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The Begum Aga Khan III-2000-07-03

Monday, 2000, July 3

Daily Telegraph

Daily Telegraph

HER HIGHNESS THE BEGUM AGA KHAN III, who has died aged 94, became her husband's fourth wife in 1944, and over the next 13 years proved that dissimilarity of background is no bar to a happy marriage.

The Aga Khan III, spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect of Muslims, was one of the most remarkable men of his time. He achieved much through his religious office without ever allowing it to spoil his enjoyment of Western society. He was also a highly sophisticated diplomat, who exercised a significant influence in international affairs, frequently to the benefit of Britain.

His fourth wife, by contrast, was a French tram conductor's daughter, who made no intellectual claims, and was 29 years younger then him. Yet, the Aga Khan wrote: "If a perfectly happy marriage be one in which there is a genuine and complete union and understanding, on the spiritual, mental and emotional planes, ours is such."

In 1954 he named her Mat Salamat (Spiritual Mother) of the Ismaili. She was also Om Habibeh (Little Mother of the Beloved). She rarely left his side, and nursed him devotedly through the pains of old age until his death in 1957. But her duty was also a delight. She never ceased to be grateful for the manner in which he had widened her horizons, especially in music and the arts. "Enjoy yourself," he told her. "It's later than you think."

To the end of her days the Begum remained both conscious of her great good fortune, and totally unpretentious. Privilege and immense wealth enhanced her instinctive elegance and taste, without ever undermining her naturalness, simplicity and enthusiasm for life. Her only sadness was that she never had any children.

At the same time, her conversion to Islam - in contrast to her husband's two previous wives, who had remained Christian - showed that she meant to support his religious mission. Over four decades of widowhood (she never thought of remarrying) she remained loyal to this endeavour, keeping in contact with the Ismaili community throughout the world.

The Begum also ran a charitable foundation which tackled poverty in Aswan, Egypt, where she inherited her husband's villa by the Nile. At home in Cannes, she established a home for the elderly. It was not in her nature either to forget, or to try to hide, her humble origins.

She was born Yvette Blanche Labrousse on February 15 1906, at Sète, near Montpellier. When she was only six months old her family moved to Cannes, where they lived in a flat in the rue d'Antibes. Yvette grew up tall, more than six feet, and very beautiful, and in 1930 became Miss France. Having been strictly raised, however, she showed no disposition to accept the film and modelling offers that came her way; instead, she went to work with her mother, who was running a dress shop.

Yet Yvette Labrousse was no longer a provincial; she visited London several times before the Second World War - and attended a party where the Aga Khan was present. They were introduced to each other in Cairo in 1938. After their marriage, the Aga Khan built a villa for her at Le Cannet above Cannes, on a hillside which she had once looked on to from the flat in the rue d'Antibes. They called it Yakimour, a combination of their two sets of initials with the word "amour". There Rita Hayworth came with her husband Aly Khan - and had to be smuggled out rolled up in carpet to escape the journalists who, the Begum recalled, were "under every mimosa bush".

In 1949 the Begum and the Aga Khan were driving to Nice airport when they were stopped by armed bandits who snatched the Begum's jewel box, the contents of which were then estimated at £200,000. "Hi, come back, you've forgotten your tip," shouted the Aga Khan, tossing the thieves a few more francs.

In the Aga Khan's will he made the Begum, "in whose judgment I place the greatest confidence", the adviser of his successor (his grandson rather than his son) for seven years. But his widow was too tactful to insist upon this duty. It was disappointing, though, that the invitation to the new Aga Khan's enthronement in Pakistan should have arrived late.

As a widow, she travelled widely both for charity and for pleasure. She was a regular face at Ascot (she herself owned several horses), where she always caught the eye. Her advice on fashion was typically sensible: "Don't choose what you like, but what suits you. To be elegant one must have discretion. The secret is in the details."

She continued to live at Yakimour, though she always spent three months a year in the villa at Aswan, the site of her husband's mausoleum. When they were married, the Begum, a talented sculptress, had made a cast of the Aga Khan and spoken frankly of her difficulties. "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."

But there was no doubting her enduring devotion. "Now all I have left to hope for," she said recently, "is that Allah will take me to his side."

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