinks tray.
I wheeled the hors d’oeuvre cart down the aisle, provisioned that morning in Paris, direct from Maxim’s and laden with caviar, seafood, artichokes, and chilled vodka in a silver bowl. Mrs. Sabbah feigned a lack of interest in the spectacular spread and did not speak to me, a mere stewardess. All requests –– no, demands –– were directed by her husband to the male in charge. Our purser, Derek Cameron, was a soft-spoken Scotsman who could defer to arrogant, nouveaux riche passengers of any nationality.
The Sabbahs were VIPs, to be cosseted and endured, along with the other demanding passengers aboard Pan Am Flight 114 from Paris to Tehran. The trip was a popular bid for stewardesses. The passengers could be difficult –– curt European businessmen, crass American oil execs, and ostentatious Iranians. But it was two layovers in Paris, and what Tehran lacked in charm, it made up for in shopping, its bazaars, filled with magical carpets, shining brass, and tiles of brilliant blue.
Derek was locking the liquor kits for landing, but not before slipping a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black into an airsick bag. “Our gift to the cleaners, Jennifer,” he grinned. “No baksheesh, no clean.”
We saw the dusty hills that ringed Tehran coming up beneath us and hurried to the jump seat. The landing was bumpy and we bounced over the runway, but Mr. Sabbah was already snapping his fingers.
When we finally stopped, I went to the closet and brought out Mrs. Sabbah’s chador. I had seen this before. Middle Eastern women in haute couture and hung with Cartier, throwing a black cloak over the whole excessive pile before getting off the plane at home. I handed it to Mrs. Sabbah with a sly smile. It smelled of sweat and stale Chanel No. 5.
There was a line at the check-in desk at the InterContinental Tehran. Mostly Americans and Pan Am crew members demanding to know why their rooms weren’t ready. The desk clerk was struggling with the computer, his limited English, and two abusive Texans.
“Miss Galvin?” It was one of the passengers –– a Brit named Charles Bamford. “I wanted to thank you for a most pleasant flight.” And before I could reply, “My company is hosting cocktails and dinner at the rooftop restaurant tonight. Could you possibly join me? The chaps are bringing their wives, which isn’t the usual thing. It would help to have a feminine presence.”
I hesitated. Mr. Bamford was a little older –– mid-40s to my 28 years. The dinner and drink were sure to be lavish. Plus, an evening with a gentlemanly British executive would beat dinner in the coffee shop, harassed by local Lotharios who haunted the hotel, hitting on stewardesses and claiming to be cousins of the Shah. “I’d be delighted,” I said.
Even with my blue silk sheath from Hong Kong and bracelet from the Beirut gold market, I was no match for the Iranian women who sat on sofas around a corner table. Their jewels glittered from across the room, brighter than the lights of Tehran below. Charles suggested I join them while he talked business with the men.
The women were gracious and welcoming, even as they sized up my auburn hair, dress, and inadequate jewelry. Clearly, the grand dame was Maryam, a fiftyish woman with harshly dyed black hair and a prominent nose that could have been carved from a Persian mosaic. The younger wives surrounded her like acolytes.
I sat between Maryam and a thin young blond woman with wide and wary blue eyes. “This is Sophie and she is Danish,” Maryam explained as though the girl could not speak for herself. Met her husband, Dara Nazari, at the University of Copenhagen. A good catch for her, in Maryam’s opinion. She pointed to a slender young man in a Cardin suit talking animatedly with Charles Bamford.
Sophie wore a black velvet pantsuit. Her left arm was in a sling, fashioned from a black and gold Hermes scarf. When Maryam leaned across the table for her drink Sophie’s pale hand, with its blood red nails, grasped my arm.
“You are with an airline?”
“Yes, Pan Am.”
“You are here long?”
“We go to Pairs tomorrow.”
She stood up suddenly, pulling me to my feet. “Of course, Jennifer, I will show you to the ladies room.” The grip on my arm tightened, but I smiled. “Excuse us, please.” No one seemed to notice. The women were huddled over the table, whispering in Farsi.
Sophie pushed me down onto the silk upholstered chaise lounge in the ladies room. She said something in Farsi to the attendant and pushed a handful of rials into her apron. The woman scurried out. Sophie looked in the marble bathroom scanning the stalls for signs of other occupants, then sat down abruptly.
“Do you have paper?” I did. I always carried a pen and small notepad in my purse. Sophie began to write in Danish.
She pushed the pad back in my purse. “Take this to the Danish Embassy in Paris. Tell them to call my father to get me out of here.”
“Why can’t you go to the embassy here in Tehran?”
“I am a prisoner in my own home. I can never go anywhere without my husband or unless I am with other women. That bitch Maryam is my husband’s aunt. She watches me, goes with me, always. When I said I wanted to go back to Denmark, my husband broke my arm.”
Her eyes were desperate. “You are my last chance, Jennifer. Please!”
“I will, you’ve got my word. You’ll be free as…” I stopped. A metaphor would seem trite.
“As free as you are, Jennifer? “ Sophie’s tone was bitter. “I’ve seen girls like you in your little uniforms, flying off to Rio and Rome, living a life you were not born to. But you will trade your freedom like I did. You don’t value it.”
I embraced her –– as much to stop her talking as to comfort her.
“Stay strong –– and fix your eye makeup. Your mascara is running.”
The Danish Embassy in Paris was on the Avenue Marceau. I told a bored young consular officer I had information about a Danish national held against her will in Iran. He didn’t react until he saw the notepad. He excused himself and left me sitting for nearly an hour. He returned and spoke in quick, clipped tones. The Danish government appreciates your concern. We have taken the matter under advisement. We are keeping the note as evidence. No, we cannot tell you the outcome. It is a confidential matter. Good Day.
The embassy was closing as I walked out. There was a cafe across the street and I ordered a glass of Merlot and glumly watched as a guard came out and began to lower the red and white Danish flag.
I didn’t see the prim, middle-aged lady slip into the chair beside me. “I am Anna Holm, secretary to the Ambassador. The young woman you are trying to help is the daughter of a very rich, very influential Danish industrialist. He disowned her when she married this Persian man. He won’t help her and if the Embassy does, there will be trouble.”
“You mean he’s going to leave her there to rot?”
“Yes. The Ambassador himself called Mr. Madsen. Sophie defied him and now he is punishing her.”
“But there must be something you can do! You can’t allow this to happen!”
“There is nothing to be done. If somehow she gets out of the house and to the Danish Embassy, it would still be very difficult to get her out of the country. These husbands hold all the cards.” She groped in her purse and pulled out a pack of Gauloise. Her hand trembled.
“I know what I’m talking about. My sister married a Moroccan she met at the Sorbonne. She lives in Rabat. We think. She has children. We think. We have not heard from her in five years –– not even a Gledelig Jul. My mother keeps a lighted candle in the window for her day and night.”
“But surely you could help your sister, with your connections. Countries have to protect their citizens!”
Mrs. Holm patted my hand. “You poor girl,” she sighed. “You Americans think you can fix everything. You must learn that you cannot.” And suddenly, she was gone. The only sign she had been there was the cigarette, still smoldering.
Time passed. The Shah fell and the Ayatollahs ruled. American hostages were paraded by Revolutionary Guards. Terrorists blew up one of our planes over Scotland and finally, Pan Am folded its proud wings.
I married a well-known divorce lawyer from Los Angeles. We had a house in Bel Air and entertaining for his firm become my occupation. Movie stars and moguls admired the gardens over cocktails or cut deals by the pool at Sunday brunch. I organized charity galas, screenings and political fundraisers. My husband ruthlessly controlled the guest list. Fortunately, my best friend –– my only real friend –– was married to an A-list producer. Emma Wexler met her husband on a British Airways flight. We shared everything –– therapists, prescription drugs, and our husbands’ infidelities.
“Do you ever miss flying, Jen?” Emma became introspective on her second martini.
“Not really. I don’t think about it much.”
“Crikey, I do. I miss the freedom. Going where you want to go. Every day different. Taking up with whomever you fancy.”
“But it wouldn’t last,” I said.
Emma pondered her empty glass. “And this will?”
“Come this way, Mrs. Nazari! Rosita is ready for your fitting!” Consuelo, the chief vendeuse at Valentino, led a slim blond woman towards the fitting rooms. Twenty years had passed but I had not forgotten Sophie Madsen Nazari. The blue eyes were even wider now, with the unblinking astonishment of the frequently facelifted. “Sophie! Do you remember me –– Jennifer Galvin? From Pan Am. We met in Tehran. For years, I’ve wondered what happened to you.” She stared and when she spoke, her tone was harsh. “Yes, I remember you. But you couldn’t help. My father abandoned me.”
“But you’re here in the States.”
“Nothing has changed. We came here just before the Revolution. Dara is a snake but he saw it coming and we got out with our money –– his money. Now I am trapped in a house in Beverly Hills instead of Tehran.”
She glanced towards the door where a burly chauffeur waited. “Sometimes I get out. But always with company.”
“I’m so sorry. I tried.”
“I know you did. A woman at the Danish Embassy in Paris managed to telephone me. When Dara found out, he beat me senseless. “
“But this is America –– you could get help.”
“Who will help me? My brother? He has my father’s money and he hates me as much as he did. You, Jennifer? The great hostess, in the society pages! Perhaps your husband, the famous attorney, can do something! He handled Reza Zahedi’s divorce last year. His wife is penniless.”
I cringed. I knew what Stephen did –– the fortunes saved or lost, the lives wrecked. The ugly agreements made under a smokescreen of Cristal and caviar that I created. I did my job well. And I could lose it at any time.
Sophie took my hand. “I thank you, Jennifer. You took a chance for me once. But no woman is really free.”
She turned and followed Consuelo into the fitting room. I could feel the chauffeur’s eyes on me as I left the store and started down Rodeo Drive. And I knew he was still watching as I began to run.
Anne Sweeney is president of Anne Sweeney Public Relations in South Brunswick. She is a member of the Princeton Philadelphia Chapter of World Wings International, the philanthropic organization of former flight attendants of Pan American World Airways.