Charm and beauty and their rewards

July 18, 1994|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Special to The Sun

Her second husband, Broadway agent and producer Leland Hayward, called her "the greatest courtesan in the 20th century." Truman Capote described her as a "geisha girl who made every man happy. They just didn't want to marry her."

Bill Clinton, as reward for Pamela Harriman's prodigious fund-raising for his presidential campaign and for 12 years of raising money for Democrats at dinner parties at her Georgetown home, made this finishing-school product ambassador to France. Now 74, the former mistress of Edward R. Murrow, Gianni Agnelli (head of Fiat) and Ellie Rothschild is in that post now; it can be argued that her hard work and substantive service beyond fund-raising made her a solid choice.

Ms. Harriman's three husbands were Randolph Churchill, the drunken, womanizing son of Winston; Hayward, with whom she apparently enjoyed a successful 12-year marriage, and Averell Harriman, with whom she had an adulterous affair in the 1940s and a marriage in the '70s and early '80s. Her long list of lovers includes Harriman, Aly Khan and (maybe) Frank Sinatra. Their common denominator was that they all had mountains of money.

Pamela Digby was born in 1920 in Dorset, England, the eldest of four children and the daughter of a baron. After the conventional polishing in France and Germany, the restless Pamela got out of rural England as quickly as possible at age 18 and never looked back.

She married Randolph Churchill at 19, had the requisite heir, and parlayed her position as daughter-in-law of the prime minister into a seat of enormous power in London. Averell Harriman had been sent there to expedite the Lend-Lease Act, and Pamela Churchill used her name, charm, pretty face and voluptuous figure to become his guide, hostess and bedmate. He was 28 years her senior; both were married. At 21, she was the most politically and socially well-connected woman in London.

When Harriman became American ambassador to the Soviet Union, she took up with a few American and Canadian officers and with Edward R. Murrow, also married. Mr. Murrow was describing the war in Europe to America on CBS radio and developing the news format that is still used by broadcasters today. By then, her first marriage was officially over, and young Winston was settled in a childhood and adolescence filled with nannies and boarding schools and nearly devoid of parents. Today, he is a controversial member of Parliament.

When Murrow's wife had a baby, Pamela was dumped, according to the book -- a situation that repeated itself many times. In her relationships, she was a chameleon, becoming what her man wanted her to be -- perfect hostess, deeply knowledgeable about art or horses or theater or politics. She even converted to Catholicism during her affair with Agnelli.

When she married Hayward, she insisted that they have their first marriages annulled and that they have a Catholic wedding two years after the civil one. She became an American citizen when she married Harriman (who died in 1986) and joined the Democratic Party because he was a Democrat. Author Christopher Ogden comments that if she'd married Nelson Rockefeller, she'd have been a Republican.

Having lots of money was vital to Pamela Harriman, but over the years, she has been vague about her source of supply. Randolph Churchill ran up huge bills, and after she extricated herself from that mess, she was apparently determined always to have great wealth. Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper tycoon, was a good )) friend, sometime employer and, evidently, supplier of income. Her father and the Churchills gave her a little, but she has never explained how she always had designer clothes, a Rolls-Royce and sumptuous digs, even between romances. One of her few female mentors was the Duchess of Windsor.

"The Life of the Party" is an unauthorized biography, but it was commissioned by Mrs. Harriman before her appointment as ambassador to France. The author taped more than 40 hours with the subject about her life, but she backed out when a publisher made a serious offer, and she didn't even pay Mr. Ogden for expenses.

One can imagine her listening to the tapes and deciding that perhaps it would not be politic for her to tell such a chronicle about herself. Mr. Ogden, recognizing a good story and an endangered species when he saw one, pressed on.

Ms. Egerton is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Life of the Party: The Biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman"

Author: Christopher Ogden

Publisher: Little, Brown

0$ Length, price: 469 pages, $24.95

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