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Picks and Pans Review: Life of the Party

updated 05/16/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Christopher Ogden

Anyone who reads and believes this book will find it hard to feel warmth for Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, the woman Bill Clinton appointed ambassador to France in 1993. Self-centered (her romantic life took precedence over her only child, Winston) and calculating (her lifetime pattern suggests that if a man wasn't rich or powerful, Pamela wasn't interested) are among the adjectives appropriate for Madame Ambassador in this unsparing biography by the former chief diplomatic correspondent for TIME magazine.

The woman who grew up to be a formidable fund-raiser for the Democratic Party was born in England in 1920 and raised on her family's estate in Dorset. According to Ogden, she was chafing to get away from her hidebound aristocratic family and on with her life from an early age. At 19, after a three-week courtship, she married Winston Churchill's son, Randolph, then a 28-year-old journalist with a problem holding his liquor and his temper. Pamela had doubts about Randolph, says Ogden, but she was pretty crazy about his last name. The two had a child (now Conservative MP for Davyhulme) and some heavy rows before going their separate ways in 1945.

Ogden, who says that he interviewed nearly 200 sources with close knowledge of Harriman at each stage of her life, paints a mostly unflattering portrait of the woman so many men found desirable. Among her reputed lovers were Elie de Rothschild of the European banking fortune; Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli; Prince Aly Kahn; CBS founder Bill Paley and—during the same heady period of World War II—British general Frederick L. Anderson; prince of cafe society Jock Whitney; and Edward R. Murrow.

How does the author account for Harriman's appeal? Though not a great beauty, he writes, Pamela was shrewd, a quick study and a gifted—no, extraordinary—listener. Furthermore, she oversaw "every aspect of a man's life, boosting his ego, anticipating his every interest, convincing him that her time with him was the greatest thing that had happened since the juxtaposition of the planets."

But not everything went her way. Both Agnelli and Murrow broke her heart by refusing to come through with wedding rings. Others, however, did. The woman one former husband allegedly referred to as "the greatest courtesan of the 20th century" was married to super agent Leland Hayward from 1962 to 1971 and to New York governor W. Averell Harriman, with whom Pamela had also dallied during World War II, from 1971 to 1986.

Ogden probably won't be getting dinner invitations from Harriman, but his book represents a serious and intriguing study of a woman who began as a trophy wife and emerged as the Democrat's force majeur. (Little Brown, $24.95)

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