Truman Capote was thinking of Pamela Harriman when he wrote that "there are certain women...who, though perhaps not born rich, are born to be rich." In this engaging, finely nuanced biography, Smith indeed portrays Pamela as a ruthless social-climbing courtesan who has derived her power and fortune solely through her men, but then the author accomplishes an amazing feat—Smith makes you feel pity, and even begrudging admiration, for Pamela's plucky ambition.
Born into an aristocratic British family of exhausted fortune, Pam was a graceless butterball of a debutante who was determined to escape the dull life of Dorset. She did at 19, when she married Winston Churchill's son Randolph. The five-year union was disastrous (Randolph was philandering, alcoholic and "rude beyond measure"), but through it Pamela made the right connections, hitting the jackpot with a wartime affair with millionaire American diplomat Averell Harriman.
Then came a succession of international playboys—rich polo player Jock Whitney, Prince Aly Khan, Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli, Baron Elie de Rothschild and Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos—before Pamela wed Broadway producer Leland Hay-ward in 1960. A year after Hayward's death in 1971, she married the widowed Harriman, moved to Washington, and transformed herself into the mother of all Democratic fund-raisers.
When Harriman died in 1986, Pamela finally became a woman of independent means (though she has since seen Harriman's vast estate dwindle after a legal battle with his heirs, who have accused her of being a "faithless fiduciary") and, under the Clinton Administration, U.S. ambassador to France. Smith admirably steers clear of the breathless tone that plagues many biographies and, for all her exhaustive research, never gets bogged down. Glory is as juicy a read as a gossip column. (Simon & Schuster, $30)