Before she was the American ambassador to France, Pamela Harriman was either the wife, the mistress, or the political benefactor of some of the world’s most powerful men. JOHN VON SOTHEN retraces the life of a 20th century Leonard Zelig, whose life ended in the vaulted pool of the Hotel Ritz.
When the Parisian headlines on Feb 5th, 1997 read that Pamela Harriman, the US Ambassador to France had died, the emphasis wasn’t on how she died or why she died, but where she died. Pamela Harriman had passed away while swimming in the pool of the Ritz.
Had you known the story of Pamela Harriman, you might say this was not only a fitting way, but the only way her story could have ended – in sumptuous class, amidst intrigue in gossip, with a slight twist of humor on top. Because throughout her life, that’s exactly the way Pamela Harriman defined herself. Whether she was Winston Churchill’s daughter-in-law, or the mistress of Gianni Agnelli, Élie de Rothschild, or the playboy Prince Aly Khan; whether she’d had rumored flings with Frank Sinatra or the Prince Rainier of Monaco or confirmed flings with the legendary reporter Edward R. Murrow or the shipping magnate Stavros Niachros; whether she’d been the wife of Broadway producer Leland Heyward or the Governor of New York Averell Harriman, Pam tout court (because the list of last names would be too long) was never too ashamed to bring attention to herself, nor never too proud to devote herself fully to each man’s empowerment and enrichment.
This ability to reinvent herself over and over again, serving as a sort of Leonard Zelig of her time, gave Harriman access few people in the past fifty years have had, access that allowed her to deal intimately with many of the 20th century’s most powerful men in so many different arenas: politics, diplomacy, society, industry, and show business. But whereas Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig wanted to blend in, Pam Harriman chose to stand out, each time using her talents to win her man’s confidence, learn his secrets, and complement his weaknesses.
Pam’s story stretches from pre-war English society balls to sharing a bunker with Churchill during the London Blitz, to witnessing the liberation of Paris at a bar with Ernest Hemingway; from securing the rights to a Broadway play called The Sound of Music, to being the first in Washington to finance the campaign of a largely unknown ex-Governor from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, for President of the United States. Harriman served as witness to the historic moments of our time simply by having a nose for the action and having the knack to choose the right man for the moment. As The Daily Mail wrote the day following her death “When historians look back on the 20th century, they will find traces of Pamela Harriman’s lipstick all over it.”
What’s ironic is that Pamela Harriman, who’d defined her life mostly by her man, would be remembered in death as a woman on her own, a stately ambassador of a country that adopted her, and one whose life proved more rich and interesting than the sum of her past conquests.
In his final unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “there are no second acts in American lives,” yet Harriman had six, even seven, each one carefully synchronized to build upon the previous, mounting in a fabulous crescendo that would ultimately break that winter morning under the vaulted ceiling of the Ritz’s pool.
As one might guess, Pamela Harriman had many names, the first of which was Pamela Digby, the daughter of Edward Kenelm Digby, the Eleventh Lord of Dorset, a coastal county located southwest of London. The Digbys were a noble British family whose fortune had been largely exhausted and whose rank still rested on the bottom rung of the five ranks of British aristocratic peerage. Nevertheless, the Digby’s pride for their modest chateau, Minterne, and their passion for horse shows and gardening was only eclipsed by the high aspirations they had for their daughters’ marriage prospects. Yet, unlike her sisters Jaquetta and Shelia, both of whom were content to marry and retire into the English countryside, Pamela dreamed of broader horizons and deeper checkbooks.
In an eerie way, Pamela’s story would strangely mirror that of her great-great aunt, Jane Digby, who too had traded in a bucolic aristocratic life for an eccentric globe trotting one; one full of glamorous affairs with powerful men spread over several countries and several decades. In many ways even, Jane Digby’s life was more far fetched, if only because it happened in the mid 1800’s.
Jane married a widely disliked lord twenty years her elder, Sir Edward Law, the 1st Earl of Ellenborough, who she eventually dropped for an Austrian diplomat and womanizing playboy, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg. When the count left, Jane found herself alone with a son and eventually became the lover of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, only to outdo that conquest by bedding the King’s son King Otto of Greece several years later. Jane’s next marriage was then to a Greek count, Spyridon Theotokis, whom she married and lived with for ten years in Greece before heading off to Syria where she’d meet a Bedouin sheik, Abdul Medjuel el Mezrab whom she eventually married. As a sign of her devotion, Jane went native, dying her hair black in two long braids and rimming her eyes with circles of black coal. Although twenty years his elder, Jane was the Sheik’s only lover, even into her early 70’s and until her death in Damascus where she’s buried today in a protestant cemetery.
Like Jane, Pamela too was shunned as a debutante in London society. Despite being photographed in 1937 on the cover of The Tatler, a leading society magazine of the time, Pamela was often described as a shade too fat, not rich enough to have the latest gowns for the dances, and a bit too opinionated for the boys. “English men didn’t like her,” said a debutante from the 1938 season, who saw Pamela frequently. “At many dances, she was often without a partner.” Pamela was also rumored to have “loose morals,” having spent a weekend in Paris with an older man named Fulke Warwick, the seventh Earl of Warwick, an itinerant actor who’d played bit roles in some Hollywood films.
Lord Digby, his wife and two daughters (Pamela upper right) photo licensed by French Vanity Fair
In Sally Bedell Smith’s biography Reflected Glory, Sarah Norton, another budding socialite, found Pamela’s precociousness intriguing. “I thought she was so grown up when she was living with us. Pam had definitely known some men. We were amazed by that. We were complete virgins, sexually child like, incredibly innocent, and Pam was a girl who wasn’t.”
Eventually this promiscuity would lead to trouble with a fellow well-connected debutante, Lady Mary Dunn, whose husband had recently admitted to sleeping with Pamela. In what she thought would be revenge, Dunn orchestrated a blind date between Pamela and a famously incorrigible bachelor nobody wanted to marry, a spoiled alcoholic named Randolph Churchill, the black sheep son of Winston Churchill. With war fast approaching, Randolph had announced to Dunn how desperate he was to find a wife within the next 48 hours, and Lady Mary, mostly as a cruel joke, told Churchill her roommate, Pamela, would be a perfect match. “I think I actually told him, “If you want to have dinner with a red-headed whore,” said Dunn, “Go around to my flat and you’ll find her.”
During their first night together, Randolph proposed and, in a moment of lucid cynicism, (a trait she would call on countless times throughout her life) Pamela accepted. As Harriman recounted in an interview with The Washington Post in 1983, “I was getting so terribly upset by seeing all my friends watching the men go off to be killed, I thought, “How marvelous it was to be going out with somebody about whom I didn’t give a damn.”
“Their decision to marry was as cold and premeditated as a business deal,” said Sally Bedell Smith, “He wanted an heir and she wanted a name and position.”
Overnight, Pamela Digby would flee the judgmental beehive of the British debutante world by cashing in on what would become the most famous name of 20th century England.
With war in full swing and her new husband stationed away, Pamela spent most of her time with her father-in-law Winston Churchill. Churchill by then had been named British Prime Minister, and Pamela, now part of the family, was often by his side, either at 10 Downing street, the bomb shelter below 10 Downing Street, or at Chequers, the country retreat where it was considered safer for the Prime Minister and his family to live.
Churchill adored his daughter-in-law, not just because she’d given him an heir, but for her ability to listen, her beauty, and for what he called “her salty sense of humor.” Pam too loved Winston, and her devotion to Churchill Senior (an older man) would become another distinct Harriman trait.
British officials, conscious Churchill could not psychologically survive the loss of his only son, made efforts for Randolph never to see combat. Instead Randolph was dispatched to various safe havens, where career frustration mixed with an overinflated ego mixed with living in the shadow of his famous father resulted more in gambling and drinking than valiant military service. Any time Randolph did return to Chequers, family battles would ensue, and the constant fighting topped off by an enormous gambling debt owed by Randolph and paid off by Pamela without the help of the Churchills ultimately doomed the marriage.
“It was a lesson,” said Pamela years later, “I suddenly realized that if there was to be any security for Baby Winston and me, it was going to be on our own.”
During this time, Averell Harriman, the heir to the Union Pacific Railroad fortune had been appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to evaluate Britain’s defense needs, which at the time were being largely financed by the US government. Harriman’s job put him into contact with Churchill on a constant basis, and Pamela, who’d become close friends with Harriman’s daughter, Kathleen Harriman, was often present at these meetings. Eventually Pamela would act as a go between, serving as a back channel for Churchill, giving the Prime Minister information the American envoy may not have wanted to share.
This proximity lead Pamela to start seeing Harriman romantically. She eventually moved out of Downing Street to live “officially” with her friend Kathleen, while Harriman discreetly rented the apartment next door to them.
Whether this semi-out in the open arrangement was known by many people is unclear, but according to Christopher Ogden, who wrote an unauthorized biography The Life of the Party on Pamela, Churchill knew Pam was sleeping with Harriman, and although it hurt him to know she was cheating on his son. “He knew it was his son’s fault and didn’t make a stink so he could get secrets from her on Harriman.”
With Harriman, Pamela began a habit of being taken care of by an older lover, one who’d provide her an eventual allowance and apartment of her own. This role of mistress would be repeated in other cities with other men, each of whom would eventually leave Pamela (either for other women or to return to their wives), which is exactly what Averell Harriman did when he accepted the post of US Ambassador to Moscow in 1943.
Although Pamela would be on her own (but with an allowance Harriman would eventually pay for the next 50 years), her heart didn’t mourn long. Within months, she was seen with Jock Whitney, the future publisher of the International Herald Tribune and president of MOMA. Then she was on the arm of the revered CBS journalist, Edward R. Murrow who’d been broadcasting the war from London via his nightly radio broadcasts. Pam had met Murrow through William Paley the head of CBS, whom she’d slept with years before.
With Murrow in London, Pamela found herself on the pulse of wartime London. During this time she organized a salon for officers called the Churchill Club, where she played up her Churchill connections with many British and American officers, city intellectuals, and policy makers (something she’d do on a grander scale later on in Washington, DC in the 1980’s). While they were together, the normally shy and dark Murrow was suddenly outgoing and positive. Like Harriman, Murrow too was married, but unlike Harriman, Murrow would have left his wife for Pamela, had it not been for the intervention of his boss, Paley.
Pam tout court
Following Murrow’s departure, Smith claims Pamela looked towards Paris, where a foreigner with an aristocratic heritage, a risqué reputation and a trail of wealthy lovers would be welcomed if only because it sounded so intriguing.
“It was easier for Pam in Paris,” said Lady Diplarakou Russell, the former wife of Paul-Louis Weiller, the founder of Air France. “In London you get friends for life, but it takes longer. The French are quicker, more spontaneous, less judgmental.”
Pamela knew she could count on her Churchill name, which was revered in Paris almost more than it was in post-war London. Leaving her son Winston behind with nannies and in-laws, Pamela found refuge in Paris amongst the British expat embassy community, lead by both Lady Diana Cooper, the wife of the British ambassador and a columnist for the magazine Femina and Kick Kennedy, the sister of John F. Kennedy, who’d been widowed at twenty-four, her husband, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, having been killed in combat.
“Pamela did not speak impeccable French, but she spoke without embarrassment – a trait Parisians often admire,” said the late Sandy Bertrand, a publisher at Vogue who became a close friend of Pamela’s in Paris. “She had very good poise, very good bearing. She moved well, with assurance but not arrogance. She was always smiling – that was one of her traits.”
Pamela’s somewhat plump appearance, long a fault in the eyes of many British suitors, was an asset in Paris. “She was a very healthy and attractive, like a milk girl from England,” said Francois Valery, son of the celebrated poet and essayist Paul Valery.
“I shouldn’t say this, but she had beautiful breasts, probably the best I ever saw in my life,” remarked her longtime Dior salesperson, Eliane Martin. “She had good proportions, but she was not good in a full skirt. She was marvelous in the long straight line, and she liked décolleté because she had very nice skin and shoulders. She knew what dresses were best for her.”
Pam: the migratory socialite
One evening, the British-American duo of Kennedy and Churchill attended the annual Grand Prix Ball at the Pré Catalan Restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne hosted by the continent’s most colorful partier, the 36 year-old Prince Aly Khan, the son of the Aga Khan, the billionaire leader of an estimated 15 million Ismaili Muslims spread over 25 countries.
Aly Khan had been educated in Switzerland and London yet despite his fabulous wealth, had never been accepted into English society. “They called me a bloody nigger,” he once told a journalist bitterly, “and I paid them back by winning all their women.” Khan lived in several houses including a year-long rental of a corner room at the Ritz in London. Famous with women and with the reputation as an extraordinary lover, Khan was married to the heiress, Joan Guinness, who had divorced her husband to marry him in 1936.
Pam soon began an affair with Khan. For Aly, Pam fit his looks, adored horses likr him, and she also had a name which Khan wanted to add to his conquests.
For Pam, Khan was an easy way to make a splash in Paris. “Every girl was entitled to a little bit of Aly,” said the novelist Leonora Hornblow, a tobacco heiress and close friend of Pamela’s for more than three decades.
Pam soon followed Kahn and his money to the Cote D’Azur where he had recently purchased the Chateau L’Horizon, a palatial modern villa built by the American actress Maxine Elliot and designed by the renown architect Barry Dierks in 1932. Ironically, Winston Churchill had stayed at L’Horizon on occasion between 1934 and 1940, but under Khan’s stewardship, the house took on a new life as more a hub for café society parties and Riviera debauchery. Legend has it that at one party; the pool was partly filled with perfume.
But as the summer of 1948 heated up, the relationship between Pam and Aly cooled, mostly because Khan had become obsessed with the actress Rita Hayworth, who’d come to the south of France hoping to reconcile with her estranged husband, Orson Welles, who was in Italy.
Left alone at the L’Horizon with Khan chasing Hayworth, Pamela and her fortunes would eventually turn in the form of Gianni Agnelli whose yacht brought him for lunch at L’Horizon one afternoon.
As a 27 year-old heir to the Fiat fortune, Agnelli was cursed with being both handsome and cynical. Having lost both parents by the age of 24, Agnelli had focused most of his attention on loose living and high stakes gambling rather than running his father’s company. Despite his fortune, Gianni saw himself as a provincial boy from Turin, and Pamela Churchill represented a world Agnelli hadn’t had the courage to join yet.
“Having Pam as a mistress was like joining a club that grew more prestigious with each new lover,” said Bertrand. “Averell was the first one. He created a sort of pull that brought the others along. People at that level look at each other and say ‘Well if Averell Harriman was a distinguished and wealthy man, and if he would have this girl, she must be quite something. Let’s find out.”
For Pam, the Gianni romance would be her most ambitious project yet, a sort of Pygmalion tutorial, one which would depend on her contacts and business savvy just as much as her looks and sex appeal. Pam knew that for Agnelli, the Churchill name was an image that was essential in improving the business prospects of a company formerly identified with the Italian fascists.
She also knew that her friendship with the son of FDR, FDR Jr. could help Fiat gain a foothold in the US market. Thanks to Pam, Agnelli would eventually land the Fiat distribution for North America, which proved to be a big financial success. The Roosevelt connection also would pave the way for Gianni to gain insider status with the US government that would eventually lead to an enormous loan, one which Fiat needed in order to recover from the war.
By the end of the summer, Pamela had left Khan’s Chateau L’Horizon and was now staying at Gianni’s villa, Chateau de la Garoupe, located down the coast at Cap Antibes, The only one who apparently took a dim view of the romance was Winston Churchill, who remarked to a friend at the time, “What’s this I hear about Pamela taking up with an Italian motor mechanic?”
Thanks to Gianni, Pamela soon had a permanent address at 4 Avenue de New York in Paris, where the two would meet when Gianni visited from Turin. Agnelli would never formerly move to Paris, preferring to own a pied-a-terre next door to Pam’s apartment, a similar system to which Pam had with Harriman in London.
As if she were a Stanislavski trained actress, Pamela dove into the role she thought an Italian girlfriend should be. She became more demure. She didn’t speak unless spoken to, and she even converted to Catholicism. With Agnelli, the transformation was so complete she even fooled the wife of a Times correspondent in Paris, Lady Katherine Kitty Giles, who told her friends how “she’d just met a charming Italian girl with red hair.”
Playing the role of mistress and organizing the life of the once reckless Agnelli however eventually grew tiring, and at age 30, Pamela expected to be engaged, not just kept. Instead, Agnelli would eventually marry Princess Marella Caracciol di Castagneto, the daughter of a Neapolitan Prince and an American photographer and Vogue model, Margaret Clarke.
One wonders if Pam’s talent was also her blind spot, a blind spot that would haunt her continually throughout her life. She did her job so well, no man of wealth and rank would marry her, knowing she functioned so well as a mistress.
Out of guilt, Agnelli gave Pam the apartment in Paris along with a Bentley. Pam took the breakup in stride, never appearing jealous nor making a scene, only asking Gianni upon his departure in her benign Pam way “But what will happen to me?” which of course was met with a monthly stipend for years to come.
Meanwhile in Paris, the Baron Elie de Rothschild wasn’t looking for babysitter nor a mother, just a mistress.
“I wanted to go to bed with Pam, and I did,” said de Rothschild.
According to Smith, Rothschild didn’t care that Pam had been with Churchill, Harriman, Whitney, and Agnelli. As he later joked crudely in her book, “Once it’s washed, it’s just like new!”
Christopher Ogden maintains that by taking up with de Rothschild in her quest for money and adoration, Pam had chosen her target carefully. She knew she couldn’t compete with Elie’s wife Lilliane de Rothschild in terms of organization nor money nor name, so instead, she chose to impress her man with her new found taste for art. The effect she hoped would be two-fold. With the help of Georges Geoffroy, a renowned interior designer at the time who had created the library in the British embassy, Pam could differentiate herself from Lilliane. This sudden avid collection would also help dispel the image of her as a gold digger while also helping create the impression she was clever at managing her own finances.
As Brooke Hayward, the daughter of Pam’s future husband, Leland Hayward, said, “Like a brilliant chess player, Pamela knows her moves way in advance. She knows both where to place herself and how to maneuver you into a position where you can’t intrude on her plans.”
Rothschild even admitted later on, he was impressed. “She never seemed to need money.”
Although their affair would last years, Pamela would ultimately underestimate Elie’s devotion to Lilliane, not to mention the popularity Lilliane de Rothschild held in Parisian circles, a popularity that indirectly sprang from Lilliane’s ability to be comically self-deprecating during her darkest hour of marriage.
According to Smith, one evening in 1954, Lilliane was seated at a dinner next to the Duke of Windsor. The Duke blindly asked the table which Rothschild was the lover of Pam Churchill. Lilliane stopped eating, looked straight ahead and replied to the entire table with a deadpan remark, “My husband sir.”
This story soon became a legendary sitting room anecdote, passed from salon to party, and Lilliane went from being a woman “cocue”, to a woman putting her best face on an ugly situation. For many Parisians, this episode underlined how Lilliane’s approval counted far more than Pamela’s.
The only women it seemed who gravitated towards Pam were older women who were sorts of mentors to her. In London, Pam there was Lady Olive Baillie, an Anglo-American heiress who owned Leeds castle in Kent and from whom Pam acquired a taste for parties with the rich and famous. In France, Pam had become friends with Louise de Vilmorin who, like Pam, had a checkered past. Vilmorin had been married to a Texas oil baron Henry Leigh Hunt and had even lived in Las Vegas. She’d also been married to a Hungarian count along with having slept with Aly Khan, Antoine de Saint Expiry and Orson Welles. A poet, and salon hostess at her Chateau de Verrieres, de Vilmorin resembled a French Marlene Dietrich both in style and sense of humor. Often armed with a long cigarette that dangled from her hands. C.L. Sulzberger II, an editor of the New York Times, once described Vilmorin as “posing decoratively by the fireplace, making a long speech about how she wanted to enjoy her own death.”
Pam never considered Louise a rival, more an access to the powerful people of Paris she couldn’t get to because of Lilliane de Rothschild’s embargo. Louise saw Pamela as decoration. She also was impressed by the way Pamela was able to garner money from all her past lovers. “All I get is love letters,” said de Vilmorin.
With the Rothschild union now over but her “allocations” from ex-lovers still coming in, Pam soon became a migratory socialite, spending January and February in St. Moritz, June in Paris for the polo season, July in London for the Derby and the Riviera in August, where she’d meet Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos.
Niarchos was the rival to Jackie Kennedy’s future husband, Aristotle Onassis, who’d made shipping the most glamorous business of the postwar era. Niarchos owned apartments and villas in France, a yacht like Agnelli and seemed like the perfect catch if only to make Elie de Rothschild jealous, which, according to Smith, didn’t work. Rothschild wasn’t impressed and was less polite in his description. “He (Niarchos) was nothing but a shit, really nasty.”
Niachros enjoyed Pam for her ability to relax and have fun and appreciated her access to English nobility, who at the time controlled much of the shipping markets. Niachros’s deep flaw was that he was curiously distant and at times rough, even with Pam.
As the playwright Noel Coward once described him. “Nicachros is the stuff that dictators are made of. Everyone is terrified of him.”
While aboard a yacht in the Mediterranean, Pamela met the producer Leland Hayward. Hayward was an older romantic figure with Hollywood charisma and dashing style. However he too was married, to Slim Hayward, a beautiful heiress who’d previously been with the director Howard Hawks. Slim would later become, Slim Keith, one of Truman Capote’s muses along with Babe Paley, Lee Radziwill, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Marella Agnelli whom the author called his “swans.”
Hayward, a former agent, turned Broadway producer, had found recent success with the musical South Pacific and would later go on to fame by producing the Sound of Music and Gypsy with Nathalie Wood.
Slim and Hayward’s marriage had been tenuous for years, and in October of 1958, Slim flew to Europe with close friend Lauren Bacall who’d been mourning the recent loss of her husband Humphrey Bogart, who’d died of cancer the previous year. With Slim away, Pam started seeing Hayward in New York, while at the same time, and perversely so, lending her apartment and Bentley to Slim and Bacall in Paris. Soon Hayward and Slim were finished, and Hayward and Pam were a couple.
“If it was anyone’s fault it was mine for not paying attention,” Slim confided years later. “Any woman with any sense should have had her guard up.”
Pam’s biggest challenge would come more from Hayward’s children than from Hayward’s wife. Brooke Hayward, Leland’s daughter, never trusted Pam and claimed she always could see through the Pam mystique.
According to Smith, Brooke admitted, “I didn’t get it. There was no razzle-dazzle. I couldn’t figure this out. She didn’t know about politics or the theater. She was a banal milkmaid, a little plump, certainly not beautiful. She wore expensive clothes, but she didn’t have flair.”
Leland would ultimately marry Pamela anyway, setting her up at his house Haywire outside of New York, where Pam, true to her chameleon sense, adapted appropriately. As she had with Agnelli, Pam embraced the role of what she thought the doting American wife should be: a bit subservient, flexible, and always devoted.
“I didn’t like it but at the same time I was impressed,” said Brooke Hayward. “Despite the fact she was entering a world that was totally Slim’s turf, this didn’t seem to affect Pam. She was like some bizarre mutant, an insect doing what it has to be, despite all the dreadful things around it.”
“She started watching television with Hayward, baseball games and other programs that interested him. In her conversation, her interests, her approach to life, she’d become American, completely different from the way she was in Paris,” said the late London decorator Tom Parr.
Pamela and Hayward would go on to make a prolific production team. Hayward used Pamela’s European contacts to secure the rights to The Sound of Music from the von Trapp family. He also could rely on Pam’s clever negotiating skills and ability to not waste time on people who couldn’t help, something the normally affable Hayward had trouble doing.
“Her directness was impressive and flattering. She got to the heart of the matter immediately and didn’t beat around the bush,” said Peter Fenn, a campaign fundraiser who’d work for Pam later in the 1980’s.
There were others who didn’t appreciate Pamela’s blunt approach – one being the late actor Dennis Hopper, who’d married Brooke Hayward in the early 1970’s.
“Pam was one of the few people in the world I truly hated.” Hopper recalled to Brooke, “She was one of the most despicable people I have ever met. I’m in a pretty tough business, the movie business, which doesn’t breed angles, and I have never seen anything like her. She was mean-spirited. She was so confident about her relationship with Leland that she could be openly nasty in front of me.”
As with the case of many Broadway producers, Leland Hayward’s success proved volatile. He suffered a series of failures at the box office in the mid 60’s, unable to build on the success of Sound of Music. Eventually, he would die of cancer at the age of 68, leaving Pamela with a fading fortune and children who would never accept her as their mother.
Before long, Averell Harriman, he himself widowed, reconnected with Pamela, and their romance, which had started in wartime London, would rekindle in late 70’s Washington, DC.
At their wedding, Truman Capote would write. “It was either the beginning or the end of an era, whichever way you want to take it. I was happy for Pam.”
In Washington, Harriman and Pamela would prove to be a formidable couple. Harriman had since become Governor of New York as well as a foreign policy advisor to several Presidents. Pam still had her Churchill name, and their home at 3032 N. Street in the chic neighborhood of Georgetown, a home that housed Monets, Degas, Van Goghs and Sergents would become the epicenter of DC politics in the 1980’s.
Pamela redesigned her Washington home with a French designer and took on what John Kenneth Galbraith called “that glow that comes from a sense of being “in” – a condition known in Washington as “Potomac Fever.”
“When I heard Pam was branching into politics I thought ‘how delicious!’ It is such a man’s world, it’s perfect for her,” said the wife of a prominent democratic contributor. “Now she doesn’t have to have one dinner partner, she can have 500.”
“Pam learned early in life about politics and the relationships of people to power,” said a longtime friend. “She has a good instinct for successful people…all she had to learn was who the players were.”
Banking on her London/Paris salon experience, Pamela began organizing dinners at her home, calling them “issues meetings” where a coterie of Washington insiders would be invited to hear a selected speaker discuss a certain topic followed afterwards by an informal question and answer period and then dinner.
“This wasn’t your traditional fund raiser where you had to pay to attend,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who founded a group called Democrats for the 80’s with Pam and who later became US Ambassador to the EU at the same time as her. “It was more an informal thing where the Democratic establishment and donors could meet some of the young faces of the Democratic party.”
Eizenstat recalled one of the speakers invited then was a young Governor from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who impressed Pam with his grasp of policy and seemingly effortless ability to connect with others.
“Not only was he super bright” said Eizenstat, “Clinton had lots of charisma and more importantly, he had the ability to formulate ideas into words that people could understand.”
“It was clear someone had told her Bill Clinton had a future,” said John Bowles, a Wall Street executive and Democratic activist. “Pam really liked him.”
In Smith’s book, Joe Klein, the author of the best selling Primary Colors, saw a similarity with the two. “I think what Pam liked most about Clinton was that she saw a lot herself in him. He was a master of reinvention, a man whose views were always subject to revision. Pam compared his resilience and inner strength to the determination she saw in Winston Churchill.”
“They were both like those big life-size Joe Palooka blow up dolls that you punch and they come right back at you – sometimes harder.” said Fenn.
Pam also began a political campaign-funding group called PamPAC (PAC meaning Political Action Committee), whose goal was to fund Democrat campaigns for the White House and Congress. Following eight years of Republican domination under Ronald Reagan, PamPAC hoped to reverse the trend by beating the Republicans at their own game, raising money from wealthy benefactors. As the parties and “issue meetings” increased and the funds came in, Pam saw a potential winner in Clinton, throwing all of her money and resources behind him, helping him carry the 1992 presidential election.
Following Clinton’s victory The Washington Post wrote, “The phones haven’t stopped ringing at Pam Harrington’s office. People are calling to congratulate her for having the passion, the commitment, and the instincts that have brought the democrats back from the dead.”
Pam expected to be rewarded for her efforts, already letting top Clinton advisors know she wanted to be named Ambassador to France. Although there was speculation she would be tapped for Ambassador to Britain, Pamela told friends privately that London was out of the question. She didn’t feel she’d be taken seriously there, and her unpredictable son Winston, who’d become a controversial MP, could cause her problems.
The decade she’d spent in Paris during the 1950’s had not been an entirely pleasant or successful one. To return as an American ambassador (Pamela had become a US citizen in 1971) would be “sweet revenge over the people who didn’t think she was fit to be seen in public with Rothschild or Agnelli,” said Sandy Bertrand. “By the time Clinton was elected, many French socialites and politicians had adopted a tolerant, even admiring view of Pam’s earlier days in Paris. They were now fascinated by her wealth and her glamor. Lots had changed with Pamela.”
In 1993, twice a widow (Averell had passed away in 1986), Pamela (now Harriman) was named the first woman US Ambassador to France, quickly installing herself at the US Embassy residence at 41 rue du Faubourg St. Honore, which, ironically, had been built by Elie’s great uncle, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, and which still displays the Rothschild monogram on its doors.
As with every city she lived in, there were soon rumors of romance. This time, the gossip involved Prince Rainier of Monaco, who was then seventy-two. “Even if untrue, what was remarkable was that a seventy five year old woman could generate so much interest in terms of who she was sleeping with,” said Smith.
Pamela and Quincy Jones – photo licensed by French Vanity Fair.
Knowing her reputation preceded her and not wanting her appointment to seem simply like a Clinton payback to a wealthy benefactor, Pamela focused on doing everything possible to ensure she’d be remembered as one of America’s best envoys and not just what Peter Fenn called “another Shirley Temple hire.” (An allusion to the famous child actress from the 30’s and 40’s, Shirley Temple, who eventually was named Ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia despite having no diplomatic experience.)
“Relations between France and the United States were sometimes prickly in the nineteen-nineties,” said the late American historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. “Mrs. Harriman prepared for her (congressional) appointment by spending long hours with our best academic specialists on France. This was typical of the disciplined and conscientious approach that made her an effective representative of her adopted country.”
As she had done in Washington, Pamela surrounded herself with a circle of top advisors including diplomatic veteran, Avis Bohlen, as her assistant.
“She took her job very seriously,” said Diana Walker, a long time White House photographer, who’d became a close friend with Pamela following the Harrimans arrival to Washington. “Avis told me Pam was a quick study and that she had the ability to charm anyone.”
“She made herself,” wrote the commentator William Pfaff from Paris in the International Herald Tribune, “the most successful American political ambassador of the decade.”
“Going in the Uruguay Round of the GATT talks (which would eventually form the World Trade Organization) Pamela was really on her game and helped enormously with getting France to go along, which wasn’t by any means easy, said Eizenstat. “She worked like a dog.”
Pamela’s one blemish would come in February of 1995, when she was forced to weather a scandal brought to light by then Interior Minister Charles Pasqua involving CIA operatives (operating out of the US embassy) offering bribes to French officials in advance of French trade. According to James Risen of the LA Times, part of the mission was designed to determine the strength of the French bargaining position in television and telecommunications trade negotiations. The United States was opposed to French demands to restrict imports of U.S. television programming into Europe.
Harriman managed to diffuse the affair, claiming she never knew of its existence, and according to Smith, went on to insinuate that the accusations were politically motivated. “I also think there was an implicit suggestion to the French of “Well do you want us looking at your embassy as well?” said Eizenstat.
Although the affair faded, U.S. officials quietly acknowledged the episode had far graver consequences than the Clinton Administration originally let on. “The bungled operation,” said Risen, “forced the CIA to suspend virtually all its operations in France earlier that year, and although it is unclear how long the suspension lasted, it almost certainly hampered the agency’s ability to gather information in France on such far-reaching subjects as terrorism, arms smuggling and the Middle East.” Risen suggested that the episode so angered the French that they may have shared information about the CIA’s economic espionage activities with other European intelligence services, including those in Germany and Italy.
The CIA scandal broke around the same time Pamela was also being sued by the children of Averell Harriman. The heirs claimed Pamela had mismanaged their inheritance and had changed their father’s will to suit her own means, means they claimed, she was outliving with her lavish lifestyle. Pamela had invested a lot of the family fortune in a New Jersey hotel resort which had gone bankrupt, and, at the time, owned over four homes throughout the world, each staffed and operated full time, even while she lived at the embassy. The legal fight would eventually cause her enormous financial distress, not to mention lawyer fees, while also proving to be a constant distraction during her tenure. “She talked about the lawsuit endlessly,” said one friend after a Paris visit, “She’d say ‘This is a fine thing to happen to me at my age.”
“I do believe the law suit added a lot of stress for her and had something to do with her stroke,” said Eizenstat. “She’d work all day, and then at 10:30 PM, she was on the phone with her attorney.”
In Smith’s book, a wealthy European woman who knew Pamela for more than three decades described what she called, a “sinister” pattern that repeated itself in Pam’s behavior. “She is always after financial security, and it seems the moment she has it, it disappears. The fact she has looked for that sort of security her whole life show, how insecure she is – it’s her fatal flaw.”
With her ambassador term up in 1996, Pamela had been helping choose her replacement, while, at the same time preparing a return to either Washington or nearby Middlebury, Virginia where she owned a horse farm. Instead she would collapse at the Ritz pool from a cerebral hemorrhage and die shortly afterwards.
It’s ironic that Pamela would end her days at the same place where she witnessed the liberation of Paris seated next to a bar with Ernest Hemingway; the same place where she stayed with her second husband Leland Hayward when he was optioning the rights to the Sound of Music, and the same place where she’d taken Gianni Agnelli on their first date in Paris.
Pam the legend
Harriman’s life seems made for a mini-series, a sort of House of Cards mixed with the trappings of Downton Abbey – the story of a woman navigating within the confines of American and European nobility and wealth, who, through her charm and sexuality and talent for making other people shine, becomes the ultimate insider. Unfortunately, her story also resembles that of Patricia Highsmith’s tragic character, Tom Ripley, who in the movies The Talented Mr. Ripley and Plein Soliel, is an obsessive master of self re-invention, one who lacks any real inner core, and whose habit for self-promotion and urge to join the .01% ultimately leads her to overreach and wear out of her welcome.
Had she died later on in life, Pamela probably would have been best remembered simply for her colorful love life and Churchill last name. But her sudden death drew effusive praise from leaders around the world, warranted a state funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington, gained front page obituaries, inspired books and biographies not to mention a highly publicized auction of her affairs by Sotheby’s.
At her funeral President Clinton called her “one of the most gifted people I’ve ever met” and President Jacques Chirac described her as “a beautiful ambassador probably one of the best since Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson; so intelligent, so elegant, so charming.” Chirac also awarded Harriman with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor. In addition, the College of William and Mary, an institution Pamela had long befriended, honored her by establishing the Pamela Harriman Foreign Service Fellowships, scholarships offered annually to three outstanding students to serve a summer in a professional position at the U.S. Department of State.
The British Economist’s eulogy was less glowing. “She sparkled, but at the end of the day, despite all of the luxuries, it was a rather harsh life. Old British friends mocked her transparent ambition. Lovers she hoped to marry never followed through. Her husbands were difficult. Her stepchildren disliked her. Even the goal of financial security eluded her in the end as relatives clawed back much of Harriman’s estate. Was there not always at the very back of her mind just a nagging feeling that she was being laughed at, even scorned? Her façade was shiny. It’s not certain that, as the French would say, she really felt bien dans sa peau.”
Upon her arrival in Paris as ambassador, Pam had told Vogue magazine, “It’s not the accolades when you arrive, but the judgments when you leave that count.”
Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman (and almost Khan, Niarchos, Murrow, de Rothschild, Agnelli) arrived on the scene a somewhat dumpy debutante nobody wanted to dance with and left scene aboard Air Force One in a flag covered casket with a military salute.
If Pamela had been a man, she would have had one last name, and perhaps her famous love life that trailed her would have had less bearing on her legacy. Instead, for good and for bad, men’s names would eventually define her, and perhaps overshadow what turned out to be a rich life full of contradictions as much as it was full of passion.
When asked by a reporter if she’d had a happy life, Pamela gave her characteristic Churchillian laugh and responded, “Very very. I drank deep from the well.”
French version – click here