The life and loves of a society queen

Before Bill Clinton made her his ambassador in Paris, Pamela Harriman was known principally for a string of extraordinary love affairs. Now she has announced she is leaving her post and American society is waiting to see what the British-born grande dame will do next. Rupert Cornwell reports
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It would be unwise to wager on it, but one of the most remarkable careers of this century may at last be winding down. Last week Pamela Harriman, debutante in the London season of 1938, daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill, recipient of love letters from no fewer than three participants in the 1945 Yalta conference, post-war companion to the playboys of Europe, more recently glittering Washington socialite, Democratic party powerbroker, and loyalest and most enthusiastic of Bill Clinton's supporters for the Presidency in 1992, let it be known that by the end of this year, once the US election is out of the way, she will step down as American Ambassador to Paris.

From the 14th-century Minterne Magna in Dorset, where a vivacious red- haired girl named Pamela Beryl Digby spent an idyllic childhood between the wars, to the gilt and crystal salons of the rue du Faubourg St Honore, it is but a few hundred miles. But in other ways, the journey she has travelled is immeasurable. Over 76 years, almost everything has changed - her name, her occupation, her nationality, her reputation. She has seen war and known some of the greatest men of the century, and loved many others. But a life that began on 20 March 1920 has three constants: an ability to please men, an extraordinary knack of making influential friends, and a driving, often underestimated, ambition to succeed in her own right. Above all, though, it is an odyssey from the Old World to the New, the passage of a scion of the minor British aristocracy to the very pinnacle of esteem and celebrity in Washington, DC.

For Pamela Digby, the War was the first of two great turning points, marking the beginning of her spiritual break with Britain. The story, as always, is measured in men. Her marriage in 1939 to the drunken, debt- ridden Randolph Churchill, which produced Winston Jr, was an emotional disaster. But what better source of contacts and connections than a Prime Minister as father-in-law? With one exception (Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of Air Staff) her liaisions in wartime London were mostly American: the socialite and diplomat Jock Whitney, Ed Murrow of CBS fame, and of course Averell Harriman, whom Pamela met when he was lend-Lease envoy to Britain, and who half a lifetime and half a world away she would encounter again - and this time marry. The Americans' influence could not have been more profound.

As Christopher Ogden wrote in Life of the Party, his admirable 1994 biography of Pamela, the qualities that attracted her to America made her own country increasingly unpalatable. "She cannot tolerate Britain or most Britons. She dislikes the place, its pessimism and compulsion to look to the past, and the empty headed arrogance of too many men in high position. She spent her adult life avoiding the place." After her wretched experience with Randolph, hardly a British male features in her curriculum vitae. And the British establishment answered in kind.

Her wartime entanglements with emigre Americans, her long spells on the continent with a succession of wealthy paramours while Britain endured the rigours of post-war rationing, made her a figure of scandal, moral traitress to a battered Albion. Ogden recounts an episode in 1957 as Pamela pulled every string to secure an invitation to the official Embassy reception in Paris marking the first visit to France of Elizabeth II. But to no avail. Cynthia Jebb, the wife of the then Ambassador, Gladwyn Jebb, was adamant: "I will not have that tart in the Embassy."

Revenge takes many forms. Four decades on, the tart is ensconced on the Faubourg St. Honore, next door to the building where that slight was delivered. Only it is not the British but the American Embassy, and Pamela Churchill Harriman is not the Ambassador's wife, but the Ambassador.

Back in the late Forties and Fifties, however, her liaisons could have filled the Owners' Enclosure at Longchamps on Arc de Triomphe day; among them Aly Khan, Elie de Rothschild, and Gianni Agnelli - all partners with essential distingishing features: connections matching her own, exquisite taste, and very large quantities of money. "She was an ideal housekeeper for Agnelli, she ran his life perfectly," according to Taki Theodoracopoulos, socialite and friend of the Fiat magnate. Truman Capote, who also came to know her well, provides a deliciously bitchy description from those times: "She's interesting because she has fantastic taste ... but she has no intellectual capacities at all. She's some sort of marvellous primitive. I don't think she's ever read a book or even a newspaper except for the gossip column. Pamela's a geisha girl who's made every man happy. They just don't want to marry her."

But all that would change with her marriage to Averell Harriman. She had met him again at (where else) a party given by Katherine Graham, proprietor of the Washington Post in early 1971. He was 79 and she 51, but the sparks flew as fiercely as 30 years before, and by 27 September they had married. That December Pamela severed her last link with Britain by becoming an American citizen. With astonishing speed the metamorphosis into society hostess, political activist and future Ambassador had begun. Ever the perfect housekeeper, she ran Averell's life, meeting world leaders and becoming part of the Democratic establishment of which he was a pillar. When Harriman died in 1986, she took over his role, his contacts - and his money, a $100m fortune that for the first time made her financially secure. The price of her refusal to share her husband even in death was a bitter feud with Averell Harriman's heirs. But finally she was a power in her own right.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the age d'or of Pamela Harriman in Washington. Her early 19th-century redbrick home in Georgetown, its crown jewel the stunning Van Gogh still-life White Roses, was the social and spiritual fulcrum of Democrats in exile. She ran a hugely influential political action committee called Democrats in the Eighties, but better known as PamPAC. Ronald Reagan and George Bush were in the White House, but her parties, not theirs, were the capital's most prized.

In some respects, the Washington she will return to is a drabber place. Her departure to Paris, and the death last December of Evangeline Bruce, ended the legendary era of great Democratic hostesses. The best the Republicans have to offer is Arianna Huffington (nee Stassinopoulos). But a Greek accent is no match for a British one, especially if your middle name isn't Churchill, and compared to a Harriman in her eighth decade, Ms Huffington is a pretentious, faintly absurd figure. As for other pristine standard bearers of the Contract with America, they wouldn't venture within miles of possible infection at an old-fashioned Georgetown salon. Even the leader of the revolution, Newt Gingrich, is a quieter, more chastened soul these days, scarcely visible except when the House Speaker makes the odd appearance as guest host on Larry King live. Whatever else, Pamela Harriman is not a creature of the electronic age.

Even old alliances have frayed. Clark Clifford, the Democratic lawayer and elder statesman, for whom she gave a much noted reception in 1991 when Clifford was a virtual pariah over his involvement in the BCCI bank scandal, is now a foe. Pamela's quarrel with the Harriman heirs turned poisonous, with a lawsuit alleging she had mismanaged and squandered $30m placed for them in a trust. A settlement was reached last Christmas, under which she agreed with the Harriman family jointly to pursue "certain claims against other parties." These parties include former fellow trustee Clark Clifford, now almost 90.

However, politics once more may yet be a distraction from such unpleasantnesses. Back in 1988, her poulain for the Democratic nomination was a promising young Senator from Tennessee named Al Gore Jr, well connected to the Washington establishment and - just as Averell would have liked - deeply versed in foreign policy. But Gore's campaign quickly collapsed, and Pamela would have to make do with Michael Dukakis, whose appearance at her home is remembered mainly for the anxiety of his hostess that he would not slip off the narrow podium where he stood and crash through the $60m Van Gogh on the wall immediately behind him.

The painting survived but, at the hands of George Bush, Dukakis did not. Preoccupied by a serious injury to his son, and like most other potential candidates intimidated by Bush's huge lead in the polls after the Gulf War, Gore chose not to run in 1992. Harriman gravitated to Clinton, attracted by his intellect and energy - not to mention networking skills that matched her own. Once he had won the nomination, Clinton delighted Harriman by picking Gore as his running mate, to which she responded by raising $3.2m at a single fundraiser that September at her farm in Virginia. On his first trip to the capital as President-elect, a glittering soiree for Clinton at N Street was preordained. So, too, was some reward from the new administration for her years of service to the party. It would be the Paris Embassy, the job once held by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamain Franklin, now by the daughter- in-law of Winston Churchill.

But even for a woman of her astounding energy and gift for life, four years in one of the highest profile and most demanding posts in the US diplomatic service has exacted its price. "I'm ready to go back to Washington," she told the Washington Post last week. "It's been nice, but there is a limit to how long you can live a public life. You're on most of the time. It's been fascinating, but I've had enough."

And so back to Al Gore, who may be the final chapter in Pamela Harriman's quarter-century involvement with the Democratic Party. Whether Clinton wins or loses this autumn, his vice-president is sending unmistakeable signals he will run in 2000. Those signals will certainly have been picked up by Gore's keen supporter on the Faubourg St Honore. The era of "PamPAC" may be done, but next time around, Pamela Harriman may wrap up her unfinished business of 1988. And if so, for a brief moment at least, an old order in Washington will have been restored and one of the 20th century's more remarkable women leaves her mark on the beginning of the twenty-first.

A SOCIALITE'S DIARY

You have to be careful what you say these days, but Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman is undoubtedly a woman with a "past". Born in 1920 to the 11th Baron Digby, whose family seat is Minterne, Dorset, she became known for her deft acquisition of wealth, power and husbands. In 1939 she married Randolph Churchill, son of Sir Winston, within weeks of meeting him; the union produced another Winston Churchill, now the Conservative MP for Davyhulme. The couple were divorced in 1945, and Pamela became involved with broadcaster Ed Murrow and Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli before moving to America in 1959. The following year she married Broadway impresario Leland Hayward, producer of The Sound of Music, to whose children, Brook and Bill Hayward, she was an unwelcome stepmother.

Having first met American statesman and financier Averell Harriman at the end of the War, Pamela married him in 1971, after Leland Hayward's death. Aged 79 when they married, he died in 1986, leaving her half his $64m fortune.

Averell Harriman's daughters from a previous marriage, Mary Fisk and Kathleen Mortimer, recently took Pamela to court accusing her of squandering the inheritance and plundering the $30m placed in trust for the children and grandchildren. The case was settled, however, with a "mutual and reciprocal redistribution of family assets" at the beginning of 1996.

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