Hiding her ample frame beneath an outfit more suited to the depths of winter than a warm day in June — thick, red overcoat, scarf, cardigan, capacious black smock and ankle-length skirt — the elderly woman drew not a flicker of recognition from fellow passengers as she struggled aboard a double-decker bus with her shopping trolley.
She wore no make-up, straggles of mousy hair poked beneath her floppy hat, and the Velcro straps fastening her scuffed blue trainers spoke of someone who no longer relishes the task of bending down to laces.
Study her more closely, however, and you could detect the merest hint of bygone glamour. Pensioners don’t ordinarily sport inch-long nails buffed with nude varnish. And there was just something about her . . . those fine features, those piercing eyes.
Perhaps the most telling clue to her identity came from the paperback novel visible through her transparent handbag. James Patterson’s thriller Honeymoon is described as a ‘sizzling, twisting tale of a woman with a deadly appetite and the men who dare to fall for her’.
This ample, unassuming pensioner walking to the 430 bus is Soraya Khashoggi who, between the early 60s and mid-80s was perhaps the world’s most beguiling femme fatale
Soraya romanced enough men to fill a slim volume of Who’s Who: actors such as Warren Beatty and Sammy Davis Jr and debauched director Roman Polanski
Its heroine has ‘the looks . . . the clothes, the wit, the sophistication, the tantalising sex appeal. The whole extraordinary package — and men fall in line to court her. She doesn’t just attract men, she enthrals them’ . . . and there is something decidedly ‘dangerous’ about her.
Turn back the clock several decades, and the publisher’s blurb would have succinctly described the old woman on the number 430 bus herself.
For this was Soraya Khashoggi, between the early Sixties and the mid-Eighties perhaps the world’s most beguiling femme fatale, her mere name synonymous with the most outlandish excesses of glamour and decadence.
Born in Leicester in 1941 as plain Sandra Daly, and raised in hardship by her mother, her life was utterly transformed 20 years later when she married billionaire Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi.
She was whisked into a life of unimaginable privilege, festooned with diamonds and furs, waited on by legions of servants, swanning between 17 homes in his three private jets, and hobnobbing with stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra.
Then, after a vicious divorce battle that made lurid headlines (she had her husband’s jets impounded; he ‘abducted’ their five children), Soraya romanced enough men to fill a slim volume of Who’s Who: actors such as Warren Beatty and Sammy Davis Jr, debauched director Roman Polanski, racing driver James Hunt, Winston Churchill’s namesake grandson, Tory MP Jonathan Aitken (eventually revealed to have secretly fathered her daughter Petrina) and many, many more.
Born Sandra Daly, her life was utterly transformed 20 years later when she married billionaire Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi (centre)
Since the society photographer Norman Parkinson, who trained his lens on the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Raquel Welch, described her as ‘the most naturally beautiful woman I have ever photographed’, small wonder that they fell over themselves to climb into her bed.
Such unblemished beauty does not last for ever, however, and, sadly, Soraya’s fortunes have faded with her looks.
Although she sued Khashoggi for half his reputed £2 billion fortune when their 13-year marriage ended in 1974, and it was reported that she received hundreds of millions, she has since said: ‘The reality was I didn’t get any cash from Adnan. All I wanted was the children — they were the most important thing for me.’
Whatever happened to this settlement money, by the early Nineties Soraya was the Queen of Excess no longer. Then in her 50s, her once-svelte figure bloated by the steroid drugs she had been prescribed, she was found renting a £400-a-month house in a back-street terrace in Hungerford, Berkshire, making ends meet by selling bric-a-brac in an arcade.
She later returned to London, running a flower shop (which she used as the setting for an unpublished murder mystery novel called Bloom) and living in a succession of modest flats, the latest of which, in a West London mansion block, is said to be rented through a trust fund.
Soraya was whisked into a life of unimaginable privilege, festooned with diamonds and furs, waited on by legions of servants, swanning between 17 homes
Now 76, she whiles away her days in local cafes, watching Chelsea football team — whose star players have posed with her for photographs posted on her Facebook page — and playing the ‘Earth mother’ to her burgeoning family, as one acquaintance puts it.
In all, she has nine children — three fathered by men she has never identified — plus, at the last count, five grandchildren.
To her great credit, Soraya — a great survivor who will surely be remembered as one of the most intriguing characters of her day — has never bemoaned the many dips in her roller-coaster life.
However, if she cut a lonely, dejected figure as she shuffled to the bus stop near her current West London home a few days ago, she has every reason to feel depressed.
Unbeknown to many outside her small circle of friends, she and Adnan had long ago settled their differences, and grown close again in their later years.
Indeed, I am told that when her ex-husband entered the later stages of Parkinson’s disease, and was permanently confined to St Thomas’ Hospital, London (under an assumed name), Soraya visited him regularly, pushing him in his wheelchair and sitting for hours at his bedside.
‘He might have slept with prostitutes during the marriage, and been unfaithful to [Soraya], but all that was past and forgotten,’ says an informed source.
To her great credit, Soraya — a great survivor who will surely be remembered as one of the most intriguing characters of her day — has never bemoaned the many dips in her roller-coaster life
‘They shared a delight at becoming grandparents, and would confide in one another and laugh about the madder episodes in their years together.
‘Even after all that happened, Adnan was Soraya’s great protector, and they had still this incredibly strong bond.’
Khashoggi died 18 days ago, on June 6, and Soraya ‘took his death very badly’, says the insider. The bus-stop photograph, published this week, was taken just 24 hours after his passing.
Her grief has been compounded, I’m told, because she dearly wanted to attend a traditional family gathering to pay her last respects to her husband before his funeral — staged soon after his death, in his father’s home city, in Saudi Arabia, in keeping with Islamic custom. But she was warned she would not be made welcome following a family dispute, which broke out as Khashoggi neared his end.
According to a source, Soraya was at loggerheads with his Italian second wife, Lamia, and their son, Ali, 36. Soraya’s 55-year-old daughter by Adnan, Nabila (who lent her name to her father’s fabled super-yacht, and is now an acclaimed children’s author and philanthropist, living in New York) is also said to have fallen out with her.
Last night, Nabila admitted she no longer spoke to her mother. However, she denied Soraya had been banned from the Saudi gathering. She told me: ‘There was no stopping any person from attending . . . She was never stopped by anyone. Mother has not been part of father’s life for a very long time.’
Whatever the truth, Soraya has been left feeling ‘isolated, depressed and lonely’.
Despite her former image as a party girl, she has never been a big drinker, and despises drugs, but at difficult times, she has a tendency to comfort eat, says someone who knows her well, which may explain her evident struggle with weight.
‘It all seems very unfair because, whatever has happened in her life, she has always been a brilliant mother to all her children, and she still is,’ says this source. ‘She is particularly upset that Nabila, her first child, has taken against her.’
Doubtless, there will be further disharmony within the unwieldy Khashoggi clan when his estate, or what remains of it, is dispersed.
During his wheeler-dealing heyday, when he circumnavigated the globe to cement international armament deals, Khashoggi declared himself ‘the richest man on Earth’. Though he was rather given to exaggerate, he certainly lived up to his own billing.
The son of a Saudi royal surgeon who made maximum use of his unctuous charm and powerful family contacts, he was sent to study in California, but dropped out to start a truck rental business with his $10,000 allowance.
By his mid-20s, he owned the gypsum plant in Saudi and had become the country’s sole agent for the likes of Rolls-Royce, Chrysler and Westland Helicopters.
It was then, by a bizarre set of circumstances, that he met the convent-educated, though not entirely innocent, 19-year-old Sandra Daly (she had already given birth to an illegitimate daughter in 1959, and had almost married an Indian man she met in Kenya).
Their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. He was raised in royal circles; she started life in a house with an outside loo, and no bathroom, in Leicester.
They were thrown together after her mother won a competition for which the prize was a holiday at the five-star George V in Paris. Khashoggi’s family also happened to be staying at the hotel, and they got along so famously that they kept in touch. Six months later, in 1960, Sandra and Adnan were introduced, in London.
At first, she disliked his ‘arrogance’, but says she soon fell for the chubby, 5 ft 4 in charmer, captivated by his humour and ‘big, brown eyes and long, dark lashes’.
Khashoggi was equally smitten by the English girl, her soft voice, milky complexion and model looks, and, hearing that she spoke schoolgirl French, invited her to work as his interpreter. Their married life started in 1961 with a six-month, globe-trotting honeymoon.
For her surprise 21st birthday the following year, Khashoggi whisked her to Cannes, where he had hired an entire casino for a private party. This hedonism assumed legendary proportions during the mid-Sixties, when oil-rich Saudi Arabia began buying huge consignments of military hardware from the United States, and Khashoggi — or ‘Cashoggi’, as he became known — was enlisted as his country’s all-powerful Mr Fixit.
We will never know how much he creamed off commission, though between 1970 and 1975, the defence giant Lockheed — just one of his clients — paid him more than $100 million.
At first, he lavished all the spoils on Sandra, who had converted to Islam and took the name Soraya — a Persian word meaning ‘the light that comes from the stars’. He spent so extravagantly on clothes and jewels for her that she didn’t need to visit the shops: her favourite designers, such as Yves St Laurent, would fly models to whichever home she happened to be staying in.
The luxury flats near Buckingham Palace, the ranches in Kenya, the villas in Beirut and Saudi, the Olympic Tower in New York (where he bought up entire floors of apartment blocks and knocked all the flats into one). Though the couple might only spend a week or two at a time in each of their 17 residences, all were kept permanently staffed with maids, cooks and butlers.
Their jets were fitted with bedroom suites, where Khashoggi kept two separate wardrobes, one western, one Arabic.
Dinner companions included Shirley Bassey, the Collins sisters, Jackie and Joan, Roger Moore. At one memorable party, Soraya had to pinch herself as she played charades with Michael Caine and Tony Curtis. Inevitably, given Khashoggi’s insatiable appetite for women, it couldn’t last. When travelling without Soraya, he hired harems of high-class call-girls for himself and his contacts.
Matters came to a head when he flew to New York, supposedly on business, leaving the pregnant Soraya in London.
Suspecting he was sleeping with a model who was her close friend, she hired a private detective, who trapped the lovers on camera. And so began the bitter divorce battle, with Soraya hiring notorious lawyer Marvin Mitchelson to do her bidding.
Their young children were caught in the crossfire — at one point being trapped on a jet that was impounded by the divorce court just as it was about to take off from Heathrow. Soraya herself has privately expressed remorse for their ‘horrible’ suffering. Be that as it may, their scattered brood seem to have fared well, forging careers in business and the arts; and, the current spat with Nabila notwithstanding, they appear closely knit.
According to friends, this has provided Soraya with enormous consolation in her later years.
She was never nearly as materialistic as she appeared, they insist, and only bought into the ermine-and-pearls lifestyle to please her husband. Her real aim during the divorce was to stop Khashoggi removing her family to the Middle East, beyond her reach, and, in that, she succeeded.
During the Eighties, Khashoggi’s influence in the arms trade began to wane, and he made a string of ill-judged investments. Then his reputation suffered a crushing blow when he was arrested in the U.S. on fraud and racketeering charges. He suffered such severe cashflow problems that he seemed destined for bankruptcy.
Though he staved off this threat, and was acquitted of the charges, he was forced to sell his beloved $70 million yacht Nabila to Donald Trump (who paid a knockdown price of $30 million and triumphantly pronounced Khashoggi a ‘lousy’ businessman), and spent the remainder of his life dodging creditors.
It is thus widely assumed that he was straitened, if not exactly penniless, when he died.
However, one well-placed source insists this is not the case and that the crafty arch-fixer had stashed away a very substantial sum.
Whether this is true could well provide the final chapter to this enduringly fascinating story.
Meanwhile, one wonders if Soraya — who now goes by the name of Sara Kay — might assuage her loneliness by publishing her own memoir.
A few years ago, she claimed to have a manuscript locked away in a bank vault. I am also assured that she possesses a photographic memory, and has total recall of events that occurred half-a-century ago, complete with precise dates and times.
The very thought will surely fill many old men — from statesmen to stars — with utter dread.
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