Pamela Harriman: The Queen of Party Politics
She was one of the most effervescent hostesses and political powerbrokers—and two new novels feature Pamela Harriman reimagined at her charismatic best.
Almost 19 years after her death, Pamela Harriman is being exhumed through not just one, but two, novels.
In a strange confluence, the oft-wedded socialite and primo political hostess—often dubbed “the last courtesan”—appears as a character in twin clays of fiction, each of them quite different.
And in a moment when everything old-is-Clinton again—Harriman helped to buoy Democratic fortunes for Hillary’s husband as much as one person could, back in the day—it’s a haute house-of-mirrors, all right.
Harriman, as life symmetry would have it, died while swimming inside the Paris Ritz in 1997.
Ensconced in the French capital as American’s ambassador to France, the 77-year-old winded up swimming her last lap when she suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage in the pool of the very hotel she’d enjoyed many grand occasions over the years (including a drink at the bar to toast the liberation of Paris, at the end of WWII, with her then-lover Edward R. Murrow).
In 2015, the grande dame lives on between covers—first in Thomas Mallon’s Finale, a novel set against the Reagan presidency, in which Harriman plays a cat-and-mouse of sorts with the late, great, torpedoing wit, Christopher Hitchens (also appearing as himself in the book).
She also appears in Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue, yet another roman à clef, but this one set amidst the pearly set of Truman Capote’s New York, and in which Harriman shares oxygen with other glamorpusses of the era, including Babe Paley.
Is Harriman on the page to play hostess with the mostest? You betcha. And, in so doing, the two new novels elongate a literary catalogue that already exists focusing on one of the great characters of the 20th century.
The Brit’s life, already chronicled in two full biographies—Life of The Party by Christopher Ogden, and Reflected Glory, by Sally Bedell Smith—offers not only a lens into the messy gender-politics that Harriman embodied, but also offers a colorful tour guide of modern history and politics.
For seasoned social voyeurs, the trajectory of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman (to be precise) may be all too familiar: the daughter of the 11th Baron Digby, who “finished” in Germany and France, her romantic résumé earned its first notch when she married into the Churchill clan.
Husband One Randolph Churchill may have been a lout, and suffered from “son of great man syndrome,” as it’s known, but her dad-in-law, Winston, grew to be terribly fond of her.
She called him “papa,” and humored him by playing cards late into the night. Parlaying that first marriage into many other A-list liaisons— tycoons Gianni Agnelli and Élie de Rothschild, among them—she had umpteenth phases and mounting clout.
Labeled a “courtesan”—a term with obviously sexist daggers, and hardly the sum or center of Harriman’s achievements—she fell into a long line of women like Wallis Simpson, Madame de Pompadour, and her own great-great aunt Jane Digby, a notorious romantic adventurer: fortune-hunters who wrought power and influence by allying themselves with ever-wealthier men.
Never merely ornamental, however—or “arm-candy,” as is the modern vernacular—Harriman was, in the manner of all these champs, “a chameleon who is able to pick up hues of her surrounds,” as Charlotte Hays, an observer of the species, has written.
The true fortune hunter “is a woman utterly without peripheral vision. She has total focus,” while “marrying super rich is more a matter of talent and enterprise than beauty.”
In Harriman’s case, her New York phase reached its peak after she met Leland Hayward, the legendary Broadway producer of hits such as South Pacific.
A friend asked her to go to the theater with Hayward, whose wife, Slim Keith—one of all-time mythic society beauties—was in Europe. It wasn’t long before Leland was Pamela’s. They were married from 1960 to 1971.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue gallops past this incident, the author throwing in this psychological evaluation of the seductress with monumental cleavage: “Pamela had grown up possessing the gift: how to soothe and flatter and caress and purr, then ignore, just when the flattering and caressing got to be a bit too much.
“She knew how to cast a wide net and keep things friendly, no matter how distastefully they might end, so that would be able to use one lover to help another…”
Picking up where Swans leaves off in many ways, Finale circles around Pamela’s late-in-life Washington chrysalis.
Though she is just one of the many characters in Mallon’s kaleidoscopic portrait of 1980s D.C., she is possibly the most vivid.
Having later married (in 1971) and outlived scion Averell Harriman—the ex-governor of New York and erstwhile ambassador to the Soviet Union—she returned to the political hijinks she’d learned at the knee of the Churchills.
Settling in a legendary Georgetown residence—the very home that Averell once lent to Jackie Kennedy, and her two children, after JFK was shot—this would be the dawn of Pamela as Powerbroker.
Whether leading private delegations to Russia, and China, or sitting as a member of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, she was ubiquitous.
And the dinner parties! Throwing an innumerable number of these, as Finale notes, “she took notes on the conversation, using a cream-colored pad so tiny one could mistake it for a dollop of sauce that had splashed onto the tablecloth.”
Of course, she was “more than a hostess,” as she was the first to tell you. The novel, in a meta sub-plot, has Harriman tangling with then-cub reporter Hitchens, who is writing piece about her for Vanity Fair: “Call her that [hostess] and the blue eyes balanced grey like a North Sea ice storm and her lips flattened tight against her tea.”
A doyenne among dowagers, the book has Harriman in full-on general mode. This was a time when she’d wind up distributing more than $12 million to Democratic gubernatorial, congressional, and presidential candidates, thereby helping to set the stage for its eventual takeover of the White House in the following decade.
Asked why he decided to people his novel about the Reagan era through the eyes of someone like Harriman, Mallon has said he wanted to aim for the unexpected. “You try to find your way in from these oblique angles,” he explained.
And while his piece of historical fiction doesn’t quite extend to the 1990s, if it did, there’s one real-life moment that would have made for a helluva of a set piece: at party that Harriman would eventually throw for President-elect Bill Clinton, he famously arrived clutching her Bill Blass-sleeved arm, raising a gold-rimmed champagne flute. “To Pamela, the First Lady of the Democratic Party,” he toasted.
Soon enough, Harriman was off to France, where the French were, unsurprisingly, defenseless against her charms.
After her death, Jacques Chirac, then the president of the Republic, went as far as to call her “one of the best ambassadors since Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson.”
Looking at her legacy through today’s lens, Harriman comes across as something of a dying breed. Making the most of every opportunity, she was always more than just trophy wife. As Elizabeth Kerri Mahon has aptly summed up, in her analysis of what makes a successful courtesan, “She must be ‘on’ at all times, she must dress well, be a good conversationalist, spend her time focused on the male in her life not on herself, be must be able to entertain well, serve good food, keep abreast of current events…”
Harriman certainly did all that, and—as a political power-player in her own right—then some.