Profile: The British grande dame and young Bill: Pamela Harriman, love, money and clout

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Camelot it ain't. Still, whatever will those who want to model the Labour Party on Bill Clinton's Democrats make of it? When, next week, the Democrats resume possession of the White House, the hero of the hour will be the barefoot boy from the second-poorest state. But one of the heroines of the new administraton will be Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, the last word in grandes dames, a woman whose mien and experience make crowned heads look provincial.

When the Democrats, demoralised by their long exclusion from executive power, were like a beaten army, tattered, dispirited, divided, where did they go for tea, sympathy and a reliable flow of five-figure cheques? Where but to the great brick Harriman mansion on N Street, the street where the Kennedys lived in elegant, 18th- century Georgetown in their day? Who but the daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill and mother of his namesake and grandson, the Conservative member for Oldham, sprightly widow of the railroad heir and statesman, Averell Harriman, and, before she married him, by all accounts, the lover of up to a dozen of the world's richest men? A woman who has more power in Washington than any Briton since her father-in-law.

Whatever the gossip writers may say, it is unlikely Mrs Harriman will take an important job in the Clinton administration. Her friends pooh-pooh the idea that she will return to London as the US ambassador to the Court of St James, though she became a US citizen after marrying Averell; it was, she said, one of the few presents she could give him.

In her early seventies, Pamela Harriman's famous auburn hair has tamed to pale gold, but her figure is as trim and her ankle as well turned as when she was the toast of wartime London and post-war Paris. She can still turn on her deep blue eyes and turn strong men's knees to water.

It would be a mistake, though, to see her as just a pretty face. On the night of Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980, when most Democratic leaders were in despair and confusion, she vowed the party would come back. She personally lobbied to set up Democrats for the Eighties. At first the old pros laughed, but the laughter changed to admiration when they saw how much money she could find. She raised enough, for example, in 1982 for a campaign that saved the seat of Paul Sarbanes, one of four liberal Democratic senators on the Republican right's hitlist. But what was even more of a surprise was her willingness to turn herself into what Washington calls a 'policy wonk'.

'It is a strange fact about our politics,' said a leading Democrat, 'but people are reluctant to pay dollars 1,000 for the pleasure of coming to my house in the suburbs to hear a politician blather on about what he will do for the country. But the same people are very happy to be invited to Pam's house in Georgetown to listen to the same spiel.'

There, in the tall drawing room with the Matisse and the Picasso and the Van Gogh, all the tattered chivalry of the Democratic Party - yesterday's men such as Ed Muskie, legendary fixers such as Bob Strauss, now US ambassador in Moscow, congressional barons such as the former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill - would go for good food, excellent wine and long, often boring talks about how the Democrats could develop the policies that would win back the White House. But one of the regulars in N Street was tomorrow's man: the youthful Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.

Pamela Harriman has always been attracted to rich, powerful men, men who knew what they wanted from their lives. They were attracted to her beauty and to that quality of 'saltiness' which men who know her well speak of. She has always known how to attract remarkable men because of the effort she put into arranging for them the things they wanted, great and small.

Pamela Digby was brought up to precisely the kind of rural aristocracy so affectionately caricatured, from the safe distance of Long Island, by P G Wodehouse in his Jeeves and Wooster stories. Home was the 1,500 acre Minterne estate in Dorset, in the family since the 16th century. Mummy was active in charities and gardening. Daddy, after commanding a battalion of the Coldstream Guards, retired to breed Guernsey cattle. Because of their passion for gardening, her mother was known to her friends as 'Pansy', her father 'Carnation'.

Pam grew up riding, finished in Germany (where she met Hitler, thanks to her friend Unity Mitford) and in France, and was working as a translator in the Foreign Office when destiny struck.

It took the form of a phone call from Randolph Churchill, son of the man who would be prime minister but was not yet. Randolph was a subaltern with a weekend pass, and he wanted a girl to take out to dinner. He came to the point. 'Lady Dunn said I could ask you out to dinner. What do you look like?'

'Red-headed and rather fat,' said Lady Pamela, then added: 'But Mummy says puppy-fat disappears.' In that, if in nothing else, Mummy was spot on.

Randolph and Pamela were married and young Winston was born. But the marriage was not a success. One morning in 1941 John Colville, Winston Churchill's principal private secretary, went to look at the damage after a fierce German raid. In the empty Horse Guards he ran into Pamela Churchill arm in arm with Averell Harriman, the handsome, worldly, immensely rich former playboy turned businessman whom Roosevelt had sent to London as his personal representative. He was 50 and married; she was 21. Colville, as he noted in his diary, took one look and was in no doubt about the nature of their relationship. But it was to be 30 years - and many liaisons - later before, as widow and widower, they made the marriage that took her to the centre of Democratic Washington.

If Harriman was the great love of Pamela's life, in the years between she found others to console her. After Harriman went back to his wife, Marie, Pamela was involved with Edward R Murrow, he of the husky voice and night-time radio reports from London rooftops telling America the city was burning. Some of Mrs Harriman's friends say the relationship with Murrow cut even deeper than that first fling with Harriman.

In any case, there were legendary, and hardly discreet, affairs in Paris, London and New York, with the Aga Khan, Frank Sinatra, Baron Elie de Rothschild, Gianni Agnelli and, it is believed, Jock Hay Whitney. Pamela threw herself into each relationship, determined to give pleasure, to give value, to keep her side of the bargain. When she was with Agnelli, a friend said, she spoke English with an Italian accent.

She had always known New York. One of her special friends there was Bill Paley, Ed Murrow's boss and the founder of CBS. But for a while, when she moved there, she was, if not broke as you and I mean it, at least constrained to run a gift shop, and unkind tongues said that among the gifts on sale were some that had been given to her. The tongues became unkinder when she married Leland Hayward in 1960. He was a big figure in show business, and his wife, Slim, was popular. New York women rallied to Slim's defence.

In marrying Hayward, Pamela acquired stepchildren. She seems to have been uncharacteristically gauche in her relations with them, and they were not kind to her. Her stepdaughter, Brooke Hayward, wrote a memoir, Haywire, that was witty and bitchy and became a bestseller. Leland Hayward died early in 1971 and Averell Harriman's wife, Marie, had died the previous September.

Pamela and Averell met again at a dinner party at the house of Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. A few days later the family gave a dinner for them at the Harriman estate on Long Island. The romance rekindled.

After the guests had gone, one of the family remembered, they heard a thump and looked across the garden. In the dim light they saw an erect figure in a dressing gown emerge from the master bedroom window and cross the garden to the guest room. They heard a faint tapping on the window, and the guest room door opened. The figure stepped inside, there was a muffled sound as of a piece of furniture being knocked over, and the family erupted in laughter.

By the Seventies, Averell Harriman was in his eighties, deaf and at long last in uncertain health; until his seventies he still went skiing. He was known in Washington as the Crocodile because of his sharp tongue. But he had all the prestige of one of the richest men in America who was also an authentic elder statesman: he had been Roosevelt's personal envoy to Stalin as well as Churchill, Governor of New York and an adviser to Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson.

The marriage was very successful. Pamela threw herself into making Averell's life comfortable, and made beautiful homes for him in Barbados, in the Virginia hunt country and in Georgetown. She also made herself the Washington hostess with the mostest. When he died in 1986, she inherited an estimated dollars 75m ( pounds 50m), not counting the paintings.

Glamorous she is beyond measure. But is she important? 'No,' said one Georgetown authority, 'but she does have influence.' 'No,' said another, 'but she does have a certain glamour, and she did back Clinton early.' She is what the American Boy Scouts call a den-mother to the Democrats, said a third. There are a lot of rich people in Hollywood and New York who give money to the Democrats. She has a knack of receiving their money in such a way that they feel their giving has been ennobled.

Her politics are a little confusing, if not confused. She says she is both a Tory and a Democrat. 'For me,' she once said, 'the Tory party and the Democratic Party were very much alike. You took care of people, and you were compassionate. There was never any doubt in my mind that I would be a Democrat.' On the same theme, on another occasion: 'People don't understand there's a big difference between being a socialist in England and a Democrat here.'

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