Biographies

Pamela Harriman

Name: Pamela Harriman
Bith Date: March 20, 1920
Death Date: February 5, 1997
Place of Birth: Farnborough, England
Nationality: American
Gender: Female
Occupations: ambassador, political activist, political fundraiser

Pamela Harriman (1920-1997) enjoyed the acquaintance of a number of world leaders and international men of wealth and influence. At various times married to the son of Winston Churchill, to a Hollywood and Broadway producer, and to a former governor of New York, Harriman was at first noted for her personal charm and ability to attract powerful men. However, in the final decade of her life she made significant contributions to the Democratic Party and served as the U.S. ambassador to France.

Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman led an extraordinary life among the world's rich and powerful. She parlayed an aristocratic British lineage into social position, political prominence, and tremendous wealth. Initially fueled by youthful determination to escape country life in Dorset, the rebellious, high-spirited girl settled in London after coming out before King George VI and then spending the requisite year "finishing" on the Continent. Shortly after arriving, a series of events and opportunities presented themselves that, once taken, shaped the course her life would take: she took a job as a translator in the Foreign Office; Great Britain declared war on Germany; and she met and married Randolph Churchill, son of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Although the marriage soon failed, the prime minister, who genuinely liked her, recognized her charm and ability to gain the attention of influential men. Under his tutelage she learned politics, while hosting the "Churchill Club" to help the prime minister foster Anglo-American relations.

An Independent Woman

After the war, Harriman used the Churchill name as an entree to the socially elite first in France and Italy, and later in the United States. Men were reportedly mesmerized by her. During what has been called the "courtesan" years, her name was linked romantically with millionaire diplomat Averell Harriman, playboy Jock Whitney, Prince Aly Khan, Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli, Baron Elie de Rothschild, and Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, among others. She was known for attaching herself to smart, wealthy men, and devoting her time and energy to supporting their interests. In 1960, she met and married Hollywood producer Leland Hayward; and after his death 11 years later, married one of her first loves, Averell Harriman. In an odd twist of fate, by marrying Harriman, her focus returned to politics--this time in the United States. Her new husband was a diplomat, one of the country's preeminent statesmen, a former governor of New York, and a scion of the Democratic Party. She dedicated herself to advancing her husband's interests and by so doing became a unifying force in the Democratic Party.

In the 1980s, Harriman organized a political action committee to revitalize the party after it suffered humiliating losses to the Republicans led by Ronald Reagan. Her efforts were credited with much of the turnaround that led to Bill Clinton's election as president in 1992. In return, Clinton appointed her ambassador to France. She gained the grudging respect of her detractors as a skilled diplomat and mediator, and was finally known for her own ability rather than that of her man. At her death in 1997, President Clinton remembered Harriman, saying, "She was one of the most unusual and gifted people I ever met....She was a source of judgment and inspiration to me, a source of constant good humor and charm and real friendship. I am here in no small measure because she was there."

From Country Charm to City Sophisticate

Born Pamela Digby in Farnborough, England, Harriman was the oldest daughter of the eleventh Baron Digby who served in the House of Lords and as the governor of Dorset. She enjoyed growing up at Minterne, the family's 1,500-acre estate, she but as an adolescent became impatient with country life. Like so many of the upper classes, the Digbys were land rich but cash poor. Once her "finishing" was complete, she realized she would have to work if she wanted to live in London. Through family connections (nine members of the family were serving in parliament) she easily got a job at the Foreign Office. She was ambitious, but also plump and a bit self-conscious--not yet the beauty she was to become--when she accepted a blind date with Randolph Churchill. He was 26, a strong-willed journalist and lieutenant, also known to be unreliable, a drinker, and a gambler. In the wartime fervor, he was determined to get married before leaving London again. Caught up in the moment, Digby said yes when he proposed two weeks later.

By the age 20, she was pregnant, and her husband had been called into service. The elder Churchills insisted she move into 10 Downing Street, thus placing her at the center of power and politics. Time reported that the prime minister doted on her, played bezique with her, kept her up all night listening to him brood over the delayed invasion of Sicily, and introduced her to anyone he received. "The experience colored my whole life," she said. "It seemed natural for me to be entertaining General Marshall or General Eisenhower."

Meanwhile, her husband began sending his gambling debts to her with the expectation that she pay them without telling his father. She went to Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook--a newspaper publisher and member of Churchill's War Cabinet. According to an article in New York by Michael Gross, Beaverbrook bailed her out--paid the debt, let her put her child at his country home, found her a job, and a place to stay in the Dorchester Hotel. The Churchills' marriage was over, though they did not divorce until 1947.

Tex McCrary, an American journalist in London during the war, told Gross in New York how Beaverbrook taught her to be a catalyst. He said, "It was part of Pamela's job to know Americans. . . . Beaverbrook's intelligence system was unparalleled." She met Averell Harriman, President Roosevelt's special liaison to Britain, within a week of his arrival. According to People, both were smitten, and an affair began that lasted until Harriman left London. The young Mrs. Churchill, as she was then known, blossomed during those years, both as a vivacious beauty and as an intelligent hostess. She co-created the Churchill Club, humorously dubbed "Eisenhowerplatz," a place where top officials could meet informally. Rudy Abramson, Averell Harriman's biographer, added, "the hostess was always the main attraction." After Harriman left, she had relationships with other powerful men, including radio broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.

Nonconformist Abroad

After the war, Harriman wrote articles for Beaverbrook's Evening Standard from all over the world. She settled in Paris, her son in a Swiss school; and, as Gross said in the New York story, "She moved in many worlds." Jet-setter John Galliher added, "When she came to Paris, she was a star." To the political elite, she added the international social set, and the worlds of art, fashion, and theater. She was subsequently supported by wealthy men, including Gianni Agnelli, heir to the Fiat fortune; Elie de Rothschild, head of Chateau Lafite vineyard; and Stavros Niarchos, Greek shipping magnate. Sally Bedell Smith, author of Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman, has asserted, "for nearly 20 years she lived as a courtesan in the precise, centuries old definition of the word."

Harriman began spending more time in the United States, and in 1960 met mega-agent and producer Leland Hayward, whose film credits included South Pacific and Gypsy, and who represented Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, and Judy Garland. Hayward's marriage was already troubled; he proceeded to get a quick divorce, and they were married a year later. According to Time, they were social stars of the mid-sixties. Again, she adapted her world to his and turned their home into a place where producers, publishers, and other opinion makers met. By all accounts, the Haywards had a happy marriage. In 1971 Leland Hayward died after a series of strokes. Hayward's son, Bill, later commented, "Pamela was very fearful and, I'm sure, resentful about having to fend for herself." While she was not broke, she had to pay another husband's debts, and she and his children ended up fighting over a small estate.

Harriman said of that time, "It was like starting all over again." Ironically, Averell Harriman's wife of 40 years died about the same time. Shortly thereafter, they were invited to the same dinner party, and within six months were married. He was 79; she was 51. Kitty Hart, a friend of both said, "The marriage brought her all she cared about: love, lovely things, and the political arena." For his wedding gift, she presented her U.S. citizenship papers to him. As reported in New York, even her many detractors eventually had to admit that she added years to Harriman's life by keeping him active and involved.

On Her Own

It was a Republican era in Washington, D.C., and the Harrimans took the lead pulling Democrats together. "No one else was left with that eminence, authority, historical reach, social class, and policy credentials," said Tony Podesta, a lobbyist. In 1980, she was named Democratic Woman of the Year. It was also a year in which Democrats lost badly, and she decided to start a political-action committee, Democrats for the '80s, which at first was derisively dismissed as "PamPac." As the organization evolved, it was patterned after the Churchill Club. She began hosting successful "issue dinners" to bring the old guard together with newcomers and to raise money. She and the organization soon gained respect, and when Averell Harriman died in 1986, she became the doyenne of the Democratic Party, working tirelessly to raise Democrats' spirits as well as fill their coffers.

When Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, Speaker of the House Tom Foley said, "No one in this country can take greater credit for winning the White House than Pamela." As recognition and reward, Clinton appointed her ambassador to France. The French were extremely pleased, and she proved herself a hard-working and effective diplomat. Historian Michael Beschloss commented, "She understands domestic policy better than any ambassador to France since Sargent Shriver under Johnson." After a life of living for and through men, she finally came into her own.

As in life, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman's death was uncommon. She suffered a stroke while swimming in the pool of the Ritz hotel and died two days later. The French expressed their admiration by making her a Commander of the Order of Arts & Letters, the first time an active foreign diplomat was honored in such a way.

Associated Organizations

Further Reading

  • Ogden, Christopher, Life of the Party.
  • Smith, Sally Bedell, Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman,Simon & Schuster, 1996.
  • Detroit News, February 5, 1997.
  • Economist, January 4, 1997, p. 82.
  • New York, January 18, 1993, pp. 25-34; May 19, 1997, pp. 20-21.
  • People, April 26, 1993, pp. 39-41; December 2, 1996, pp. 29-30.
  • Time, July 5, 1993, pp. 52-54; January 22, 1996, p. 32; November 11, 1996 pp. 95-98.

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