Pamela Harriman Dies, Ending Rich Saga She Was Serving As U.s. Ambassador To France. She Had Been A Power Broker And Fund-raiser.

Posted: February 06, 1997

WASHINGTON — Pamela Harriman, 76, who rose from failed English debutante to wife and lover of some of the world's most wealthy men and ultimately to prominence in American politics, died yesterday at the American Hospital in suburban Paris where she was completing a four-year tour as U.S. ambassador to France.

Mrs. Harriman died less than 48 hours after suffering a brain hemorrhage following a swim at the Ritz Hotel, a few blocks from her palatial official residence on the Rue du Faubourg St. Honore. She was taken Monday night to the hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine where she never regained consciousness, officials said.

The death of the former daughter-in-law of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill brought to an end an amazing saga. She was a woman who transformed herself from one of the great courtesans of this century - in a biographer's phrase - into a power broker and fund-raiser for the Democratic Party, and a savvy, respected practitioner of the diplomatic arts.

Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman would have been the first to say she had a ``history,'' but she reveled in the fact that she had become respectable and was taken seriously in powerful circles.

A Wall Street financier named Joseph Meehan nicknamed her ``Wheels,'' said biographer Sally Bedell Smith, in tribute to Mrs. Harriman's ability to always have her wheels turning, planning ahead for her next move, her next change of image.

President Clinton, who benefited from Mrs. Harriman's patronage when he was governor of Arkansas, described her yesterday as ``one of the most unusual and gifted people I ever met.''

``She was an extraordinary U.S. 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,'' a somber Clinton said as he departed on a trip to Georgia.

Clinton said that he and his wife had spoken by telephone with Mrs. Harriman's son, Winston Spencer Churchill.

``Our country will miss her,'' Clinton said. ``She was a source of judgment and inspiration to me, a source of constant good humor and charm and real friendship.''

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said: ``America has lost a remarkable representative, the State Department has lost one of its most effective diplomats, and I have lost a friend.

``Amidst the high-tech gadgetry of the information age, she was a master of the personal touch that separates simple communications from true diplomacy,'' Albright said.

Albright had met recently with Mrs. Harriman in Washington, after Albright was sworn in as the first female secretary of state. Friends said Mrs. Harriman seemed in fine spirits and health when she was here for Clinton's second inauguration last month. They said she talked excitedly about returning to Washington as she hosted friends at her opulent house on N Street in Georgetown.

Mrs. Harriman owned a second Georgetown home until recently. At the death in 1986 of her third husband, multimillionaire financier and former New York governor W. Averell Harriman, she was worth $115 million.

Seven years later, Harriman family members sued her for more than $30 million, alleging that she had squandered the estate's assets. The messy, public legal squabble ended in settlement, but it disrupted Mrs. Harriman's duties as ambassador to France.

Even so, for a woman who made Horatio Alger seem like a slothful ne'er-do-well, this was a minor, if distasteful, episode.

Her life, after all, had been about money.

Pamela Beryl Digby was born March 20, 1920, in Farnborough, England, the Dorset country home to Britain's 11th Lord Digby. The flame-haired, chubby young lady had a disastrous coming-out as a debutante in 1938, but was aided by a friend who introduced her to Randolph Churchill, the party-hearty son of Winston Churchill.

Randolph, who had once proposed to three women in a single evening, wasted little time in repeating the question. He and Pamela were married in 1939. The unlikely union was officially dissolved on grounds of desertion in 1945, leaving Pamela with a son, Winston S., an exploitable name and entree to exclusive social circles.

A wartime fling with railroad scion Harriman - while she was living with her father-in-law at No. 10 Downing Street - ensured her financial viability, which she later enhanced with Fiat baron Gianni Agnelli, who set her up in a luxury apartment in Paris.

After dalliances with the monied Baron Elie de Rothschild and Stavros Niarchos, she married Broadway producer Leland Hayward in 1960. When he died in 1971, Pamela made it official with Averell Harriman and became a U.S. citizen.

Bedell Smith, author of Mrs. Harriman's unauthorized biography Reflected Glory, published last year, said that despite a 28-year age gap, Averell Harriman was the closest she had to a perfect match.

``They both were driven, focused, tended to collect useful people and wanted to be at the center of power,'' Smith said yesterday from Boca Raton, Fla.

Employing the vast Harriman fortune and a network of political connections in the Democratic Party, Mrs. Harriman took up politics (she even had a political action committee, PamPAC), lectured on foreign policy and acquired an army of advisers. She ran a political salon in her Georgetown home and acted as a money mill for the Democratic Party.

This surprising metamorphosis accelerated after Harriman's death. It culminated in Mrs. Harriman's being named ambassador to France in 1993 by a young president for whom she had raised significant amounts of money. During the Reagan 1980s, Mrs. Harriman almost single-handedly resuscitated the fortunes of the Democratic Party.

For Mrs. Harriman, this was the moment she had dreamed of in her reveries of a 19th-century ancestor, Jane Digby, an adventuress who had consorted with kings and sheiks.

``It was a great source of satisfaction to return to Paris, where she had been known as a mistress,'' Smith said.

By official and unofficial accounts, Mrs. Harriman charmed the French with her fluent language and her social graces. The French, Smith said, considered her ``notorious'' reputation a plus. Her acknowledged lovers included Frank Sinatra, Edward R. Murrow and William S. Paley.

Biographer Christopher Ogden wrote that she kept in a safe in her Georgetown home love letters from three participants at the Yalta Conference of 1945.

Another friend described Mrs. Harriman as a ``practical dreamer'' who transformed bad memories into good ones, and good ones into better ones.

She died secure in her own transformation, in full possession of her mystique.

There will be a memorial service for Mrs. Harriman in Paris, the State Department said yesterday without announcing the time and place. Speculation on her successor as ambassador to France has centered on Frank Wisner, U.S. ambassador to India, and New York investment banker Felix Rohatyn.

Her remains, accompanied by her son, will be transported to the United States after the memorial service.

A funeral will be held next week in Washington, with interment scheduled at Arden House in Harriman, N.Y., the former residence of Gov. Harriman.

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