Pamela's Progress

September 1, 1994 Topic: Society

Pamela's Progress

Mini Teaser: As Christopher Ogden makes clear, Pamela Harriman  was much more than a glittering jewel adorning the veneer of high politics. She had political convictions, and what is more, political talents, of her own.

by Author(s): David Levy

Christopher Ogden, Life of The Party: The Biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1994).

Power is the greatest aphrodisiac," claimed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger--who ought to know, having fascinated, among not a few others, so potent a femme fatale as Zsa Zsa Gabor. (Their budding affair was cut short, according to Zsa Zsa, when Kissinger became preoccupied with the invasion of Cambodia.) Yet Power itself succumbed to the charms of Pamela Harriman, present Ambassador to France and past seductress of the likes of Randolph Churchill, Edward R. Murrow, Elie de Rothschild, and, of course, Averell Harriman. As Christopher Ogden shows in his informative biography, perhaps no woman in this century has cast so broad and deep a spell over the men who ruled the western world. She was on intimate terms with top World War II generals and diplomats, the head of CBS, and even Frank Sinatra. No fewer than three participants at the Yalta conference of 1945 wrote her love letters.

Yet it would be unjust to portray Harriman, as some have done, as merely the greatest courtesan of her time. As Ogden makes clear, she was much more than a glittering jewel adorning the veneer of high politics. She had political convictions, and what is more, political talents, of her own. The convictions were essentially conservative (her father was a staunch Tory who sat in the House of Lords), though the talents were usually lent to Democratic causes. This was partly out of loyalty to her husband Averell and partly because, she says, she felt a certain kinship between Tory noblesse obligé and Democratic paternalism.

The PAC she founded, Democrats for the 'Eighties (which helped the Democrats take back the Senate in 1986), was deemed by Mario Cuomo "the most effective political organization I know of within our party."

Born Pamela Digby in 1920 to an upper class British family, she was raised in an atmosphere of taste and breeding. But the grand period of her life began when she married Randolph Churchill in 1939. The marriage was not a happy one; Randolph was an atrocious husband. Yet she received a compensation of sorts.

Early on she felt compelled to move out and live with her father- and mother-in-law, who loved her and treated her with kindness. Her father-in-law happened to be Prime Minister of England. Thus during 1940, the year Winston Churchill later called the noblest in all of English history, the year in which he declared that he had "nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat," Pamela, pregnant with his grandson and sleeping in the bunk right below his, shared the great man's air-raid shelter. An enviable proximity! Churchill delighted in her company, often inviting her to join him for late-night chats. Pamela was with Churchill in the RAF command post on the decisive day of the Battle of Britain; and on December 7, 1941, she was dining at Chequers and had the privilege of witnessing Churchill's explosive excitement when he realized that Britain was no longer fighting alone.

Once Pamela asked Churchill what she should do in the case of a German invasion. She ought to take a German down with her, came the grim reply. Terrified, she exclaimed that she didn't even know how to fire a gun. "You could go into the kitchen and get a carving knife," Churchill growled.

Pamela divorced Randolph but never relinquished the priceless Churchill name--"her passport," observes Ogden, "to every drawing room on each side of the Atlantic." Less crucial for her was her son Winston, whom she appears to have neglected as callously as, two generations earlier, Jennie Churchill had neglected the elder Winston. Both mothers were totally absorbed in their parties and their love affairs; both sons grew up feeling closer to their nannies than to their natural parents. It was one of the ugly undersides of aristocratic splendor. Jennie's son later remarked (evidently including himself in his observation): "All the great men of my acquaintance were products of an unhappy childhood." Pamela's son was to endure the unhappy childhood without consolation of future greatness.

In 1941 Averell Harriman, the energetic heir to the vast Union Pacific Railroad fortune, came to London. He was a personal emissary of F.D.R.'s, charged with expediting the Lend Lease program that was vital to the survival of Britain. No sooner had he arrived than he fell in love with the Prime Minister's daughter-in-law. Here was the opportunity for Pamela to display her diplomatic prowess. From then on both Churchill and Harriman frequently consulted her and used her to pass information and requests. Discrete, subtle, and trusted by both sides, she lay at the center of and gave a new meaning to what Churchill called the "Special Relationship" between the two great English-speaking democracies.

Yet all this excitement, joined to the rigors and vicissitudes of world war, could not restrain Pamela from adding another famous name to her list. It was a man, like Harriman, who knew both the Prime Minister and the President, and whose extraordinary influence was binding the two nations ever closer. It was the man whose celebrated radio broadcasts to America began with the taut and thrilling intonation, "This--is London": Edward R. Murrow. Theirs was a curious liaison. Murrow, born and bred in poverty, had by his own efforts raised himself to the top of his profession. A self-made man and a socialist of sorts, he despised the comfortable, privileged English upper class, even as he admired the resilience of the working folk in the face of the German onslaught. Yet even Murrow, though married and working himself almost to death amid the carnage of bombed-out London, could not help himself in the presence of this dazzling aristocrat, who in a way represented everything he opposed. In 1946 he came within a hairbreadth of abandoning his wife of twelve years, who had just borne him a son, to wed her.

Harriman, too, had been married when he knew Pamela in the 1940s. It was only in 1971, after the death of Averell's wife, that Pamela was able to acquire his last name and a claim to inherit his immense fortune--which she did in due course. (By 1971, she was already well settled in America, having married in the meantime the great Broadway producer of South Pacific, Peter Pan, and Sound of Music, Leland Hayward.) This "enchantress of the western world" had "seduced more powerful men than anyone else," as one admiring acquaintance put it. Now she turned her wiles upon even bigger game: she decided to seduce the Democratic Party.

This she undertook after the crushing defeat of 1980. Her primary method was a series of "issues dinners" held at her home in Georgetown, which swiftly became "The Place for the Elite to Meet," in the words of one newspaper headline. These splendid affairs enriched her pac and thence the war-chests of Democratic senatorial candidates. One frequent guest described what it was like to come to Pam's:

"So Mr. Smith from Nashville, Tennessee, would arrive at seven p.m. with his thousand dollars and be taken down the hall facing van Gogh's White Roses, and major-domo Michael Kuruc and two hired butlers in black tie would greet him with a tray of drinks. He'd walk down two steps past the Degas sculpture of The Dancer and the Derain and the Matisse on the wall into this beautiful, softly lit room with bouquets of fresh flowers placed just right and there would be Governor Harriman in pinstripes and Pamela in a perfectly tailored Bill Blass suit and diamond earrings greeting you with exquisite grace. It didn't matter if you were a car dealer from Ohio or the king of England, you got the same treatment."

Pamela's dinners received national attention when Clark Clifford asserted at one of them that President Ronald Reagan was "an amiable dunce" and the remark was leaked to the press. (This was some time before Clifford had to insist on his own stupidity and naivete, in order to survive criminal charges.) In the end, by phenomenal fundraising, shrewd exploitation of her social connections, and dominating personal charm, she helped to nurse the Party back to health, or at any rate, self confidence. When victory finally came in 1992, she reaped her just reward.

Life of the Party, drawn from many hours of interviews with Harriman herself as well as those who have known her, merits reading not only by the idly curious but by serious students of politics who understand that there is more to political life than legislation and press conferences. Some indeed will fault Ogden for devoting too much space to the kinds of subjects typically found in gossip columns. But here, perhaps, the gossip columnists, in their way, know more than the "policy wonks." It was Disraeli who held that "the sympathy of a woman" almost always secretly informs and stokes the ambition of a great statesman. Certainly the feminine influence in politics infinitely transcends the formal power gained through, for instance, an absurd requirement that the attorney general must be female. Pamela Harriman's life is a vivid demonstration of this truth. Ogden's biography would be a better one if his tone and style, which, it must be admitted, too often sink into the petty and the vulgar, were equal to the grace of his heroine.

Let it not be said of Bill Clinton that he is a complete incompetent in foreign affairs. He has done one thing right: he has sent one of our most elegant, most alluring, most civilized citizens to Paris.

Essay Types: Essay