One of a Kind

updated 02/17/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/17/1997 01:00AM

AT THE WHITE HOUSE Correspondents' Dinner in 1993, Barbra Streisand reportedly slipped into a chair next to the first woman U.S. Ambassador to France, a still-stunning septuagenarian, and whispered, "What's your secret?" Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman threw back her elegantly coiffed head and laughed. Whatever her secret was—and there was never any doubt that she had one—it was obviously unique and inimitable.

On Mon., Feb. 3, she took that secret with her forever. After a typically busy day in her antique-filled Paris embassy office, Harriman, 76, went to the venerable Ritz Hotel for her regular swim. Climbing from the pool, she suddenly collapsed in a chair, victim of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Her son Winston Churchill, 56, a member of Britain's Parliament and grandson of his famous namesake, rushed to her bedside at Paris's American Hospital with other family members, but Harriman never regained consciousness. When she died of a stroke two days later, she left behind an almost mythic legacy of politics and passion, powerful husbands and paramours (Frank Sinatra, Aly Khan and Gianni Agnelli among them), fractious lawsuits and delicious innuendo that had echoed along the corridors of power for five decades.

Poised and vivacious, Harriman once described her political influence as that of "a backroom girl." But the accolades that poured in after her death were fit more for a banquet hall. "She took good care of anyone she was fond of," says longtime pal Kitty Carlisle Hart, "and it was done with grace and humor. There was never a feeling that it was a sacrifice." Says a Harriman friend, former assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke: "She wanted to live at the center of the arena."

Harriman aimed high early on. Daughter of the 11th Baron Digby, she was taught that a woman's duty lay in getting and pleasing a husband. At 19, with her eye on greater things, she married Winston Churchill's dissolute son Randolph, 28, a union that produced her only child and secured her a name to open significant doors. At 10 Downing Street, she once said, "it seemed natural for me to be entertaining General Marshall or General Eisenhower." With Randolph away during the war, Pamela entertained more intimately: affairs with millionaire diplomat Averell Harriman and newsman Edward R. Murrow, both married themselves.

Pamela divorced Churchill in 1945 and never looked back. In an earlier age she might have been called a courtesan, acquiring lovers from St. Moritz to Palm Springs and amassing money and power in the process. She settled into marriage again with Broadway producer Le-land Hayward in 1960. Then, just six months after Hayward's death in 1971, Harriman, a 79-year-old widower, quietly wed the 51-year-old Pamela. By all accounts, Harriman was devoted to her husband, sharing his work and concerns even as his health faded. "She was terribly good to him," says Washington Post owner Katharine Graham, a friend. When he died in 1986, Harriman left Pamela a sum estimated as high as $75 million. Eight years later she was sued as a "faithless fiduciary" for being irresponsible about family trust funds and partnerships he had set up. As the suit dragged on, Pamela sold three of her prized modern paintings for $19 million. The matter was finally settled in 1995.

Alone at 66, Pamela began wielding political clout in her own right. At her Virginia farm and her Georgetown home, she charmed Democratic movers and shakers, raising some $12 million for the party. And she kept an eye on the promising young governor of Arkansas. In Paris, after Bill Clinton rewarded Harriman with her ambassadorship in 1993, she entertained an estimated 60,000 people over four years, weaving a skein of friendships for U.S. interests that, says Holbrooke, "made her the best ambassador to France we've had in 30 years."

In the end her genius was her ability to reinvent herself constantly. "When the only way was the old-fashioned way, she rose through her men," says Harriman biographer Christopher Ogden. "When it was possible to rise in another way, she kept climbing."

J.D. REED
CATHY NOLAN and PETER MIKELBANK in Paris and MARGIE SELLINGER and JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington

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