Top diplomat was 'courtesan of the century'

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The Independent Online
The wife of the British ambassador in Paris was adamant, 'I will not have that tart in this embassy.' And so, despite her utmost striving, Pamela Churchill was not invited to a reception for Queen Elizabeth II to mark the monarch's first official visit to France. But the snub dates back 37 years. In the meantime 'that tart' has come a very long way.

Pamela Churchill has changed her name, her nationality and her reputation. Today she is back in Paris, residing on the Faubourg St Honore, next door to the building where that slight was delivered in 1957. Her new home is the US embassy residence. And Pam Harriman, now a tireless, resplendent 74, is not the ambassador's wife. She is the ambassador.

This exalted assignment is one capstone of the career of a remarkable 20th-century woman. This week has brought another, which its subject has not appreciated as much - a biography less concerned with Pam Harriman, powerbroker and grande dame of Washington's Democratic establishment, than with Pamela Churchill, Winston's daughter-in-law and once scarlet lady of half the Western hemisphere. She is reportedly most displeased.

Diplomatic niceties preclude Ms Harriman from saying so herself. But according to sources quoted in the Washington Post, she is 'extremely unhappy' at the scant attention given in the book to her later political endeavours, not least on behalf of President Bill Clinton.

Not that what Christopher Ogden, a former Time magazine correspondent, has written is salacious. But the title alone, Life of the Party, is clue enough. So too are the chapter headings, 'Averell,' 'Ed,' 'Frank,' 'Gianni,' named after the small army of rich, powerful, older - and almost always married - men who have decorated her life, many of them simultaneously.

'Averell' is the statesman- diplomat Averell Harriman, with whom she had a passionate wartime affair in London and who would become the last of her three husbands in 1971, when he was 79. 'Ed' was Ed Murrow, the legendary CBS broadcaster. Another paramour was Marshal of the Royal Air Force Charles Portal. 'Gianni' was Gianni Agnelli of Fiat. There was Baron Elie de Rothschild and Aly Khan. 'Frank' was Frank Sinatra with whom Pamela, claims Ogden, had a brief fling.

According to her biographer she was 'the courtesan of the century'. For Truman Capote, she was 'a geisha girl, who made every man happy'. For the socialite Taki Theodoracopoulos, friend of Agnelli, 'she was the perfect housekeeper, she ran Gianni's life perfectly'. Pamela liked men, money and the high life. But to her liaisons she brought 24- carat connections, a dynamic personality, a shrewd intelligence, and a steadfast affection. Not a bad image - but not quite one befitting an ambassador to France.

The biography was originally meant to be official. But Random House publishers bid dollars 1.625m ( pounds 1.08m) for the rights; for that price, Ms Harriman assumed, she would have to tell all. She panicked, says Mr Ogden, and dropped the project. By then she had accorded him about 40 hours of interviews. After failing to reach agreement with her, Mr Ogden decided to go ahead.

Life of the Party is the result, chronicling her metamorphosis from party circuit gold-digger of the 1950s to one of the most powerful and heeded women in Washington. Mr Ogden says he interviewed 200 people. Of Pamela Harriman in the boudoir we learn relatively little, apart from the claim by her second husband, the late Broadway impresario Leland Hayward, that she 'could do sensational tricks with ice cubes'.

Alas, this titbit, like the remark of the British ambassadress, is attributed in the notes to a 'confidential source'.