From courtesan to queen of the Democrats: the life of an extraordinary Englishwoman ends

Clinton leads the tributes to Pamela Harriman who has died aged 76. Rupert Cornwell reports
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The Independent Online
One of the 20th century's truly remarkable lives ended yesterday as Pamela Harriman, the English nobleman's daughter who would become Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law, courtesan, Washington political hostess and finally American ambassador to France, died in a Paris hospital two months short of her 77th birthday.

She never recovered consciousness after suffering a stroke on Monday following a regular swim at the Ritz Hotel. Her son Winston Churchill, Tory MP for Davyhulme, was at her side when she died; she is expected to be buried alongside her husband, Averell Harriman, at his estate in New York, after a memorial service in Paris and an official funeral in Washington probably next week.

President Bill Clinton, the last political protege of a woman who was the uncrowned queen of the Democratic party and who had worked so hard to promote his election in 1992, paid tribute to her yesterday as "one of the most unusual and gifted people I ever met".

From Britain, homage may be less fulsome. In the country of her birth, the second half of her life in America, her marriages to the producer Leland Hayward and the diplomat-statesman Harriman, and her political ascent, have counted for little. In the circles whence she came, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman was considered gifted in one way alone: as a chaser of rich and powerful men.

Her wartime marriage to Randolph Churchill ended in 1946 and a few years later she moved to Paris, but not before flings with Americans then in London, including the CBS broadcaster Ed Murrow, and Harriman. This was the "Continental Period", defined by the lovers she charmed and tended, among them the playboy prince Aly Khan, the banker Elie de Rothschild and Gianni Agnelli. The British establishment seethed at what they saw as a gold-digger's cavortings, and would have fleeting revenge. Paris was where Pamela Harriman achieved her final triumph in the 1990s; but four decades earlier it was where she came closest to disgrace.

Pamela the socialite wanted nothing more than an invitation to the British embassy reception honouring the first state visit to France by the Queen in 1957. But it was not forthcoming. "I will not have that tart in the embassy," Cynthia Jebb, wife of the ambassador, Gladwyn Jebb, said, ending all argument.

But in America, the scarlet past has long since faded to a rosy footnote, a historical curiosity relating to a woman who had become not just an American citizen in 1971, but grande dame of the Democratic party. The Harrimans' Georgetown house was Washington's great political salon. There she spotted the promise of a young Arkansas governor called Bill Clinton. She promoted the more pragmatic "New Democrat" wing of the party of which Mr Clinton was a standard-bearer, and laboured mightily for his White House campaign. Her reward was the Paris embassy. Contrary to expectations, her performance there was much praised. Of late especially, she had to cope with a tense and prickly phase in Franco-American relations. But whatever the official problems, her standing and popularity with the French government never flagged.

She had wanted to leave her post at the end of last year. Cajoled by Mr Clinton, she agreed to stay till this summer. Now he must fill a vacancy far larger than anyone would have guessed when she arrived at the Faubourg St Honore embassy four years ago. As Dick Holbrooke, the former US negotiator on Bosnia and once her opposite number at the American embassy in Bonn, put it, "Pamela Harriman was one of the best ambassadors who ever served the United States."