Life of the Party

updated 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The young Bill Clinton first caught Pamela Harriman's eye back in 1981. At one of the Washington socialite's famous "issues" dinners, amid the Picassos and orchids in her exquisitely appointed Georgetown town house, the relatively unknown Arkansan gave a talk about the Democratic Party that "just blew everybody away," recalls Sandy Berger, a close friend of Harriman's. Thereafter, Pamela became a most loyal friend of Bill's. After Clinton's infamously longwinded keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention, for example, Harriman invited him and Hillary to dinner. "It was just a nice gesture." says Berger, now Clinton's deputy national security adviser. "The coincidence is that he happened to be the next President of the United States."

Coincidence? Perhaps. But Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman has not spent her very dramatic life relying on chance. The British-born aristocrat, who became the Democrats' doyenne after the 1986 death of her third husband, former New York governor and presidential adviser W. Averell Harriman, has at long last come into her own. Throughout the '80s she worked tirelessly to raise millions of dollars and, just as important, the spirits of a party discouraged by years of Republican rule. "No one in this country," says Speaker of the House Tom Foley, "can take greater credit for winning the White House than Pamela." As a reward, Clinton has nominated Harriman, 73, to be ambassador to France. After her confirmation, which is fully expected by next month, Harriman will become the first woman to head a major U.S. foreign mission since Anne Armstrong went to London in the 1970s.

It has taken nearly a lifetime for the vivacious beauty to carve out this singular identity. Harriman (who rarely gives interviews) is the product of an era in which women often attained status through the men they acquired—and acquire them she did. Her three husbands—Winston Churchill's son Randolph, Broadway producer Leland Hayward and Ave Harriman—plus countless beaux (including Frank Sinatra, Aly Khan and Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli) filled an international roster of the brilliant and powerful. Her friends and critics agree on one thing: Pamela knows how to please a man, bestowing upon him her undivided attention and sleeping herself in knowledge of his world. Her charm, says her old friend Leonora Hornblow, "is ineffable. I just think she's irresistible—to men, women and children."

Pamela Digby, the oldest of four children of the 11th Baron Digby, grew up in the rural splendor of a 1,500-acre estate in Dorset, England. In 1938 she made her debut in London society, coming out before King George VI at Buckingham Palace. At 19 she was working as a typist at the Foreign Office when Randolph Churchill, a lonely 28-year-old lieutenant on a weekend pass, called and invited her to dinner at the suggestion of a mutual friend. "What do you look like?" he asked. "Redheaded and rather fat, but Mummy says puppy fat disappears," she replied. In two weeks they were engaged; they married in 1939 over the protests of Pamela's friends, who saw Churchill as a rambunctious drinker and gambler.

While Randolph was off at war, his new bride moved into 10 Downing Street when Winston Churchill became prime minister in 1940—and into the inner sanctum of power and politics. Pamela, who described herself as a "backroom girl," played bezique in the bomb shelter with Winston, who appreciated her charms and put her to work at social gatherings courting influential Americans to join the war. In 1941 she was introduced to Averell Harriman, the Union Pacific Railroad heir who was then President Roosevelt's special liaison to Britain. He was 49; she was 21. Both were instantly smitten and began an affair that lasted until Harriman left London for Moscow in 1943 and his wife, Marie, threatened to divorce him.

After two years of marriage, she separated from Randolph, whose debts she tired of paying off (they divorced in 1947, and their son, Winston, whom Pamela raised, is now a member of parliament). Pamela soon took up with CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, who eventually returned to his wife. At war's end Pamela moved to Paris, where she had torrid affairs with Agnelli and Baron Élie de Rothschild, then head of the family vineyard, Chateau Lafite. Critics may sneer at Harriman's "past" ("She has the whiff of a woman who's slept around," says an acquaintance), but friends like Horn-blow just shrug it off. "So what?" she asks. "She wasn't married. Agnelli wasn't married. Even Charles de Gaulle was impressed by her."

In 1958, during a visit to New York, Harriman was introduced to Leland Hayward, who had just begun work on Broadway's The Sound of Music. Two years later Hayward, 57, divorced his third wife, socialite Nancy "Slim" Keith (his second was actress Margaret Sullavan) and married Pamela. Though she and Hayward were devoted to each other, all was not quiet on the domestic front. Two of Hayward's children by Sullavan, Bill and Brooke, saw Harriman as the quintessential evil stepmother, and Brooke documented her charges in the juicy 1977 best-seller Haywire. When Hayward, nearly broke, died after a series of strokes, in 1971, Harriman and the children scrapped bitterly over his modest estate.

After seeing Hayward through his painful final months, his widow became "afraid of everything, miserable, unhappy and lost," says friend Pie Friendly. But Pamela went to a dinner party at the home of Katharine Graham, then publisher of The Washington Post, and was reunited with her old flame Averell, whose wife had just died. By then Harriman was 79 and had been a governor, a presidential candidate and a U.S. ambassador-at-large under President Kennedy. They married in the fall of 1971 (as a gift to Ave. his new wife finally became a U.S. citizen), and Pamela stepped once again into the whirl of politics.

As ever, Harriman tended to her husband's every need, from serving his favorite corned beef hash to helping him campaign behind the scenes for presidential candidates Edmund Muskie and Walter Mondale. Beginning in 1980. when Averell's eyesight and hearing were failing and his bone cancer was diagnosed, Pamela frequently entertained colleagues from his past to boost his spirits. And she limited her political work in order to be near him. "She always called in the late afternoon," says Pie Friendly, an assistant to Averell in his final years. "He would sit by the phone wailing. The man would give his right arm to her." After his death in 1986, Pamela inherited about $75 million—while Harriman's children and grandchildren received a comparative pittance.

In Averell's absence. Pamela, who had founded her own political action committee, Democrats for the '80s, just after Ronald Reagan's election, carried on her late husband's work for the good of the party. She transformed her Georgetown drawing room into a kind of salon, holding regular gatherings where big players and newcomers alike discussed the issues of the day and mapped their strategy for reclaiming the White House. Pampac, as the committee was nicknamed, raised and spent $12 million in 10 years, helping the Democrats win back the Senate. In 1991 Harriman lent her country house in Middleburg, Va., to the Democratic National Committee for a key pro-election summit. And she bestowed her blessings on Bill Clinton—who joined Pampac's board in 1981—raising $3.2 million for the Clinton-Gore ticket two months before the election. When jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane created his gold saxophone lapel pin, Harriman, not Hillary, got the very first one.

These days Harriman spends most weekends in Middleburg with her orchids and horses and has recently been romantically linked with Carter Brown, 58, the retired head of Washington's National Gallery. She also socializes with good friends like the Foleys, Kitty Carlisle Hart, and Arthur and Alexandra Schlesinger. It's expected that the French—who remember Harriman's charm and brio from her Paris years—will welcome her with open arms. But by now, Pamela Harriman is more than ready for the next challenge. "It's very nice to have comfort, support, love, all of that," she has said. "But I think all of us know that there are things that you have to be responsible for yourself. At the end of the day, everybody is alone."

J.D. PODOLSKY in Washington

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