Monday, January 30, 1995

"Life of the Party": Blowing the Whistle on Pamela Harriman

A new, tell-all biography of the American Ambassador won't faze the French, predicts Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

If the whistle indeed had to be blown on Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman's notorious lovelife and career, then the best place by far for her to reside when that bomb exploded was where she is right now: in Paris, once the theatre of some of her exploits, and where she currently officiates as Bill Clinton's competent and respected Ambassador.

Mrs Harriman is reported to be hopping mad about her indiscreet (and riveting) unauthorized biography written by the former Time Magazine chief diplomatic correspondent, Christopher Ogden, Life of the Party. Worse, she has chiefly herself to blame: she's the one who initially approached Ogden in June 1991 as a suitable co-writer when asked by a publishing house to write her autobiography. She had been, Ogden explains, favourably impressed by a biography of Margaret Thatcher he had recently penned.

A contract was duly drawn up, and Harriman sat for over 40 hours of taped interviews with Ogden before she started getting uncharacteristically cold feet. The publishers, Ogden reports, had offered a generous 1,625,000-dollar advance, and Pam realised she would have to produce a fairly complete memoir for that kind of money. Mercifully, at 73 and after three rewarding marriages, the multimillionnaire Harriman didn't need it. As is often the wont of the rich, she forgot that Ogden was not similarly circumstanced, and left him high and dry, having given up his Time job to write her book for her. Hence his decision to forge ahead.

The resulting book is a wonderful read, and Mrs Harriman shouldn't worry about the effect it has on her Parisian socialite friends (as opposed to the depressingly conformist inside-the- Beltway Washington crowd, or even her former British compatriots). The Pamela Harriman Tips On How To Seduce Rich And Powerful Men have been the guiding principles of Frenchwomen over the centuries. "When with a man, socially or professionally, not merely sexually, [Harriman] concentrated on him with laserlike intensity," Ogden writes.

"She would take a man who interested her out of a group the way a cowbow and fine horse could cut a steer from a herd for branding. She would approach the man, bring him out of the traffic pattern to a sofa, sit down and talk to him for five to ten minutes. She focused on his strengths: what he was doing, what had happened since they last met, his plans, all in a low, throaty, conspiratorial whisper, and in the process learned his weaknesses or what troubled him. She was glad to answer his questions if he had any, but she was extremely careful never to babble and never to burden the fellow with anything that might be troubling her. She wanted him to shine even as she learned what was on his mind.

"Careful never to keep anyone long, especially if his wife was with him, she would then return the man to the group, pick out another and repeat the process, perhaps half a dozen times or more. Rarely did she attempt to talk to a man in a group, rarely did she talk to women, although she tried not to alienate them unnecessarily. For those moments, those men sensed that no-one else in the world existed for Pamela. As her reputation grew, receiving the full frontal Pamela treatment, being Pamelized, was a heady experience for most men."

The time is 1947, the place is Paris, and Pamela Digby, 27, had been divorced for two years from Randolph Churchill. The "fast" debutante who'd married after a two-week courtship the son of the legendary British PM, then, neglected by him, had enjoyed a string of passionate affairs with some of the most interesting men to be found in London in the war years, from Jock Whitney to CBS broadcaster Ed Murrow and (déjà) US envoy Averell Harriman, had moved to to Paris to properly enjoy her divorcee status.

Paris was made for Pamela and Pamela was made for Paris. She met Aly Khan, son of the Aga, at the annual ball he threw each June at the Pre Catelan after the Grand Prix de Paris race, and to which she'd been invited in 1947 with her friend Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, daughter of Joe's and sister of Jack's. Aly Khan's 33 to 1 longshot horse, Avenger, had just won. It was lust at first grope. The two danced cheek to cheek as if welded. When Kick warned Pam against Aly Khan as a known womanizer, she made the mistake of hinting at his dark skin as well. It was enough to decide the headstrong Pamela.

Other playboys of the Parisian nights would follow: the young Gianni Agnelli, whom she eventually found too hard to pin down to the serious business of marriage, and even more tantalising, Baron Elie de Rothschild, whom she simply snatched away from his less beautiful, less devoted wife Liliane in 1953. An intellectual who was a voracious reader and an expert on eighteenth-century art, "Liliane certainly wasn't going to worry about bringing Elie his slippers," her own brother-in-law once explained. "Pam was. She's so good about paying attention to all the small things."

Although the new couple were trying to keep their affair discreet, all of Paris knew. Where an English or an American wife would have confronted her husband with recriminations and tears, Liliane de Rothschild was wiser. The Duke of Windsor once asked her which of the Rothschilds was involved with Pamela. "My husband", she replied. And yet she suffered so much that forty years later, she still can't bring herself to say Pamela Harriman's name, calling her "that woman". Elie didn't divorce.

But the beauty of Paris was that Pamela Digby Churchill could lead her own life as freely as she wished, and still be received by everyone without difficult explanations. She was a regular at Louise de Vilmorin's salon, where she could meet the poetess's lover, André Malraux, and the future Academicien Francais Maurice Druon, with whom she had a fling. The American brigade - the Irwin Shaws, the Art Buchwalds, Theodore White, the 24-year-old Ben Bradlee, then press attache at the American Embassy she was one day to command - introduced her to the brilliant photographer, Robert Capa, whom she fell for. Later she'd complain to a Parisian friend: "Everyone always talks about the rich men I have slept with, no one ever talks about the poor men I have slept with."

When she left Paris for New York and marriage to the Broadway producer, Leland Hayward, in 1958, Pamela had made a host of French friends, from Ysabel de Faucigny-Lucinge (later Marquise de Ravenel) to viscountess Jacqueline de Ribes, Versailles curator Gerald Van Der Kemp, billionaire industrialist Paul-Louis Weiller, or Princess Irene Galitzine, connections which would serve her crucially upon her return.

Never fazed by her style even at its wildest, Parisians these days find her positively low-key. And no-one, but positively no-one, would ever dream of not attending one of her dinner parties at the Ambassador's residence on 41, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore - fittingly, a former Rothschild residence, in which her move with her own Impressionists and furniture was duly recorded by Karl Lagerfeld's camera for "Vogue". There are rumours that she plans to settle in Paris even after the end of her tenure as Ambassador. It could be her wisest move yet, especially since another unauthorized biography, this time by the experienced writer Sally Bedell Smith, is in the works in Washington. Whatever new comes out, it will only add to Pam Harriman's prestige here.

"Life of the Party: the biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman," by Christopher Ogden, Little, Brown and Company, £ 18.99.

© Copyright The European & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1996

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