Pamela Harriman Dies; Envoy Led a Storied Life


Pamela Harriman, an English baron’s daughter who was confidant, lover and wife to some of the wealthiest and most powerful men of this century, and who came to be an important figure in her own right as unofficial first lady of the Democratic Party and U.S. ambassador to France, died Wednesday after suffering a brain hemorrhage. She was 76.

She had gone into a coma after losing consciousness Monday evening at the Ritz Hotel, where she often went to swim in the health club pool, embassy officials said.

In a somber statement delivered on the White House lawn, President Clinton mourned the passing of “one of the most unusual and gifted people I ever met.”

Harriman, a friend and close political ally of the president and co-chairwoman of the 1992 Democratic presidential campaign, died at the American Hospital in suburban Neuilly-Sur-Seine.

Donald K. Bandler, the embassy’s No. 2 official, said: “We at the American Embassy deeply mourn her passing. She was an inspiring leader and we will remember her with love and respect.”


Harriman’s only child, Winston Spencer Churchill, who is a Conservative Party member of the British Parliament, and some of her five grandchildren were at the hospital to share her final moments.

Clinton, who delayed his departure to Georgia, told reporters that he and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had spoken by telephone with Harriman’s son.

“She was an extraordinary United States ambassador, representing our country as well as our government to the people of France and . . . earning the trust of the leaders and the admiration of people,” President Clinton said.

For her years of service to the Democratic Party and her energetic fund-raising efforts on his behalf, Clinton in 1993 appointed Harriman the top U.S. envoy to France, placing a onetime daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill in a post once held by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

“I am a political animal. I do love politics,” she said last autumn.

The French, dazzled by Harriman’s glamour and celebrated charm, beguiled by her knowledge of their language and aware of her access to Clinton--a man she singled out years ago as a promising politician in the Democratic Party--found her a great success.

“She struck me as someone with a true knowledge of Europe, she spoke fluent French, and on top of that, her knowledge of Europe went back a long way and she had met all the great actors of this century on the international scene,” said Denis Lacorne, a French political analyst who specializes in the United States. “All these elements made her an excellent ambassador to France.”

Harriman’s poise, her dazzling smile, her verve and love of life, and her attention to others--she was once described as an “eloquent listener"--impressed many.

French President Jacques Chirac, in a written condolence message to Clinton, said the United States had lost “a grande dame and a great ambassador in Paris.”

With the official eulogies, one of the century’s truly extraordinary lives, evidenced by her full name--Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman--came to a close.

She was first married to Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, with whom she had her only child, in 1940. That union broke up in 1945.

In 1960, she wed American producer and agent Leland Hayward, whose credits included the Broadway musical “The Sound of Music” and who represented Fred Astaire, Clark Gable and Judy Garland.

A few months after Hayward died in 1971, she married multimillionaire W. Averell Harriman, a former diplomat and governor of New York whom she had first met in wartime London when he was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s special envoy. He was 29 years her senior.

As her wedding present to her third husband, Harriman began the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.

Outside wedlock, the list of her romances could have filled several episodes of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”: Fiat heir Giovanni Agnelli, broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, one of the Rothschilds, financier and publisher John Hay “Jock” Whitney, and Prince Aly Khan.

Writer Truman Capote waspishly called her a “geisha girl” for rich and important men, and Sally Bedell Smith, the author of a 1996 unauthorized biography, termed Harriman the greatest courtesan of the 20th century.

But for ambitious women of her time and social station, it was considered proper to live for and through men. After her third husband, an elder of the Democratic Party, died in 1986, Harriman took over his role, his contacts and much of his fortune, forging for herself a new identity as a political kingmaker in Washington.

During the years that Ronald Reagan and George Bush were in the White House, the 19th-century red-brick Harriman home in Georgetown became a headquarters-in-exile and salon for the Democratic Party. An influential political action committee called Democrats for the ‘80s, but better known as “Pam-PAC,” was her idea.

The first person she asked to serve on the board of Democrats for the ‘80s was a young politician from Arkansas who had just lost his reelection bid for governor--Bill Clinton.

As hostess of “issue evenings,” she brought together Senate candidates, policy wonks and presidential hopefuls. At a single fund-raiser for the Clinton-Gore ticket at her farm in Virginia in 1992, Harriman raised $3.2 million.

By scouring up nearly $12 million to help rebuild the Democratic Party in the 1980s, and for successfully filling one of the most visible and highest-ranking posts in the U.S. diplomatic corps for four years, Harriman proved to many that she was more than a dilettante and socialite.

“Over 76 years, almost everything has changed--her name, her occupation, her nationality, her reputation,” Rupert Cornwell, a British journalist, wrote.

Born on March 20, 1920, to the 11th Baron Digby, the red-haired Harriman grew up on the sprawling 1,500-acre family estate in Dorset. As a debutante in 1938, she was considered graceless and somewhat plump.

But a year later, at age 19, she was married to Winston Churchill’s only son, Randolph. They met on a blind date.

The union to the younger Churchill, a reputed womanizer and heavy drinker, was a catastrophe. But the marriage brought her into contact with great men, including her father-in-law, and the towering heights of politics. After the elder Churchill became wartime prime minister, the young couple moved into 10 Downing Street and spent their weekends at Chequers, the Churchill estate.

When her marriage ended, she settled in postwar Paris, became a darling of high society and met leading French intellectuals such as Andre Malraux and Jean Cocteau.

Harriman’s romantic entanglements, which began in wartime London, made her a figure of scandal in her native country. As one biographer recounted, she pulled every string to secure an invitation in 1957 to the British Embassy’s reception marking the first visit to France of Queen Elizabeth II.

For once in her life, Harriman’s redoubtable charm and networking skills weren’t up to the challenge. “I will not have that tart in the British Embassy,” the ambassador’s wife reportedly declared.

Perhaps mindful of the irony, when Harriman arrived decades later as U.S. ambassador in Paris, she paid her first courtesy call to her British counterpart.

Within a year of her return to France, “She was again the queen of Paris high society,” journalist Isabelle Juppe, wife of the current French prime minister, wrote in 1994.

Averell Harriman, heir to the Union Pacific railroad fortune, left his wife half of his $64-million fortune, but the highly publicized legal battle over the management of the estate dragged through the courts until early last year.

Averell Harriman’s daughters from a previous marriage accused his widow of squandering the inheritance and plundering the $30 million placed in trust for the children and grandchildren. The case was settled with a mutually agreed upon “redistribution of family assets.”

Harriman had tendered her resignation as ambassador before Clinton began his second term, and hoped to return to the United States this May.

“She was asked to stay on by the president until a successor was named,” a U.S. diplomat said. “She was doing that as a service to the president.”

“I’m ready to go back to Washington,” Harriman told the Washington Post last year. “It’s been nice, but there is a limit to how long you can lead a public life. You’re on most of the time. It’s been fascinating, but I’ve had enough.”

* COLOSSUS OF STYLE: Right up till the end, Pamela Harriman possessed an inimitable sense of style. E1