Harriman, Pamela (1920–1997)

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Harriman, Pamela (1920–1997)

British-born socialite and politician who was U.S. ambassador to France from 1993 to 1997. Born Pamela Digby on March 20, 1920, in Farnborough, England; died on February 5, 1997, in Paris, France; the eldest of four children, three daughters and a son, of Lord Edward Kenelm, 11th Baron Digby, and Constance Pamela Alice (Bruce) Digby; married Randolph Churchill, in 1939 (divorced 1945); married Leland Hayward (theatrical producer), in 1960 (died 1971); married W. Averell Harriman (governor of New York and presidential advisor), around 1972 (died 1986); children: (first marriage) one son, Winston Churchill (b. 1940).

Called by some the "century's greatest courtesan," Pamela Harriman gained her wealth and power through the men she acquired, notably three husbands—Winston Churchill's son Randolph, Broadway producer Leland Hayward, and former New York governor and presidential advisor Averell Harriman—and a string of impressive lovers, including Aly Khan, Gianni Agnelli, Elie de Rothschild, and Stavros Niarchos. Barbara Kanrowitz , in a review of the biography Reflected Glory by Sally Bedell Smith , calls Harriman the victim of an era in which women of ambition had limited choices. "Under other circumstances, she might have been a CEO like Paley," she writes. "She certainly had the drive. But given her time, she pursued one of the few available routes to power." Harriman's later years were devoted to politics, and she is credited with helping to put the Democratic Party back on its feet after years of Republican rule. As a major Democratic fund raiser, and a loyal backer of Bill Clinton, Harriman was rewarded with an appointment as ambassador to France, a post she held from 1993 until her death in 1997.

Born into British aristocracy, Pamela Harriman was the daughter of the 11th Baron Digby and Constance Bruce Digby , whom Pamela called "a very, very strong woman." A red-headed, chubby-cheeked youngster, Pamela grew up at Minterne, the family's 1,500-acre estate in Dorset. As a debutante, Harriman was said to be low on the list of attractive girls. In 1939, after an unsuccessful social season in London, she took a job in the Foreign Office as part of the prewar effort. A friend introduced her to her first husband Randolph Churchill, a known drinker, gambler, and womanizer, who, she said, swept her off her feet. Friends concur that much of Harriman's attraction to Randolph was the family connection. "She was not educated, but I think she was very cunning," said acquaintance Lady Mary Dunn about Harriman's decision to marry Randolph. "The war had started. Randolph got her the Churchill name."

The marriage, a disaster that would officially end in 1945, produced Harriman's only son, Winston, born in 1940. Harriman made the most of the unfortunate union by endearing herself to the Churchill family. Through her father-in-law, who pressed her into service as a hostess (and as an intelligence broker during World War II), she met many important people, including American diplomat and multimillionaire Averell Harriman, who was sent to London by President Franklin Roosevelt in March 1941. At the time, Averell Harriman was 49 and married to his second wife Marie Norton Whitney . Something of a philanderer himself, Averell had just concluded a brief romance with ballerina Vera Zorina , who was married to George Balanchine. Pamela's on-again, off-again love affair with Averell Harriman (which did not preclude a fling with CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow), lasted until 1946, when he replaced Henry Wallace as secretary of commerce, and Pamela went off to Paris. Subsidized by wealthy lovers Agnelli and Rothschild, she spent the 1950s immersed in the art world.

Harriman's second husband was the colorful Leland Hayward, a talent agent, airline executive, and theatrical producer, who brought to Broadway such hits as South Pacific, Gypsy, and The Sound of Music. They met in New York and married in 1960, after Hayward divorced his third wife, Nancy Keith. Harriman was devoted to Hayward and nursed him through a series of strokes. When he died in 1971, Pamela entered into a bitter fight over Hayward's modest estate with children from his second marriage to actress Margaret Sullavan . (Daughter Brooke Hayward denounced Harriman in her 1977 best-seller, Haywire.)

Four months after Hayward's death, at a party given by newspaper publisher Katharine Graham , Harriman reunited with Averell Harriman, now 79 years old and widowed. They married eight weeks later, and, as a gift to her new husband, Harriman became a U.S. citizen. The couple settled in Washington, where Pamela became active as a Democratic fund raiser and a loyal supporter of Bill Clinton. After her husband's death in 1986, she redoubled her efforts to restore to power her adopted Democratic Party. "No one in this country can take greater credit for winning the White House than Pamela," said Speaker of the House Tom Foley.

Seventy-three at the time of her appointment as ambassador to France, Harriman surprised legions of doubters on both sides of the Atlantic by overcoming her image as socialite and dilettante and establishing herself as a powerful and capable American presence in Paris. Serving during a period of strained relations over trade, NATO restructuring, Bosnia, the Middle East, and CIA spying inside France, Harriman proved to be a skilled mediator and, much to the delight of the French, appeared to have better access to the American president than former ambassadors had enjoyed. Harriman, having spent years living in France and having a perfect command of the language, also used her considerable social acumen to bring together an eclectic mix of politicians, diplomats, artists and intellectuals. In April 1996, French Culture Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy made her a commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and praised her efforts to "intensify French-American cultural links with passion, ardor and intelligence."

Pamela Harriman's tenure as ambassador was cut short by her death in February 1997, less than 48 hours after suffering a stroke. "She was one of the most unusual and gifted people I ever met," said Clinton in tribute. "She was a source of judgment and inspiration to me, a source of constant good humor and charm and real friendship."


Gleick, Elizabeth, and J.D. Podolsky. "Life of the Party," in People Weekly. April 26, 1993, pp. 39–41.

Kantrowitz, Barbara. "A Woman of the World," in Newsweek. October 28, 1996, p. 78.

Ogden, Christopher. Life of the Party. Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1994.

Rothberg, Donald M. "Charmed life: Harriman's last reward was to serve her country," in The Day [New London, CT]. February 6, 1997.

Smith, Sally Bedell. Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

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