OBITUARY : Pamela Harriman

The story of Pamela Digby Harriman forms a fascinating bridge between the rumbustious 18th-century novel and its rather more vulgar 20th-century descendant, the airport best- seller. In the span of her life, she had the unusual distinction of being a double "Hon", born as the daughter of the 11th Lord Digby and, finally, in a totally different guise during the last few years of her life, as the Ambassador of the United States to France, the country in which she had provoked much gossip as an ambitious and pleasure-seeking young woman. An interesting comparison of cultures is provided by the different reactions to her eventful life, a prurient mixture of envy and disapproval from Anglo-Saxons, yet an amused admiration from the French.

Pamela Digby grew up between the wars at Minterne, the family's house in Dorset. As a 12-year-old girl, she is reputed to have jumped the phallus of the nearby Cerne Abbas giant on her horse, exclaiming "God, it's big!" Only one of her Digby ancestors interested her. This was Jane Digby, whose life of amorous adventure scandalised Victorian London. Married to the much older Lord Ellenborough, Jane embarked on her first affair at 19, and soon fell in love with Prince Schwarzenberg, with whom she conducted a very public affair and had two children. Divorced from Ellenborough, exiled from England and abandoned in Paris by Schwarzenberg, she left for Munich and became the mistress of King Ludwig of Bavaria. Other liaisons followed, taking her eastwards, first to Greece and finally to Syria, where she married a sheikh on condition that he gave up his harem.

Pamela Digby's life was to bear numerous similarities, but her progression was not towards the romance of the Orient. She recognised the rising financial power of the United States. For Pam, it was almost as if she had heard the cry "Go west, young woman!"

The first American to influence her was Lady Baillie, the chatelaine of the beautiful, moated Leeds Castle which, with Whitney money, she had restored and redecorated, using the smartest French designers of the day. In the last two years before the Second World War, Pam loved the elegance of Leeds, which was so different to Minterne, and found that she infinitely preferred night-clubs and trips to France to stay with grand friends, such as Daisy Fellowes. She was determined to leave the predictable world of hunt balls behind her.

Pam was determined too to be good company. She was pretty, auburn-haired and sexy, with "kitten eyes full of innocent fun", in Evelyn Waugh's double- edged description. She always made the best of her looks, constantly struggling with a tendency to put on weight. There was little she could do about one defect, which attracted the witticism, "Pam might have been beautiful if she had not had such a short neck, but that's because her head's screwed on so tight."

Men, as she had recognised quickly, controlled everything in those days, and the only way for a woman to get on in the world was through influencing those with real power. In what was incorrectly described (except for its speed) as a whirlwind romance, she married Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill's only son, a month and a day after the war broke out. Nancy Mitford described Pam as "a red-headed bouncing little thing, regarded as a joke among her contemporaries", who "flew to the altar with Randolph". According to Mitford's perhaps rather embroidered account, Pam admitted to a mutual friend, "Randolph is not in love with me, but I look healthy and he wishes to perpetuate the name of Churchill."

The marriage produced the required heir, the present Winston Churchill MP, but was almost immediately a disaster. Randolph was often furiously drunk and gambled away what little money he had recklessly. Unpaid bills accumulated frighteningly. Pam learnt with regret that there was little influence, no power and even less security without money. The only mercy was Randolph's departure for the war.

Pam often stayed with her parents-in-law, meeting future statesmen such as Charles de Gaulle who, fresh in his hated English exile, answered her conversation-opener at lunch about French art with a statement that his country's present tragedy did not permit him to waste time on such matters. She had better luck in London. Emerald Cunard, another Anglicised American, invited her to a party, where she met Averell Harriman, Roosevelt's special emissary, who was rich, good-looking and an international polo player. The physical attraction on both sides seems to have been instantaneous. Pam was certainly not put off by the fact that Averell was married and old enough to be her father. In fact, she even shared a flat later with his daughter Kathleen, who had no idea at first of her father's relationship with his new friend.

Pam always prided herself on personifying Britain's special relationship with the United States and, to be fair, she did manage, through small dinner parties and her Churchill connection, to iron out any mis- understandings in the Anglo-Saxon cultural divide. In 1943 Harriman left London to become ambassador in Moscow, and it was not long before Pam and Ed Murrow, the broadcaster, became lovers. She followed Murrow to the States, but Murrow returned to his wife, and she was alone again.

Like many who had an exciting war, Pam found the peace hard at first. Winston Churchill was out of government, her connection with the family was severed through divorce in 1946, and she had very little money. London, despite the victory, was grey and ration- restricted. She moved to Paris where she had a famous fling with the most famous of lovers, Aly Khan. It was apparently from him that she learned the trick of assuming a gaze of hypnotic interest when listening to the opposite sex.

When Aly Khan met Rita Hayworth, Pam, with convenient timing, fell in love with Gianni Agnelli, the heir to the Fiat empire. He installed her in an apartment on the Avenue de New York, with a car and chauffeur. "What a clever girl she is," old Lord Digby remarked to a friend, with touching innocence, after a visit. "It's amazing what she manages on her little allowance."

Pam's determination to become Gianni's wife, even embracing Roman Catholicism, was doomed. In 1952, he left her in no doubt that marriage with a divorced woman was out of the question. Pam then transferred her favours to Baron Elie de Rothschild for the next five years, but her position in Paris became increasingly difficult, especially when she tried to be received in official circles. Just before the Queen's visit in April 1957, Cynthia Jebb, the wife of the British ambassador, firmly rejected pleas from friends for Pam to be included at the reception. Realising that Paris would continue to be unforgiving to a woman without husband or official position, Pam moved to New York. In 1960, she married Leland Hayward, a theatrical producer and the chairman of Pacific Airways. Her American life had begun in earnest.

After Hayward's death 11 years later, she was accused by his children of grabbing all their father's money. She had certainly been a devoted wife, during his illness, and perhaps believed that she had earned it. But there can be little doubt that, in finding herself a single woman again, she did not want to have to face the world without as much money as she could muster. Pamela later found herself portrayed less than sympathetically as Lady Ina Coolbirth in Truman Capote's novel Answered Prayers (published posthumously in 1986).

When Pam heard (after a fling with Frank Sinatra) that Averell Harriman's wife had died, she was eager for contact to be arranged again. Harriman had almost certainly been the love of her life, and remained so until the end of his, yet her renewed seduction of him appears to have been remarkably calculated. (She had acquired the nickname the "Widow of Opportunity".)

Harriman did not just offer a safe harbour for the rest of her days, he offered the power base she had always longed for. She devoted herself to Averell and his needs, but, best of all, this aristocratic doyen of the Democratic Party was happy to help advance the political ambitions of his "American by choice" wife.

Pam, using him skilfully as the front man, once he became too old for office and serious political debate, began a well-judged programme of bringing influential Democrats together to analyse the cause of the party's failures from Carter onwards, then she planned its modernisation through picking the right personalities. She brought Al Gore, her first choice, and Bill Clinton together. Whether or not she contributed Harriman money, she certainly proved a most effective fund-raiser after Averell's death, and when "her boy" eventually won the Presidency in 1992, Pamela's triumph was complete.

The novel, or perhaps the television mini-series, would have ended with Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman being sworn in as the United States ambassador to France, as she was in June 1993, then receiving all those who had snubbed her years before. Real life went on for nearly four more years. She was an energetic, and competent ambassador, but her time of glory was soured by financial disaster, and legal wrangles with Harriman relatives. Moral judgements, as in all novels, should be left to the reader, but life in the post-war world would have been boring without her.

Pamela Beryl Digby, political patron and ambassador: born Farnborough, Hampshire 20 March 1920; chairman, Democrats for the 1980s 1980-90; at- large member, Democratic National Committee 1988-93; Chairman, Quarterly Policy Issues Forum Democratic Governors' Association 1990-92; National co-chair, Clinton/Gore presidential campaign 1992; United States Ambassador to Paris 1993-97; married 1939 Major Randolph Spencer Churchill (one son; marriage dissolved 1946), 1960 Leland Hayward (died 1971), 1971 W. Averell Harriman (died 1986); died Paris 5 February 1997.

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