Her Brilliant Career
By Christopher Ogden
(TIME, February 17) -- She lived one of the most remarkable lives of the 20th century, too implausible for a romance novel or a Hollywood blockbuster. A vivacious English aristocrat, she married Winston Churchill's only son at the outset of World War II, then a legendary Broadway producer and finally one of America's best-known and richest statesmen, before earning her own political stripes, transforming herself into a woman of substance and flourishing anew as the highly respected U.S. ambassador to France.
Along the way she charmed Presidents and policymakers, diplomats and decorators, even as she terrified wives by having affairs with their husbands, some of the world's wealthiest and most powerful men. Bill Clinton called her the doyenne of the Democrats for raising millions of dollars and shepherding the party through its 1980s political exile. That was a far cry from the rambunctious private life she led in the 1940s and '50s, which prompted her second husband, Leland Hayward, to dub her, with great pride, "the courtesan of the century."
And when Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman died in Paris last week of a massive cerebral hemorrhage, her passing was as dramatic as her glamorous life.
At 76, looking more striking than she had in her 50s, she was swimming exercise laps at the Ritz Hotel, a few blocks from her embassy residence, when she fell ill and collapsed. Two days later, surrounded by family, she died at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine without regaining consciousness.
Swimming at the Ritz at the peak of her influence? What a perfect exit, an elegant ending she could not have planned better.
She had, of course, been planning all her life. Born the eldest daughter of Lord Digby, a baron, in 1920, she would never inherit the 2,500-acre family estate that went eventually to her only brother. But Pamela Digby was bored in the Dorset countryside. She craved more excitement and found it by marrying Randolph Churchill, whom she had met on a blind date just weeks after the 1939 outbreak of World War II. The only son of Britain's wartime Prime Minister, Randolph was a womanizer, and the marriage was tempestuous. When he left to battle Germans, Pamela began a series of love affairs. The most important was with Averell Harriman, the top U.S. envoy in Britain, from whom she channeled intelligence information to her father-in-law to help draw the U.S. into the war. When Harriman moved to Moscow two years later as ambassador, she began a torrid romance with CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, the love of her life, who proposed, then changed his mind when his wife gave birth.
Divorced from Randolph in 1945, Pamela moved to France, dallied with playboy prince Aly Khan, had the Churchill marriage annulled--while keeping the name--and converted to Catholicism in an effort to marry Gianni Agnelli, bachelor head of auto giant Fiat. He balked, as did the married Elie de Rothschild, scion of the French banking and wine family.
In 1960 Pamela moved to America and married Hayward, who produced South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Mister Roberts and Gypsy. They had a happy 11 years together until his death. At 51 she was reunited with Harriman, then 79 and a recent widower.
In the three decades since their wartime affair, Harriman had run twice for President, been elected Governor of New York and served as a top adviser to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Before his death in 1986, he encouraged Pamela to launch her own political-action committee and turn their Georgetown mansion into a political think tank where party officials and donors gathered to discuss issues over meals served by black-tied butlers. "PamPAC," as some called her Democrats for the '80s committee, raised $10 million for party coffers. A one-day fund raiser in 1992 at her Middleburg, Virginia, estate gathered more than $3 million for candidate Bill Clinton. The grateful President was happy to send her back in triumph to France, a country she had loved since sneaking away as a teenager for a weekend in Paris with a married earl. As ambassador, her fluent French, hard work and access to the highest officials in Washington and Paris eased the sting of such contentious Franco-American issues as NATO expansion and differences over the Middle East, U.N. leadership and trade.
So how did she do it? She was smart and determined, gracious and tough, but the real secret was her charm, exquisite taste and laser-like focus--first on men, later on issues--to ensure that she stayed near the center of every important arena. Sometimes disappointed but never intimidated, she understood from late nights at the knee of her father-in-law Churchill how even powerful men could be plagued by doubts. Pamela once praised Clinton for having the "indispensable requirement of leadership," which she defined as the ability "to tell people not what they want to hear but what they need to know." Her own talent for doing both served her extraordinarily well.
Christopher Ogden is the author of Life of the Party: the Biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman
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