There aren’t many people whose lives have such an epic, eventful sweep that they seem to combine the rumbustious picaresque of the 18th-century novel and the slightly more salacious demands of its late 20th-century equivalent. But Pamela Harriman’s was one such life. She was born in England in 1920, into an old aristocratic milieu that the likes of Samuel Richardson (the author of Pamela, lest we forget) may still have just about recognised; by the end of her life, 77 years later, she was an Hon. of a different stripe, a U.S. ambassador to France with three marriages and innumerable affairs with powerful men behind her, and a starring role in Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers, his unfinished tell-all swansong in which he gleefully stripped bare the lives of all his barely disguised socialite friends (not so much a roman à clef as a roman à trousseau de clefs).
She was born Pamela Digby into a gilded but straitened life in Dorset. Her father was the 11th Baron Digby and her mother was the daughter of the 2nd Baron Aberdare. Money was tight — she was able to make her ‘debut’ only after her father placed a lucky bet on the Grand National — and her horizons seemingly tighter. “I was born in a world where a woman was totally controlled by men,” she once said. “The boys were allowed to go off to school. The girls were kept home, educated by governesses. That was the way things were.”
But the young Pamela already sensed a means of transcending the hunt ball set. At 12 she was reputed to have jumped her horse over the tumescent phallus of the Cerne Abbas giant, an ancient figure carved into the chalk hills near the family home of Minterne, exclaiming: “God, it’s big!” She also became fascinated by the story of her ancestor Jane Digby, whose amorous adventures (while married to the much older Lord Ellenborough; she had an affair and two children with Prince Schwarzenburg of Austria, became the mistress of King Ludwig of Bavaria, and eventually married a Syrian sheikh on condition that he gave up his harem) titillated Victorian London. After finishing school, she began to hone her talents as a siren, understanding that the only way for women to achieve any clout was through captivating and influencing those with real power. Not everyone was convinced — she had “kitten eyes full of innocent fun”, in Evelyn Waugh’s equivocal words, while Nancy Mitford regarded her as “a red-headed bouncing little thing, and a joke among her contemporaries”. Yet she deployed every weapon in her armoury, from her champagne voice to her peerless managerial skills and gracious hostessing, to snare her quarry.
At 19 Pamela went on a blind date with Winston Churchill’s only son, Randolph. He proposed at the end of dinner, having been previously spurned by a number of other women. He was heading off to war and, convinced he would die, urgently required an heir; it was not the surest footing on which to base a marriage, but Pamela accepted. They had a son, named Winston, reflecting Pamela’s warm relationship with her father-in-law. She called him Papa and shared his Good War by bringing him the London gossip, moving into 10 Downing Street when he became Prime Minister, playing small-hours hands of bezique with him during his frequent bouts of insomnia, and attending dinner dances at Chequer’s, Claridge’s and The Dorchester, where Lord Beaverbrook became her mentor, Franklin Roosevelt’s envoy Harry Hopkins became her friend, and W. Averell Harriman, the Democrat politician, businessman and diplomat, became her lover.