A friend had asked her to go to the theatre with Leland Hayward, the Broadway producer of hit musicals including
South Pacific and The Sound of Music, while his wife, Slim, one of the city’s premier socialites, was out of town.
According to a friend, Pamela “went from knowing absolutely nothing about Broadway to being able to quote box-office
grosses in about two weeks”, and Hayward was similarly smitten. “He said that she had an extraordinary attention
span and wonderful lilywhite skin, and that her apartment in Paris was known for its fabulous Louis Seize
furniture,” wrote Hayward’s daughter Brooke. “He talked about her incredible jewels, and said that Somerset Maugham
had finally said to her, ‘Don’t you think it’s time to get married?’”
The capitulation was complete — once Slim was speedily divorced — and over the course of their 11-year marriage,
Pamela showered Hayward with what one onlooker inevitably described as “Geisha-like devotion”, cooking chicken hash
on a hot plate when they were out on the road and playing the perfect châtelaine at their splendid homes in New York
and Westchester (an estate called Haywire). But Hayward’s three children, from his first marriage, to actress
Maureen Sullivan, never took to their second stepmother, and the feud blew into the open on Hayward’s death in 1971,
when he left half of his holdings to them. Pamela apparently exclaimed, of her six-figure settlement, “How could I
have been married for so many years to a man who leaves me so little?” Brooke Hayward claimed that Pamela absconded
with a string of pearls that Sullivan left to her. Pamela denied all knowledge, but a double strand of pearls became
one of her ostentatious style trademarks.
It was around this time that Pamela resumed her old acquaintance with Averell Harriman, at a party given by Katharine
Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post. She heard that he’d been widowed the previous year, and wasted no time
— if you discount a brief liaison with Frank Sinatra — in pursuing a renewed seduction of him. She was pushing at an
open door — he had been asking people if they thought she’d like to see him again — and, while he was almost
certainly the love of her life, it didn’t stop her acquiring the nickname ‘The Widow of Opportunity’. They were
married six months after Hayward’s death — the bride 51, the groom 79 — and she fixed up his houses (while
alienating a new set of stepchildren: “We now had to schedule appointments to see him,” one bemoaned). She became an
American citizen and adopted his interests in the Soviet Union and, more exuberantly, the Democratic party, to the
point where, during the Reagan years of the party’s exile, the Harrimans formed a political action committee, which
became known as PamPAC, and offered their Impressionist-stuffed house in Georgetown as an informal headquarters,
where she presided over numerous exquisitely appointed receptions and dinners.
There was no demurral from Pamela over the terms of Harriman’s will when he died in 1986: she acquired his $115
million fortune. And, following the little local difficulty when she was accused by Harriman’s heirs of making bad
investments— she sold some property, along with a Picasso, a Matisse and a Renoir to hold off a civil suit — Pamela
Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman was ready to assume her final role as Washington grand dame. She brought Bill
Clinton and Al Gore together for the 1992 election, perhaps recognising a kindred spirit in ‘Slick Willie’, and was
rewarded after their victory with the ambassadorship to France, where her woman-with-a-past status did nothing but
enhance her standing.
She now poured her social skills into 16-hour days dealing with questions of international trade and N.A.T.O.
expansion while working the transatlantic telephone lines late into the night. She died, at 76, of a cerebral
haemorrhage sustained while enjoying her daily swim in the pool at the Paris Ritz. She left behind a legend: the
captivating, vivacious woman who trailed a slew of starstruck men and nonplussed women in her wake. And while she
once protested that she should not be held at fault if her succession of beaux happened to be rich and influential —
“Those were the people I met; everything in life, I believe, is luck and timing” — she also, at the end,
acknowledged the notoriety that came with her remarkable trajectory. “I’d rather have bad things written about me,”
she said, “than be forgotten.” Capote surely won’t be the last wordsmith to heed the ultimate courtesan’s call.
This article originally appeared in Issue 40 of The Rake.