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The Begum's Love Story-2000-07-01

Saturday, 2000, July 1

TRANSFORMED from a lowly tram conductor's daughter, via the position of Miss France, into the most glamorous princess in the Oriental world, the Begum Aga Khan died having been a widow for 43 years. She had married the late Aga Khan III, the 48th hereditary Imam of the Ismaili Muslim community which has a following of 15 million people worldwide, as his fourth and final wife. The current Aga Khan is his grandson.

The Begum first caught the Aga Khan's eye when she danced a tango at a party thrown by an Egyptian princess. She was holidaying at the Mena House Hotel in the shadow of the pyramids outside Cairo, a city his ancestors, the Fatimid Caliphs, had built in the 10th century. After her conversion to Islam, they were married in the city during a religious ceremony in 1938 and thoughout the forthcoming years he introduced her to the delights of the Orient. They also bought a villa overlooking the Nile at Aswan, 580 miles south of Cairo. After the Aga Khan's divorce from his third wife, Andrée Carron, the couple enjoyed a civil wedding in Geneva in 1944 attended by the British Consul-General from Zurich, emphasising the couple's ties with this country (the British rulers in India gave him the title His Highness, and as a religious leader he was exempt from taxes).

The Aga Khan was a well-known international figure who advised European royalty and served as the president of the League of Nations in Geneva during the late 1930s. He was the founding president of the Muslim League in 1906 in what was then British India, and later played a significant role in the movement to establish the Muslim state of Pakistan. Considered the richest man in the world, on the diamond jubilee of his succession as Aga Khan he was weighed in diamonds. He and the Begum were regular players on the London social scene, frequently entering their horses in the Derby, which he won five times.

In the south of France (where the Aga Khan built a villa for the Begum named Yakymour, a combination of their combined initials - Yvette Aga Khan - and the French word for love, amour) they became the most glittering hosts in Europe. During the Cannes film festival they held parties and dinners at the villa, which was famous for its exquisite gardens, to which the great and the good were invariably invited.

Among their many guests at Yaskymour were the Duke of Edinburgh, Somerset Maugham and Rita Hayworth (who was briefly married to the Aga Khan's son from an earlier marriage, Aly Khan). In 1956 the couple were guests at the fairy tale wedding of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco. Not surprisingly, Yakymour was frequently besieged by journalists and photographers anxious for pictures or snatches of gossip. "One had the impression that there was a journalist hidden behind every mimosa bush," complained the Begum.

On one occasion Rita Hayworth was so exasperated by the media that she had herself rolled up in a thick Turkish carpet and spirited away in a removal van in front of the eyes of the world's unsuspecting newspaper reporters - something the Aga Khan later disapproved of: "If at times we do wonderful things like my winning the Derby or my son marrying the prettiest girl in the world," he said, "we must not be surprised if the newspapers come after us for news."

When the Aga Khan and the Begum were ambushed by bandits while leaving Yakymour for Nice airport one day in 1949, the Aga Khan called after the robbers, who had stolen jewels worth £200,000, "Here you are, gentlemen. You have forgotten something," and handed them a tip. Three hundred police and security guards were mobilised and eventually some of the property was recovered and the perpetrators brought to justice.

In 1954 the Aga Khan, himself a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, conferred on the Begum the title Mata Salamat (Spiritual Mother) of the Ismaili; he also named her Om Habibeh, Little Mother of the Beloved. That year she performed the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims should undertake once during their lifetime.

The Begum grew into a woman of exquisite taste and culture. "We are passionately fond of Wagner's music," she exclaimed during one interview. With her husband she travelled extensively and they patronised many artistic events. She always maintained that it was the Aga Khan who taught her everything she knew: "Of course, I always appreciate beauty," she said. "But he taught me how really to enjoy a lovely sunset, moonlight, to know the stars, the colours and scents of flowers, to like music, ballet and opera, to appreciate everything that is beautiful in life. Most important, he taught me to love Islam."

She became an accomplished sculptress, once telling a story against herself of how she set off from Paris to their home in Egypt with an enormous packing case full of clay. She was stopped by Egyptian customs who told her how the clay from Aswan was the finest in the world. "So I threw away the contents of the French packing case and when we came home I filled it with Aswan clay which I brought triumphantly back to Paris," she recollected with glee many years later.

During her husband's last years, when she was nursing him through old age, the Begum made a clay bust of the Aga Khan that, unlike other images, portrayed him without his horn-rimmed spectacles. "I am afraid my husband has a very difficult face to carve," she explained to a newspaper interviewer. "Consider his eyes, for instance. They are not the same. As for his nose - well, it is not a straight nose, though it is a very small one. . ."

She was born Yvette Blanche Labrousse in Sète, near Montpellier, the daughter of a tram conductor and a seamstress. At the age of six months her family moved to a small flat in the Rue d'Antibes in Cannes, overlooking the land where many years later the Aga Khan would build Yakymour. They were later to move to Lyons.

Tall, statuesque and extremely beautiful, Labrousse soon rose above her provincial origins and, after winning the Miss Lyons title in 1929, became Miss France in 1930. She visited Rio de Janeiro for the Miss World competition but on that occasion the title escaped her. She became something of a personality, modelling clothes and judging beauty contests. However, she shied away from the offers of film roles and modelling assignments that were showered upon her, choosing instead to work with her mother at their shop in Cannes.

After the Aga Khan's death in 1957 the Begum, the richest and loneliest woman in the Islamic world, began to lead something of a nomadic existence, migrating between Yakymour, Aswan and the family's Villa Barakat at Versoix, by Lake Geneva. She also bought a motor-cruiser to sail around the Mediterranean with her father and later became embroiled in a row with the family when the new Aga Khan and his father, Aly Khan, wanted to sell the Geneva property. She preferred to convert it into a shrine for Ismaili Muslims, with whom she continued to keep in touch.

Despite these irritations, the Begum was an elegant widow. Although she remained a regular and popular fixture at society events in both England and the south of France for many years, she entertained no further suitors. She contributed to numerous charitable causes, particularly those involving women's welfare and those concerning poverty relief in Aswan, where she donated equipment and materials to hospitals and schools.

Every day for 43 years either the Begum or Sheikh Ahmed Ibrahim, whom she hired in 1963 to spend eight hours a day chanting verses from the Koran over her late husband's tomb, laid a fresh red rose at the Aga Khan's sandstone mausoleum in Aswan where she is now buried next to him.

The couple had no children. She is survived by her stepson, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and three step-grandchildren including the current Aga Khan.

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