SI Vault
Joe David Brown
March 23, 1959
His Highness, Prince Aly Khan, Pakistan's representative at the U.N., has won fame and kept his fortune by defying this old maxim
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March 23, 1959

Beware Of Women And Horses

His Highness, Prince Aly Khan, Pakistan's representative at the U.N., has won fame and kept his fortune by defying this old maxim

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There is some evidence that Aly's headlong pace grows even faster when he is under a strain or bored. In the winter of 1949 he and Rita Hayworth took a chalet in Switzerland while awaiting the birth of their daughter, Yasmin. Over a period of several months, before and after the event, during which Rita was unable to accompany him on his dizzy whirl, Aly showed increasing signs of restlessness. "I've been around this place too damned long," he complained to friends. "I'm bored stiff." To burn off some of his excess energy, he took to haunting the ski slopes of Gstaad. He had always been something of a daredevil skier and had broken his leg twice. Now he became a demon on the trails.

"He seemed determined to break his neck," recalls an acquaintance. Aly did almost that. He took a nasty fall and broke his right leg in seven places. It was many weeks before he was up and hobbling around on two sticks, his leg still in a cast. "I guess I'm being paid out for all my sins," he grinningly told reporters. Even now only a few people know what a mess he made of the bones and tissues in his leg. "For a long time the doctors didn't think they would be able to save it," Aly admitted not long ago. "It was touch and go."

What gives Aly his unusual propulsion? Nowadays, when even film critics consider themselves qualified psychoanalysts, it is generally held that the answer can be found in his childhood. Hereditarians, if they were so inclined, could just as plausibly point to his ancestry. On the male side Aly claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali, as well as descent from the Fatimite Caliphs of Egypt and a long line of Persian noblemen. The exploits of some of these old noblemen make Aly's seem piddling by comparison. A notable and fairly recent example was Aly's great-grandfather, a colorful, dashing and extremely virile gentleman named Hasan Ali Shah. Among a vast retinue, Hasan had a well-mounted cavalry troop of 800 men, and he is claimed to have sired every one of them. He was the first Aga Khan, a title meaning Lord Chief and Viceroy, which he acquired when the Shah of Persia made him ruler of the rich province of Kerman. More important, because of his alleged direct descent from the Prophet, Mohammed Hasan was the 46th hereditary Imam—or spiritual chief—of the Ismailis. The Ismailis are a sect of the Shia Moslems, the smaller of two branches of Islam which were created when there was a schism in the ranks of the faithful after the death of the Prophet. The break occurred when the minority group, which became the Shias, thought the Prophet's son-in-law Ali should have been chosen to succeed him. The majority group, later to be called the Sunnis, preferred one Abu Bakr, Mohammed's father-in-law. Thus history repeated itself after a fashion some 1,300 years later when the present Aly also found himself passed over, though the family titles continued in a direct line by going to his older son, and so far there has been no organized protest because Aly was bypassed.

The first Aga Khan eventually lost favor with the Shah and he and his followers fled to India and settled in Bombay and Poona. There the Aga became a firm friend and trusted servant of the British and lived out a long life of peace and luxury, surrounded by numerous retainers and progeny. His own son survived him only a few years, and in 1885—when he was only 8—Aly's father succeeded to the two titles of Aga Khan and Imam of the Ismailis.

A surprising number of people have only the foggiest notion of what the late Aga Khan was really like. Probably it is because he was the victim of what surely must rate as the worst public relations blunder in history when he allowed his zealous and well-meaning followers to revive an old Oriental custom and weigh him against gold, diamonds and platinum to mark those respective anniversaries of his long reign. Because of these ostentatious affairs most people remember the Aga as a myopic and corpulent old character, wearing what looked like fancy lodge regalia, sitting on a scale while his followers lugged up precious stones or bullion to lift his bulk.

Actually, the Aga was an erudite, witty, worldly-wise but also—according to the tenets of his particular Islamic sect—deeply religious old gentleman. If for no other reason, he deserves some niche in history because he lived to be almost 80 and said he had never been bored in his life. The weighings gave rise to all sorts of fantastic tales about the Aga, including a particularly durable one that he bottled his bath water and sold it to his followers. It is almost forgotten that the Aga did yeoman service in the old League of Nations, served as its president in 1937 and for more than a half century carried out many delicate and difficult missions for the British in the Middle East and Asia. It was in large part because of his canny maneuvering that the countries of the Middle East remained loyal to the Allies in World War I.

The Aga also was something of a financial genius. He never considered, that his title of Imam meant merely that he was supposed to give spiritual counsel to his flock. He also looked after their well-being. It was by his edict that the Ismailis were the first Moslem sect to abolish the veil and free women from purdah. He established community funds which he invested with such shrewdness that today the Ismailis are the best-fed, best-housed and best-educated Moslem sect in the world. Even the ill-considered weighings served a purpose. The gold, diamonds and platinum used were only borrowed or hired. After the ceremony they were returned, and the equivalent in cash was paid, not to the Aga, but into various welfare and educational funds established to aid the Ismaili community as a whole. The Ismailis supported the Aga, of course, and he looked after his personal fortune as cleverly as he did theirs. Toward the end of his 71-year reign he had grown so enormously rich that he probably donated more to the Ismailis than he received.

The Aga married a cousin, a dark-eyed Indian princess named Shahzadi, when he was only 20. It was not a happy marriage, and they soon drifted apart. Eleven years later, by which, time the Aga had become a familiar figure in the capitals of Europe, he married Theresa Magliano, a slim, beautiful and brunette ballerina of the Ballet Opera of Monte Carlo. Begum Theresa was Italian, and although she was only 19 at the time of her marriage she already had won acclaim in the ballet at La Scala in Milan and at the Opera House in Paris. She was the mother of Aly Khan.

Aly was not his parents' first child. A year after their marriage the young begum had a son who was named Mohadi. He was a sickly baby and lived for only two years. It was a tragedy which had a profound effect on Aly's upbringing. It may, as some people believe, account for some of his actions today.

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