Pamela Harriman: hauteur, corruption

November 24, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,special to the sun

"Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman," by Sally Bedell Smith. Simon and Schuster. 514 pages. $27.50. Two years after Christopher Ogden's best-selling "Life of the Party" comes Sally Bedell Smith's biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman. Do we need to hear more? Yet where Ogden excelled in depicting the nuances of English social life and is more politically sophisticated, he lapsed into justifications of his subject's behavior.

Bedell Smith's colder-eyed reprise, which refuses to flatter the notorious Harriman, is entirely welcome. With no apologies she depicts the adventures of this 20th-century incarnation of William Thackeray's Becky Sharp.

Harriman emerges as a social-climbing, betraying she-devil who claws her way into society and fortune unimpeded by education, a moral sense, conscience, self-awareness or any loyalty to the truth. An irresistible story of the rise and almost-fall of an overreacher, Smith's "Reflected Glory" is as amusing as Thackeray's "Vanity Fair."

As a girl, Pamela Digby with her luxuriant red hair, creamy white skin and upper-class hauteur, attempted to follow the advice of her mother, Lady Digby: "Success was nothing less than a husband with large holdings and an old title." Harriman first married a man whom she did not love to acquire the Churchill name. Their son she neglected throughout his childhood.

While she had to be content with the Honorable that was her birthright, the large holdings turned out to be those of octogenarian Averell Harriman, whom she reawakened with a sexuality that left him putty in her hands. By the end, after a nasty lawsuit by the Harriman heirs, a story unavailable to Ogden, Pamela is compelled to live on only a million dollars a year in spendable income.

But gossip is not the point of this excellent book. The satire gives way to a story of political corruption as Pamela climbs into the higher reaches of the Democratic Party.

The "courtesan of the century" organizes her own Political Action Committee, called, what else but PamPAC. Her reward from a grateful Bill Clinton is the ambassadorship to France, venue of her days as a kept woman whose married paramours included Gianni Agnelli and Elie de Rothschild, men who wouldn't have dreamed of marrying her.

What is appalling is the pervasiveness of the corruption. Here is Arthur Schlesinger Jr. ghost-writing the courtesan's op-ed pieces exchange for vacations in Barbados. There is Ted Sorensen charging Mrs. H. three million dollars for the nasty task of refusing to pay a cent to her then chosen authorized biographer, Ogden, who put in six months of work done before she changed her mind about the project. And worse, there sits Harriman at our embassy in Paris having bought her respectablility from the Democratic Party, her adviser a rich Republican.

"Reflected Glory," a bona fide page turner, will make a tasty Christmas present. Sally Bedell Smith has delivered a fascinating account of an unscrupulous woman. This intriguing expose of the exploits of a selfish, cold-hearted fortune hunter offers a zinger of an object lesson.

Pamela Harriman's rise to power offers a sad commentary on the tawdriness of our political culture - for which the responsiblity is bipartisan. No wonder Generation X has turned cynical about American politics!

Joan Mellen's most recent of her thirteen books is the dua biography "Hellman and Hammett," published this summer by HarperCollins. She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University.

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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