By George Capsis
“You gotta go to Iran for Campbell’s Soup” was the demand by a Chase guy who I never thought of as out-ranking me but who was obviously elbowing out my anointed boss—the college roommate of a Rockefeller relative, a super WASP with a name like Pennypacker (he offered his wife’s Mayflower lineage on his resume) and he, Pennypacker headed a Chase newsletter on emerging markets composed on the 52nd floor of one World Trade Center (one of my fans who got me to start International Market Development died there on 9/11). I was hired based on my sale of the first American computer behind the Iron Curtain (Poland)—it was 1979, a year before the Shah was ousted.
I took the train down to Camden where Campbell’s had, since 1873, had their soup factory. The plant was like its soup recipes—captured in time—nothing was changed from the day they opened the door. The overly large very brown shabby executive office into which I was ushered had, as you came in, a desk and typewriter for the secretary (she sat in the same room). Over her typewriter was a hinged hood she could lower to muffle her typing during a meeting. My mission was to fly to Iran immediately to meet a Campbell executive who was supposedly in negotiations to license the raising of chicken for a Halal version of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup.
Dry, dry, dry was my impression as my BA London flight took me over miles and miles of desolate landscape to Tehran. We came down late in the evening and the airport was near closed—no currency exchange—no limo to the city—no cabs—no English, so I asked our very young British pilot if I could hitch a ride on the BA bus to the, at that time, only good international hotel—his very proper British protocol made him hesitate for an agonizing second and then a reluctant “yes”.
“Sorry sir we have no rooms” the hotel clerk intoned without looking at me—oh wow this was beginning to be a nightmare. I was in a Muslim country that was just entering the 20th century. I asked if my Campbell Soup guy had a reservation and he offered, “yes” so I announced I was to share his room till he got in.
My Campbell’s executive was from farm country, hence his knowledge of chicken farming, and he was not happy to find a slick New Yorker as his roommate nor was he happy to be in, for him, a very alien Muslim culture (how much it affected him I was to find out shortly).
“Iran is owned by 200 families,” offered the young scion of one of those families (let us call him Darius) and it was Darius’s family that wanted to raise the Campbell’s chickens.
I thought US college educated Darius, now a fledgling diplomat in the Iranian embassy in Paris— what was he doing negotiating a chicken farm—but I realized he was the new generation. He spoke English, his parents probably not or not as well.
The new oil wealth had spawned more cars than the cart trail streets could manage, and I witnessed a cab emerge from bumper to bumper traffic and race down the empty oncoming traffic lane before popping back and I realized “these people have just dropped off the camel into driver seats—wow, life is cheap here.”
It was July 4th and I got an invitation to the shabby American Embassy reception and met the top executive of the Palevi Foundation the Shah’s family investment company “Come and see us tomorrow at our office, we are building luxury apartment complex.” No matter how I explained that I may have Chase on my card, but I was not in investments, he insisted he had somebody for me to meet. (Months later I viewed the Times photo of three American business men being led blindfolded from that same embassy.)
I cabbed to the highest office building in Iran—it stood like a mast in the center of a sprawling city that made its way up to the surrounding steep hills that had unsuccessfully protected it from the invading army of Alexander the Great and elevated up to the tippy top floor. The elevator opened to the entire top floor surrounded by windows—all of Tehran—all of Iran was the commanding view.
“I want you to meet a fellow American,” my Pahlavi host announced, and as he ushered me to the center of the room I became aware of a shirt-sleeved middle age man intently focused on paper work.
“Mr. Capsis I want to present US Senator John Murphy.” I blurted “Senator Murphy, you are MY Senator, what are you doing working for the Pahlavi Foundation”? He coolly explained that during the recession the Pahlavi Foundation was one of the few to build in Manhattan (their headquarters on 5th Avenue—it is still there). (He was later indicted in the Abscam bribery scandal).
When I got back to the hotel there was a note from my Campbell’s executive that he couldn’t take it and he had taken an early flight to Kansas—oh wow, for me as a second generation half Greek, half German New Yorker, Tehran was like going to an ethic neighborhood in Queens—for him it was a nightmare.
“So what do you want to do for your last night in Tehran” young Darius offered and I said “I want to go to a place where no tourist ever goes” and that evening his cab picked me up and he introduced me to his and my “dates,” two US-college-educated Iranian girls/women a bit too old a bit too brash and certainly too loud—they had obviously missed the Iranian marriage cycle.
The cab stopped before the old city—the Kasbah—and we had to walk. Just seconds after entering its weirdly tortured streets, I had the rare frightened conviction that I was lost and without Darius I would never be able to find my way out.
We stopped in front of a new large gray cinder block building and were ushered into the main L-shaped room. All of the seats were arranged in front of a stage and they were all occupied by men, only men
The only women in that room that night were the two Darius had brought. we were offered a table in the back to watch the show—a tired version of old fashion US vaudeville with a succession of acts. The men young and old sat in rapt attention, some fingering their prayer beads
To the right of the Stage, very high up, was a big reproduction of a color painting of Shah Pahlavi (his portrait was everywhere even on the side of shoeshine boxes). The portrait was held up by a gold satin cord. As I looked, I saw one side of the cord had broken and the Shah was precariously swinging. I said to our English speaking waiter “The Shah is falling” only to receive his worried furrowed brow look and his political agreement “I know” until I made him turn to view the swinging portrait and he scurried off to save the Shah. Minutes later, a worried team began to place one small table on top of another to reach the dangling Shah—they had no ladder that could reach him—this was right out of a circus clown act and I pulled out my camera and took a few shots.
Some minutes later, our waiter bent down to whisper in Darius’s ear and as he did I could see Darius turn white —he informed me that the large group of men at the next table was the “deuxime bureau” the secret police, the feared Savak and its chief at the head of that table saw me take the photo and he wanted the roll of film.
A wave of anger overcame me. I had campaigned for the release of my cousin John Capsis from prison in Greece after his arrest for an article attacking the military junta and they had secretly barred me from entry (I unsuspectingly had flown from Warsaw to Athens only to discover my name was in a card file at the passport desk and they would not let me in. I vented my rage on the clerk behind his barred window and took the next flight out to Vienna.) I hated secret police.
“Please give them the roll of film” Darius pleaded. To gain control I said I would, but they could only retain the photo of the dangling Shah and they had to send me any other shots. To really rub it in I added that I hadn’t finished the roll and would give it to them when we left.
The waiter who had to convey this message to boss of the Savak sitting at the head of a table of his henchmen (who may have been his torture team after a hard days work) was visibly sick as he walked over to whisper the message into the ear of a massive dark man who looked across at me as he heard my words. I sensed waves of unimaginable rage and unfathomable hatred roll across the room—I had humiliated him in front of his men!
That was the end of the evening for me and my hosts, and I thought of nothing but getting out of the place. I rewound the film and took it out of the camera and put it into my pocket before standing to go. We hadn’t gone a few feet when the waiter ran over to ask for the film.
The next morning my unease continued and I called for an earlier flight. As the plane took off a few people applauded their escape.
At the Christopher Street photo shop I opened the envelope to view my Iran photos and all the prints were black. “What happened” I asked the owner and he explained by shutter was broke and none of the film was exposed.
When I got back home I got a call from Darius who pleaded with me to send him the shots of the falling Shah “You substituted a roll of unexposed film”.
Months later the Shah did fall.