Cynthia Helms & the American Fashion Gala in Iran: “land of the Aryans”

CYNTHIA HELMS (1924-2019)

“Three thousand years ago the Aryans, a group of tribes of Indo-European origin, swept down from the north to the central plateau in two separate waves.  They called their territory Iran, ‘land of the Aryans.’”—Cynthia Helms, An Ambassador’s Wife in Iran

I didn’t realize it at the time of our US bicentennial fashion tour to Iran and Kuwait in April 1976, but Cynthia Helms,  wife of Richard Helms—former CIA director and US ambassador to Iran (1973-1977)—played a key role in facilitating our visit.

US Ambassador to Iran, former CIA Director RICHARD  HELMS, Tehran Fashion Gala, April 1976

An accomplished woman, Cynthia Helms was born in England and served in its Women’s Royal Naval Service in World War II. She later made America her home, married Richard Helms, and for many years hosted Radio Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., interviewing various political and cultural figures. Cynthia Helms was the author of several books,  among them, An Ambassador’s Wife in Iran, which I recently discovered.

Our paths would cross in Tehran, April 1976.  I was a New York runway fashion model at the time, on hiatus from my career in journalism after several years as a writer/editor at Hearst Magazines and had booked out of the Spring shows mostly out of curiosity about the Persian/Arabian Gulf.  It was a part of the world just really opening up to America.

Needless to say, that visit would change my life.

 SUZAN MAZUR wearing Sant’ Angelo, Royal Tehran Hilton runway, April 1976. Iran’s Queen Mother, Farideh Diba, first row–far right; Cynthia/ Mrs. Richard Helms, 3rd from right.
Suzan Mazur, Kuwait Times, April 1976
SUZAN MAZUR, Kuwait Equestrian Club runway, April 1976.  Dress by Bill Blass; Jewels, David Webb. 

American Designer Fashions was the name of the production.  Sadly, the show’s producers and all but two of the designers presenting are now gone.

Iran - American Fashion Designers

As it turned out, we weren’t only bringing “America’s new couture” to Iran. We were promoting America’s Declaration of Independence, which graced the cover of the fashion gala program distributed to all in attendance at the Royal Tehran Hilton.  We were introducing America’s culinary delights from various corners of the country as well as its wine.  We were modeling a million dollars in jewels from David Webb and wearing the latest vibrant colors from Estée Lauder  and were accompanied by its executives.

Suzan, Koos dress, David Webb necklace
SUZAN MAZUR, Tehran Fashion Gala.  Dress, Koos Van Den Akker; Jewels, David Webb.

I wore this Pauline Trigère  dress “traced with rhinestones” on Iranian television (I sometimes wonder what happened to footage of the show):

Pauline Trigere dress - crop

Cynthia and Richard Helms have died too. But Cynthia’s terrific book: An Ambassador’s Wife in Iran, published in 1981, references her visit to Bill Blass with her husband “Dick” for advice about what to wear in Iran prior to their 1973 move there.

Richard Nixon’s displeasure with Richard Helms for failing to support him on Watergate led to his ouster as CIA chief and reassignment as ambassador to Tehran. Cynthia Helms notes that Nixon really wanted to send Richard Helms to Moscow.

She describes the Bill Blass showroom visit:

“I needed hats to wear when the Empress received me for an audience, clothes suitable for a Moslem country, for desert travel, and for the rural areas. But Iran is also mountainous and there is snow in the winter.  Bill Blass, the designer, agreed to advise me.  Dick came with me to Bill’s New York showrooms and was very helpful, too, until actress Fay Dunaway appeared on the other side of the clothes racks and diverted his attention.”

It’s possible that Cynthia Helms was introduced to Blass by Nancy Kissinger, whose visit to Tehran in August 1976 with Henry and his “considerable entourage” is described at length in the Helms book. Apparently, the Helms’s private apartment in the embassy residence was spared from takeover—a four-room space they paid rent for, featuring a “bathroom with a large black marble bath.”

I remember seeing Nancy Kissinger more than once in the mid-70s going through the revolving door at 550 Seventh Avenue, a building that housed the Blass showroom and those of other top designers I modeled for.  I also recall her walking rapidly up Fifth Avenue one morning around that time, alone, in ankle-length fur coat and flats, smoking quite intensely.

Cynthia Helms reveals that Nancy Kissinger had surgery for a stomach ulcer prior to the Kissinger Iran visit and was drinking only ginger ale, fortunately arriving with her own “six-pack” since there was no ginger ale to be found in Tehran.

There was Coca-Cola, though.  I had some at a jumping contest at the Shah’s imperial stables in Tehran several months earlier.  I was invited to the event by an American negotiating a contract to build earthquake-proof houses in Iran.

I would meet Henry Kissinger two decades later—many years after resuming my journalism career—at an event in Manhattan where he, Richard Holbrooke, and then Foreign Affairs editor James F. Hoge, Jr. were speaking.  I took the opportunity to ask Kissinger about Kashmir, having recently covered the crisis there from both India and Pakistan.

Kissinger at the time was on the payroll of the Indian government and publicly dismissed the Kashmir freedom fighters as “rag-tag.”  But privately, i.e., once offstage and during a prolonged handshake—a Kissinger handshake is also somewhat engulfing—he confessed that Kashmir was a “terrible tragedy.”

Blass was dubbed the “Senator of Seventh Avenue” and was “under Chinese influence” following the Kissinger/Nixon visit to China in the early 70s.  I was a model in Blass’s China theme show at the Pierre Hotel on May 6, 1975, surprised and amused to find myself the next day on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily in turban and silk charmeuse coolie jacket-pants ensemble.

Suzan Mazur (top, center), Tasha Bauer (bottom, left), Billie Blair (bottom, right) - Bill Blass show, 1975 WWD, photo by Bill Cunningham

Cynthia Helms took a serious interest in the status of Iranian women, traveled widely in the country, and was close to Tehran’s International Women’s Club—a sponsor of our fashion gala, along with the royal family.

Iran Fashion Gala - vignette

Tehran Journal - 2

She also befriended esteemed archaeologist David Stronach and his wife, Ruth. David, who died in 2020, was at the time of the Helms stay in Iran  director of the British Institute for Persian Studies and was excavating in Kermanshah province. He left Iran around the time of the 1979 revolution.

In 2005,  then University of California, Berkeley Professor David Stronach helped me put an end to the Dorak Treasure hoax, and “Dorak enterprise,” telling me in a  telephone interview that Dorak was a fantasy, a “dream-like episode” of British archaeologist James Mellaart. Stronach and Mellaart were friends, and Stronach, in fact, admitted to writing  part of Mellaart’s Dorak Treasure monograh.  Stronach and Mellaart were also friends of archaeologist Max Mallowan and his wife, Agatha Christie—-both of whom Cynthia Helms mentions.

Cynthia Helms studied the language of the country as well and translated some of its folk literature. Frankly, I’m sorry I didn’t read her book about Iran sooner.

So what went wrong in Iran?  Writes Cynthia Helms quoting the Shah during her visit with hubby Dick to the Shah’s bedside at a New York hospital in 1979:

“‘Why did you want to destroy what we had?’ he asked. This was in reference to his conviction that the Carter administration wanted him out of the way and a new government more to its liking to replace it in Tehran.

‘Why was General Huyser [Deputy Commander of U.S. forces in Europe], a U.S. Army officer, sent to Tehran by your government?  What were his instructions?  Why was I not informed that he was coming?  Why was he meeting with the generals of the Iranian Army?  Why did President Carter’s wife write to the Empress, assuring us of American support, if you did not mean it?’”

Cynthia Helms says she then asked the Shah why he chose to leave Iran, to which the Shah replied:

“To avoid bloodshed.  That is the difference between a king and a dictator.”

One thought on “Cynthia Helms & the American Fashion Gala in Iran: “land of the Aryans”

  1. I am currently engaged in a debate with some friends, in which I argue that the seemingly stringent restrictions imposed on Iranian society are the price for that nation’s stability in the international arena. If one must sacrifice some freedoms to stay alive, what will one choose?


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