Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman opened the front door of her Georgetown mansion. Pearls draped her freckled cleavage and reddish hair framed her milk-white face like a froth of ginger. “Please come in,” she said. “The White Roses are straight ahead.”
Everyone grinned like fools. They had been standing outside 3038 N Street for some time, having paid $1000 to support “Democrats for the '80s,” better known as Pam PAC. Now they clomped into the house like peasants to the palace.
“Does she really think we’re here to see the Van Gogh?” said one woman, whispering like a second-grader.
In fact, Mrs. Harriman knew full well all were there as voyeurs just wanting a chance to rub up against a copper-bottomed courtesan who finally got one of the richest men in the country to marry her. But what did she care? They were paying her for the privilege.
These paid events hosted by the Harrimans from 1980-1990 usually raised $100,000 an evening, and went a long way toward a Democratic restoration in the wake of the Reagan revolution that had seized control of the Senate for the first time in twenty-eight years.
Claws came out whenever Pamela Harriman’s name came up. Standing in line that particular evening you might’ve thought you were in a brigade of tut-tutting tight britches. One woman meowed about “the interesting coincidence” of Pamela Harriman living blocks away from a known house of ill-repute near the Georgetown Four Seasons Hotel. That cash-and-carry “escort service” sent women on house calls, and the Madame, who kept the books, eventually was arrested, and to the embarrassment of several local men, her books became public.
“I hope you’re not suggesting any comparison to our hostess,” said her friend in mock horror, “other than their shared propensity for prosperity.”
By contemporary standards Pamela was not considered a beauty. She was pleasant looking, perfectly groomed, maybe even a bit matronly in her sixties — but she possessed something no other beauty possessed — the surname of Churchill. In addition, she laid claim to British aristocracy, although snooty Brits enjoyed noting that her father, the 11th Baron Digby, was “a very minor aristo — land rich but cash poor.”
Still, men of the World War II generation were enthralled by her as most ached with Churchill-envy, and knew she was the closest they’d ever get to the great man himself. Women, usually, felt over-matched, and they resented her. Not simply because she ignored them, but because she had a past — a vivid, exotic sex-filled past — which had allowed her to accrue wealth from a variety of rich lovers, most of whom were married. In fact, she seemed to have bedded only men who were rich or famous — and had wives. “Those were the people I met,” she said to a question about her elite intimates. Pamela was not a woman who ever knew a polyester pillow or a faux fur. She was all silk, sable and soigné salons. She slept only on Porthault with potentates like Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos. The aura of sex and money surrounded her like a force field. Once asked about her sexual wiles, she supposedly said, “There are no tricks, only enthusiasm.”
|The band leader Peter Duchin called her “the courtesan of the century,” without adding the Oxford Dictionary definition meaning “a prostitute with rich clients.” In his biography of Churchill as warlord from 1940-1945, Max Hastings said that Pamela “was unkindly described as having become ‘a world expert on rich men’s bedroom ceilings.’” The point was not disputed by David Pryce-Jones who wrote in his memoir that Pamela “was a grande horizontale of her day.” Her string of lovers included the revered CBS war correspondent Edward R. Murrow, who was married; CBS president William S. Paley; Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli, for whom she converted to Catholicism in hopes of marrying; publisher John Hay (Jock) Whitney, married; Prince Aly Khan; the French financier Baron Elie de Rothschild, also married, and the very married multimillionaire statesman W. Averell Harriman, who kept her on retainer from the time of their affair in 1941 until they married in 1971.
The architect Hugh Jacobsen laughed as he recalled working with the immensely rich Harriman on his house in Georgetown. “He was an outrageous penny pincher ... He had a secretary who was taking care of all the bills and so forth. And he came in one morning and said, ‘I want to tell you I’m going to marry Mrs. Churchill. The widow.’ And [the secretary] said, ‘Oh, that’s very good. Congratulations, sir. I guess we don’t have to send her $20,000 a month anymore [which] they’d been doing since WWII.”
Sally Bedell Smith, one of Pamela’s two biographers, alluded to her preoccupation with sex by making much of the fact that as Lord Beaverbrook’s protégé, Pamela had chosen to write her first piece of journalism for London’s Evening Standard on “the erect penis” of the Cerne Abbas Giant, an ancient chalk figure near her home in Dorset, England. “She wanted great wealth and power,” Smith told reporters. “These were big ambitions for a person with little to say and no wit, but she had unflagging determination and ruthlessness.”
|Clare Booth Luce revealed that her husband, Henry Luce, Chairman of Time, Inc., admitted he, too, had had a brief affair with Pamela, and there was also her reputed “sport sex” with Frank Sinatra, which put her in a long line of hookers and starlets. Pamela resented the gossipers who mocked her lurid lifestyle, and sniped that she had had many men but none who would marry her. “What annoys me,” she said, “especially in this world where women are equal with men, why do they all take the same tack, that people didn’t marry me? Nobody’s ever thought that I didn’t want to marry.” As Russell Baker pointed out in The New York Times, “But of course women were not ‘equal with men’ in her world. A man taking many lovers without clerical blessing was to be admired as a prince of love. For the woman who did, praise was — still is — scarce.”
Clarissa Churchill Eden, the niece of Winston Churchill, knew Pamela in boarding school as a young girl where “she was a plump redhead who was mad about horses.” Eden wrote in her memoir that before Pamela married Randolph Churchill in 1939 she had planned to run away with Hugh Fraser, a dashing army officer. “At the last moment she had had second thoughts,” wrote Anthony Eden’s widow. “I felt that was the moment that the real and future Pamela showed herself.”
After the war, Pamela divorced Churchill and moved to Paris with their young son, Winston Churchill II, forever known to friends as “Baby Winston,” and to detractors as “Little Jesus.” When she converted to Catholicism hoping to become Mrs. Gianni Agnelli, she had her marriage to Randolph Churchill annulled but she never gave up his name. With Baby Winston and a series of nannies, nurses, maids, a chef and a chauffeur, all financed by grateful men, Pamela lived at 4 Avenue de New York in the high society arrondissement, “le 16,” where she hosted Sunday night salons open to anyone of renown.
By 1958, unable to run the table in Europe, she headed for the U.S. to pursue the American dream of all 40-year-old divorcees raised to marry well. Through Babe Paley she met Leland Hayward, the charismatic agent and Broadway producer, who had become a multimillionaire with his productions of Mister Roberts, South Pacific, Call Me Madam, Gypsy and The Sound of Music. Fortuitously, Hayward’s fourth wife was traveling out of the country at the time, having confided to a friend months before that her ten year marriage to the Broadway impresario had become merely “companionable.” Within days Pamela became more than a companion; five months later he proposed.
|“The fact that she was a Winston Churchill relation, even by marriage, was enough to knock him over,” said Marshall Jameison, a writer and director who worked with Hayward. “He was a boy from Nebraska and Pam was like marrying royalty.”
When she returned to Paris to pack and to sell the apartment Gianni Agnelli had bought for her, Hayward tried to break the news to his wife, who dismissed Pamela as nothing more than a prospector panning for gold.
“ ... [I]f you want to have a love affair with Pam Churchill, there’s nothing I can do to stop you,” she said, according to one biographer. “But whatever you do, for your own protection, for your own dignity, don’t marry her. You don’t have to. Nobody marries Pam Churchill.”
Brooke Hayward was curious about her father’s new amour, and so she and her boyfriend visited the couple in the summer of 1960. She recalled Pamela and Hayward at the pool; her father, in swimming trunks, was sunning himself on a lounge; Pamela was standing on the diving board — stark naked.
“The skin was white. White ... and she had red hair, reddish auburn, and the brightest red between her legs ... and big red nipples and white white breasts,” said Brooke, who admitted being shocked. Not just be the sight of Pamela nude, but that she greeted them unabashedly, and was not the least embarrassed. Brooke mentioned it later to her father, who said Pamela frequently paraded around without her clothes. He told Brooke about being on a yacht in the Mediterranean where everyone was dressed for cruising, except for Pamela, who was completely undressed.
|Hours after Hayward’s divorce became final in 1960, he married Pamela, who had cards and stationary engraved as “The Honorable Mrs. Pamela Churchill Hayward,” the “Honorable” apparently derived from her father’s title as Baron. She shrugged off criticism as a home wrecker. “I can’t help it if someone doesn’t want their husband and then someone else besides them decides they do,” she said. “It’s not my fault.”
For the next decade the Haywards burned through his millions and lived luxuriously — a fifteen-room apartment on Fifth Avenue, a country estate in Yorktown Heights, and a private helicopter to shuttle them back and forth. But soon Hayward’s career began to slip and he was unable to repeat his phenomenal successes, forcing a move to a smaller apartment on Park Avenue. They began selling off personal possessions. Hayward battled bouts of depression, and started drinking to excess. Soon he suffered a series of strokes, and Pamela, eighteen years younger, became his care-taker in and out of the hospital. He died in 1971 at the age of sixty-eight.
Days after the dinner Pamela called Peter Duchin and his wife, who were staying with Harriman at his estate in Sands Point. She asked if she might come by to see them. Duchin asked Harriman, who said it was a great idea, and like Caesar, Pamela came; she saw and she conquered. On the second night of her visit, Duchin recalled walking into the dark house, switching on a light near the bar, and hearing a shriek. “There in each other’s arms on the couch were Pam and Ave, unbuttoned. ‘Jesus wept!’ Ave bellowed. The last thing I saw before turning off the light was Pam pulling her blouse together.”
Insistent on staying politically active, Averell Harriman, who had spent his life advising presidents, said he needed to live in Washington, D.C., where he wanted Pamela by his side. She refused to accompany him unless she was his wife. They married within months, and as a wedding present for her husband, a life-long Democrat, she applied to become a U.S. citizen. “I want to vote and participate in the election,” she told the New York Times. As for how she’d vote as a new citizen, she said: “I think everyone knows which way I will go.”
On previous applications for Alien Registration cards, she had written “none” in the space for employment. This time she may have proved wrong those who said she had no wit. As the new spouse of the heir to a $100 million railroad fortune, she wrote: “Housewife.”
Harriman’s wedding present to her was incalculable. In making Pamela his wife he had bestowed the reflected glory of his patrician name and platinum reputation, enabling Pamela to wrap her scarlet self in respectability. And then there was his great wealth. In addition to his various estates in New York, Sun Valley and Hobe Sound, he and his late wife, Marie, had purchased one of the grandest houses in Georgetown, which they had loaned to Jacqueline Kennedy when she moved out of the White House in 1963 following the assassination. The former First Lady thanked them with the ink blotter President Kennedy had used in the Oval office which accompanied her hand-written letter.
Pamela took easy command of all the Harriman houses. In Georgetown, she hired the best chef, deployed a gardener, tutored a butler, instructed a parlor maid, and directed a chauffeur while consecrating herself to her husband and his comforts. She filled the conservatory with orchids, cut flowers and potted plants, plus shiny white matchbooks embossed in gold with the name she now chose to use: “Pamela Churchill Harriman.” Not even Averell Harriman with his peerless social credentials was immune to the Churchill connection. He had framed the check for 27 pounds and 4 shillings the wartime Prime Minister had written to him to settle a card game debt, which Pamela hung in the first floor bathroom for all to see. She then summoned the decorator Billy Baldwin from New York to “freshen things up.” He installed an 18th century four-poster bed in her bedroom for $15,000, hung rolls of hand-painted Gracie wallpaper in the dining room at $750 a roll, and directed 2500 pastel-hued tulips to be planted in the five descending terrace gardens.
|Conquering Georgetown was another matter. She had descended on Washington like a peacock, displacing the pea hens who competed to set the best table in town. “The Georgetown hostesses didn’t like her a bit,” said Pie Friendly, an aide to Harriman. Actually, they detested her, but they couldn’t dismiss her because the Governor’s prominence, prestige and powerful connections drew flocks of senators, congressmen, cabinet members, diplomats and journalists, all wanting to discuss world affairs with him. As the boyhood friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he had negotiated the U.S. Lend-Lease program with Winston Churchill, and served as a Cabinet member under Truman as well as Ambassador to Moscow and to Britain. He later won one term as Governor of New York. Although he always wanted to be President and tried running twice, he lacked charisma, and lost both times. He preferred being addressed as Governor, the title he won by election, rather than Excellency, the ambassadorial title, conferred by appointment. Supremely self-confident, he spent the rest of his life looking for jobs equal to his own high estimate of his talents, the ultimate being Secretary of State which eluded him.
Beyond his personal wealth, Harriman said the key to his success was his persistence. When President Kennedy hesitated to give him an appointment because of his age and his hearing problem, the 70-year-old Governor was undaunted.
|“I am confident that before things end up, I will be in the inner circle,” he told a friend in 1961. “I started as a private with Roosevelt and worked to the top. And then I had to start as a private all over again with Truman and work to the top. That is what I intend to do again.”
Within months Kennedy agreed to appoint him as Ambassador-at-Large, providing he got a hearing aid, and Harriman (with a hearing aid) negotiated the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for the President. After Kennedy’s assassination he stayed with the administration of Lyndon Johnson and led the opening session of the Paris Peace Talks in 1968, but had to relinquish the position to a Republican when Richard Nixon was elected. Harriman then returned to private life, but on his 80th birthday he said he could not rest easy with “that bastard” in the White House.
“So I guess it’s up to you, Ed,” he said, clapping Edmund Muskie on the shoulder, hoping the Senator from Maine would recapture the presidency for the Democrats. But Muskie faltered in New Hampshire, and the bedraggled party limped behind George McGovern in 1972, and lost.
|A few years later when Jimmy Carter started campaigning for President, the Harrimans were flummoxed. “How can that be? I don’t even know Jimmy Carter and as far as I know none of my friends know him either,” said the Governor, who presumed he knew everyone of consequence. Pamela, too, was unimpressed by the peanut farmer from Georgia, and Harriman hospitality was not forthcoming. As President, Jimmy Carter did not forget the lack of early enthusiasm. Consequently, there was no room for Harriman in the new administration.
Pamela had arrived in Washington like a Rolls Royce without wheels — a luxury but inoperable. Knowing nothing about politics, she could not traverse the terrain. Soon, though, she found whisperers in Samuel (Sandy) Burger — her connector, who introduced her to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Robert Shrum — her composer, who wrote all her speeches and statements, and Robert Strauss — her consigliore, who advised her and helped pass the hat for contributions. (Some suggested that Strauss, then chairman of the Democratic National Committee, served as more than her counselor, but both denied their affair because both were married).
|Like Snow White’s dwarfs, Pamela’s whisperers were devoted to her and worked without charge. Simply being connected to the Harriman name was compensation enough for them. Still, she extended dinner party invitations to her “issues evenings” in Georgetown, which The Washington Post described as “affected but effective gatherings” where policy experts like former Senator Sam Nunn held forth on defense strategy or New York investment banker Felix Rohatyn lectured on the defects of Reaganomics. She also offered her whisperers fund-raising week-ends at her country house in Middleburg, which George H.W. Bush derided as “that bastion of democracy” as well as vacations at her estate in Barbados. She even tolerated their wives.
“Those days at the Harriman house in Barbados were hardly vacations,” said the wife of one whisperer. “Every minute was planned with some kind of infernal activity or lecture. The only way to escape Camp Pamela was to stay in your room all day and read.”
Operating under her political action committee and using her husband’s golden rolodex, Pamela raised over $7.5 million for Democratic House and Senate candidates during the Reagan era of the 1980’s, and established herself as a political power broker.
|“This is when I got to know her,” said Heather Foley, whose husband, Thomas S. Foley, was Speaker of the House, “and she wanted nothing more in life than to be taken seriously.”
Bank-rolled by her husband and those who rallied to him as “the last timber of the New Deal,” Pamela Harriman became more than a Georgetown salonista. She made herself the rallying center for dispirited Democrats, and her home provided a place for the party’s rising stars to meet. Her increasing influence made her a target for Republicans, who took her fund-raising seriously and disparaged her accordingly. Finding herself trashed in Time, she burst into tears.
“She called me, terribly distraught,” said Robert Strauss. “I told her ... the fact that this right-wing outfit has taken you on means they put you in the big league ....”
Governor Harriman, who expected nothing less than “big league” status, was proud of her for establishing their PAC as a force, and he reveled in the evenings she hosted which burnished his position as the American plenipotentiary supreme. Most agreed that their marriage had given him renewed vigor in his last years, and he remained strong through his eighties. But after months of failing health, he died of kidney failure complicated by pneumonia at the age of 94. Pamela, his third wife, was at his bedside with the two daughters of his first marriage.
|Having planned his funeral for some time, Pamela was determined to give her husband a farewell befitting his status as an American statesman. She directed her staff to prepare three sets of “dead books,” listing the names, addresses and phone numbers of the 900 dignitaries to be contacted when he died. Pall bearers were selected, seating charts arranged, and menus planned for the reception following the funeral at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and burial at the Harriman family estate. In addition, she planned a memorial at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. to be held months later.
Shortly before the memorial the Washington Post got a tip that Averell Harriman had not been buried. Despite the freshly dug grave mourners had seen after his funeral in July, the dirt sprinkled on the coffin, and the gravesite blessing given by the Reverend Paul Moore, the coffin had been empty and the corpse had been put on ice. Pamela had secretly arranged to have her husband buried later on the Harriman property next to a space reserved for her grave, but three miles away from the family cemetery, where his mother and his former wife, Marie, had been interred.
|Knowing that such a story would make her look petty and possessive, Pamela scrambled to quash it. She called Washington Post publisher Kay Graham, who said she had to stand behind her editor. So Pamela got former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke to call the editor, Ben Bradlee.
“You can’t publish this story, Ben,” Holbrooke said.
“Yes, I can,” said Bradlee.
He ran the story ran the next day, September 19, 1986, citing Harriman family sources who “appeared startled” by the macabre discovery that two months after his death Averell Harriman still had not been laid to rest.
“It comes as a total surprise to me,” said Peter Duchin, one of the pall bearers.
For his part Bishop Moore said he had buried Harriman “liturgically,” if not physically.
The bizarre story humiliated Pamela but she soldiered on, and when the criticism subsided, she buried her husband in the place she had chosen away from the rest of his family. She selected a simple gravestone that read: Patriot. Public Servant. Statesman.
At 68, Mrs. Harriman was flattered by the public attention of a much younger man, who was charming, erudite and socially connected. At 54, Carter Brown was beguiled by her lavish lifestyle. “It was what the French call a marriage of convenience,” said his brother, Nicholas Brown. “She needed a squire who was not threatening, and he liked having someone with an airplane and a house in Barbados.” Although Carter Brown lived in Georgetown, only a block away from Pamela, he lived frugally — by temperament and, surprisingly, by necessity. His father had lost most of the family fortune, which had endowed Brown University generations before.
“He was embezzled twice, and he died a relatively poor man,” said Nicholas Brown, which might explain his brother’s preoccupation with money. As Neil Harris wrote in “Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience,” he ... “enjoyed the trappings of wealth that Harriman’s lifestyle displayed, luxuries that he valued but did not want to pay for himself.”
“Carter was totally avaricious,” said Nina Auchincloss Steers Straight, who traveled at the top of society and was related through marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Gore Vidal. “I remember at his engagement party to Connie [his first wife, Constance Mellon Byers], and him talking about her as the adopted daughter of Richard King Mellon. Someone said, ‘Oh, dear, Connie’s father died [June 1970]. Carter said, ‘Think of all the money she has.’”
That marriage barely lasted two years, before Connie Mellon threw him out of the house by having all of his personal belongings dumped at the employee’s entrance of the National Gallery of Art. Four years later Brown married again. “That wife was Pamela Braga Drexel and she, too, was worth a few million,” said Straight. His second marriage, which produced two children, lasted a few years. They separated in 1987 but continued living in the same house as they dealt with a fractious divorce for the next four years. As part of the divorce, he demanded a financial settlement (“She had more resources than I had”) as well as their house in Georgetown and shared custody of their children.
In many ways Carter Brown and Pamela Harriman seemed temperamentally suited. Both social mountaineers, they shared many of the same friends in New York, London and Paris, none of whom was anonymous or insignificant. After they parted, Carter gave an interview in which he denied they had had a sexual relationship, but they seemed very much a couple to those who were with them at her various houses in Middleburg, Barbados and Sun Valley, and observed that they always shared the same bedroom. They traveled to London together; to Paris; they rode the Orient Express and they cruised on a yacht off the coast of Turkey, trips that were financed either by the gallery or the newly rich widow.
|Most important to Carter, who lived to work, was persuading Pamela to give $20,000 to the National Gallery in 1986 and $20,000 the following year. Months later he convinced her to donate the Van Gogh, worth $50 million, so he could use the public announcement of her “magnificent act of generosity” to launch his campaign for the Gallery’s 50th anniversary in 1991. Having inherited Averell Harriman’s $100 million estate, Pamela needed and received an immense tax deduction for agreeing to donate 20 percent of the painting for the anniversary and the rest after her death. This meant she could keep the painting for 80 percent of the year — 292 days — and the gallery could have it for the remainder; for those 73 days Brown arranged to have a copy made of “White Roses” to hang over her mantle. He parlayed her donation into a capital campaign that garnered 500 new works of art to celebrate the 50th, most of which were exhibited in the Gallery’s anniversary show, “Art for a Nation.”
After the 50th anniversary Brown, then 58 years old, unexpectedly announced his retirement, but not before researching his eligibility for a pension. “It makes a difference,” he told The Washington Post, which his brother confirmed. “By today’s standards, we are very far from wealthy.”
Pamela, with a net income of $1 million a year, was spending over $2 million annually. She knew that Carter Brown did not have the wealth most people assumed. At one point he told an interviewer he hoped to inherit her Middleburg estate and she had written him into her will, leaving him her house and all of her furnishings, antiques and art, plus a $1 million bequest so he could maintain the property. But she dropped him from the will when she was slapped with her own financial debacle.
|The Harriman heirs had become riled about the trust investments Pamela and her Washington lawyer, former presidential advisor Clark Clifford, had approved, which cost the family $30 million in losses. An $18 million loan had been taken against those trusts for which Pamela had signed, but when payment came due, she balked at repaying the amount by herself. So the family liquidated its portfolios to make the payment, but they expected her to make good on what her carelessness had cost them. She refused. After many attempts over two years by various sets of lawyers to reach a compromise, the family finally sued. In federal court they accused Pamela of being a “faithless fiduciary,” and charged the estate lawyers, including Clark Clifford, of mismanagement, fraud, conspiracy and racketeering.
Clifford, once a pillar of Washington’s legal and social establishment, was embroiled in the BCCI international bank laundering scandal at the time. In failing health and his vaunted reputation in tatters he resigned as a Harriman estate trustee and eventually settled with the family for $1 million. The family’s lawsuit cost Pamela over $4 million in legal fees, and some people later wondered if the public humiliation and stress may have shortened her life.
On the day of Clinton’s Inauguration Pamela, who knew he revered John F. Kennedy, gave the new President the former President’s Oval Office ink blotter — the gift that Jacqueline Kennedy had given to Averell and Marie Harriman. Pamela included Jackie’s hand-written letter, which Clinton said he treasured as one of his most cherished possessions.
By this time Pamela’s whisperers were working to get her her due from a grateful president, and William Jefferson Clinton did not disappoint. In 1993 he appointed her Ambassador to France, the summit of her most cherished aspirations. Everyone from the President to the public assumed that Averell Harriman’s widow, who had inherited his $100 million estate, could easily handle the financial expectations of such a diplomatic post.
Pamela arrived in Paris with her own staff, a personal speech writer, a maid and a butler, which cost her approximately $180,000 a year. In addition, she spent $500,000 hiring Mark Hampton, the Manhattan interior designer, to redecorate the six public rooms of the ambassador’s residence where she hung Van Gogh’s “White Roses.” She spent $4000 a year for pool privileges at the Ritz Hotel, and when she exceeded her State Department allowance for entertaining, which she did non-stop with breakfasts, brunches, luncheons, teas, screenings and dinner parties, she again dipped into her own pocket. Soon she was financially strapped, but she kept spending, determined to keep up appearances.
|She quietly put her Georgetown house on the market. There was no public listing, no open house, no For Sale sign. Instead her realtor, Michael Sullivan, made a few discreet calls to clients he thought might be interested in the historical residence with its six parking spaces. The price was $3.6 million — all cash, no contingencies, no counter-offers.
One Georgetown couple, particularly interested in the parking, made an appointment. “We walked into the dining room, which was done in exquisite Gracie wallpaper,” said the wife.
“‘How lovely,’ we said.
“‘The Gracie doesn’t convey,’ we were told. ‘Madame is taking it with her.’ Then we walked into the living room which was huge. ‘Madame calls this her petit salon,’ the realtor said with a straight face. There was a photograph in a large silver frame of Pamela and Queen Elizabeth II. Every little table, and there must’ve been at least ten little tables in that so-called petit salon, was covered with shiny white matchbooks embossed with Pamela Churchill Harriman. Being a bit miffed by the Gracie wallpaper, I commented on the matchbooks, and said something about proper protocol dictating that a once divorced, twice married woman list herself by her maiden name and followed by her last name as in Pamela Digby Harriman.
“Michael Sullivan smiled. ‘Churchill is Churchill,’ he said. ‘The brand sells.’”
“Despite all the tasseled taffeta and rouched silk the brand didn’t sell us,” said the wife. “There were no showers in any of the six bathrooms; the kitchen was circa Ozzie and Harriet, and the parking was a half block away from the house. ‘Your chauffeur can drop you at the front door,’ said the realtor — again with a straight face — ‘and your maids can do your grocery shopping.’ We laughed. No chauffeurs. No maids. No sale.”
Unable to sell her Georgetown house and desperate for capital, Pamela sold her private plane and her house in Barbados. The Harriman heirs pressed her to sell the Van Gogh to reimburse them for their losses, knowing that a promise to the National Gallery was not enforceable. But having made such a public announcement of her gift in 1991 for the gallery’s 50th anniversary, Pamela could not bear the humiliation of reneging because she was going broke. Carter Brown told his biographer he admired her for fulfilling her pledge while she was in such dire financial straits.
The Harriman lawsuit became front page news, and the tawdriness of being sued by her husband’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren for squandering their inheritance was exacerbated by their second lawsuit, requesting that Pamela be removed as executor of the estate, and charging her with “negligence, lack of prudence and dereliction of her duties.” Then followed further humiliation with publication of Christopher Ogden’s biography entitled “Life of the Party” which depicted Pamela as more doxy than diplomat.
|After a year of litigation, plus millions spent on legal fees, both sides recognized they needed to settle before they spent whatever was left in the estate fighting each other. Pamela, whose net worth had plummeted from $100 million to $9 million, plus $12 million in real estate and art, agreed to sell three paintings and forgive loans to reimburse the Harriman heirs. They, in turn, dropped all suits against her. No one was happy and no one was rich by former family standards.
As much as she loved Paris Pamela began feeling ground down and decided one term as Ambassador was enough for a woman without a husband. She began making plans to return to Washington and campaign for Al Gore for President.
On the afternoon of February 3, 1997 her chauffeur drove her to the Ritz Hotel to swim her usual laps in the pool. Minutes after she got in the water she was struck with a cerebral hemorrhage. She died hours later at the age of 76.
She was mourned graciously in France with front page obituaries extolling her “dazzling life.” French President Jacques Chirac awarded her the Legion of Honor as her casket left Paris. The remembrances in England were less decorous. The Economist headlined her obituary as: “Pamela Digby Churchill Harriman, Ambassador and Courtesan;” the Daily Mail mused that “when historians look back on the 20th century, they will find traces of Pamela Harriman’s lipstick all over it,” adding that while she sparkled with luxuries, “it was a harsh life. Old British friends, especially, mocked her transparent ambition .... Lovers she hoped to marry dumped her. Her husbands were difficult. Her stepchildren disliked her. Even the goal of financial security eluded her in the end — as relations clawed back much of Harriman’s estate ....”
The United States welcomed her home with a state funeral at the National Cathedral attended by 1157 people, including President Clinton, who asked to deliver the eulogy. When he mounted the lectern in the vast Neo-Gothic expanse designated as the national house of prayer, some felt he may have stretched hyperbole when he bit his lip and said: “Today I am here in no small measure because she was there. Today we see her legacy in the growing promise of a Europe undivided, secure and free.” He called her “an active life force in the greatest continuing alliance for freedom the world has ever known.” She died, he said, “with the promise of her beloved American burning brighter because of how she lived in her space and time.”
|Some in the media were incredulous as they listened. The next day in The Washington Post Mary McGrory wondered why “the femme fatale of World War II who spent the blitz ... dodging bombs and wrecking homes” ... was “lauded as a most conscientious public servant of her adopted country — without reference to her blithe disregard of the family values her beloved party came to treasure.” Richard Cohen, also in the Washington Post, said that President Clinton had “so praised Mrs. Harriman ... that you would have thought she had actually done something momentous in foreign affairs, other than have more than her share ....”
Decades after her death the Georgetown courtesan remains a mythic figure. “Please say good things about Pamela,” said Duncan Sandys, the great grandson of Winston Churchill. “She was more than her reputation for men .... She was smart. She read people.”
Although no blood relation the young man with his reddish hair, fair full face and blue eyes looked a great deal like the woman he was extolling. At a 2016 cocktail party in 2016 in Georgetown where her fragrance lingers years after her death, He said: “I saw her in Paris a few weeks before she died and she was so good to me .... She was so savvy. She read people well. After all, she took a scruffy hick governor from Arkansas and made him President of the United States. Clinton said as much himself at her funeral ....” Sandys raised his champagne flute in praise: “Winston Churchill won the war and Pamela made a President. Pretty good legacy for us Churchillians, I’d say.”
Madame couldn’t have said it better herself.