BOOK REVIEW / China blue eyes and sporty sex: Godfrey Hodgson admires the ascent of the tough, captivating Pamela Harriman - 'Life of the Party' - Christopher Ogden: Little, Brown, 18.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS some 16 or 17 years, Burke remembered, since he last saw the Queen of France, and in that lost age of chivalry, he thought, ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. It is only three years since I last saw Mrs Harriman, America's ambassador to France, and though I left my sword in my scabbard my knees certainly turned to water as I found myself briefly in the sights of those china- blue eyes.

Harriman has lived a life as undiplomatic in its way as that of her famous kinswoman, the Honourable Jane Digby el Mezrab. After a wretched marriage at 17 to the Earl of Ellenborough, who was twice her age, Jane moved through the arms and beds of European kings and princes - not to mention Honore de Balzac - until she found her sheikh, Abdul Medjuel el Mezrab and rode wild stallions into battle with him in the desert.

Harriman's is the story of a purposeful, though not uninterrupted, ascension to her present - far from grey - eminence. She was the daughter of an ancient Dorset county family, the Digbys of Minterne Magna. In her teens she attached herself to a 'fast' Anglo-American set, interested in roughly equal proportions in sex, politics and interior decoration. They have been, as they say in obituaries, lifelong interests.

At 19 she married Randolph Churchill, the impossible, alcoholic son of the man who was about to become the hero of the hour. The marriage, like Jane's, was a disaster. But with Randolph off to the wars, Pamela Churchill became a member of the strange inner circle of wartime London. Once her son, young Winston, was born, she ran around London with boyfriends who were generals and air marshals; Ed Murrow, the legendary CBS correspondent; Murrow's boss Bill Paley, John Hay Whitney; and, first among equals, Averell Harriman, President Roosevelt's personal emissary to Winston Churchill.

After the war, she retained her taste for wealthy and powerful men. She had an affair with the Aga Khan, a grand passion with Gianni Agnelli, a relationship with Baron Elie de Rothschild, a fling with Stavros Niarchos. In Paris and the Cote d'Azur she recreated the lifestyle of the grandes horizontales of the Second Empire at the races and the opera, in the salon and the boudoir. She once complained that 'Everyone always talks about the rich men I have slept with, no one ever asks about the poor men I have slept with.' Most of the latter, however, like the photographer Robert Capa, were on the way to be numbered with the former.

In 1958 she was off to New York. Within weeks she had captivated Leland Hayward, the producer of The Sound of Music, and they were married in 1960. Hayward was a tense, neurotic man who had been married four times before and popped barbiturates. His surviving children (two of whom killed themselves) hated their new stepmother and she thought they were crazy. But for 12 years she devoted herself to this new man with absolute devotion. After his death, she 'almost certainly' had what Ogden refers to as 'sport sex' with Frank Sinatra. Within months of Hayward's death, however, she had got back together with her London lover of 30 years before, 79-year-old Averell Harriman. They were married in 1971 and enjoyed a fairytale, if geriatric, happiness until his death at 94 in 1986.

Pamela Digby was then one of the wealthiest widows in America, with houses in Washington, Virginia, Barbados, Sun Valley and the New York suburbs, a private jet to flit between them, and numerous staff to run them. Her invitations were the most sought after in Washington. She enjoys for life the income on Averell Harriman's estate, estimated at dollars 145m, and his Van Gogh blazes opulently from her wall. She needed a hobby. The one she found was surprising: politics, and Democratic politics at that. Her great house in Georgetown became the venue for 'issues dinners': earnest discussions between policy makers. In the Democratic party's hour of despair after 1980, she was the party's Angel of Mons. She created her own fundraising Political Action Committee (raising some dollars 12 million). Tough professional politicians credit her with a major role in the party's revival, and now, in Paris, she has the classic reward of the big campaign donor, except that, unlike generations of male fatcats, she actually works at being an ambassador.

Why the Democrats, though? Mrs Harriman once said that she regarded the Democratic party as the equivalent of the Conservative party in the Britain in which she was brought up. That is not the usual equation. The Democrats have always attracted some rich men, like Jack Kennedy and Averell Harriman himself, but the Republicans are in general considered the party of the rich. In Washington, though, the democratic party has been the smart party since Kennedy. And if there is one thing Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman understands, it is where the smart party is.

There are few parallels to this remarkable woman's life in the 20th century. Those who dislike her often call her a courtesan. Such comparisons do no justice to her sheer ability and phenomenal capacity for hard work. If anything, she resembles those tough intellectual female courtiers who used their sexual influence over Louis XV to fight the real political battles of the ancien regime. Christopher Ogden modestly hopes that his biography is 'a more objective and realistic portrait of a remarkable woman than would have been produced in an authorized memoir'. That is for sure.