Pamela Harriman: Of Vice and Men

Could the man after whom this magazine was named have a female equivalent? Originally published in Issue 40 of The Rake, Stuart Husband writes that Pamela Harriman, a woman of aristocratic stock, blazed a trail through the international scene of her era, enticing powerful men like moths to a particularly feisty flame.

Pamela Harriman at her home in Georgetown, 1993. Photograph by Diana Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

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).

In the novel, Lady Ina Coolbirth (a.k.a. Harriman) takes Jonesy (a.k.a. Capote) to lunch at La Cote Basque, where she swigs Cristal and holds forth on various (undisguised) Alpha women, from Princess Margaret (“she’s such a drone”) to Jackie Kennedy and sister Lee Radziwill: “They’re perfect with men,” she says, “a pair of Western geisha girls. They know how to keep a man’s secrets and how to make him feel important.” Capote’s eyebrow was arched to breaking point here, as Lady Coolbirth’s coolly admiring assessment of the sisters was the generally accepted view of Harriman herself; one of her lovers, Baron Elie de Rothschild, called her a ‘European Geisha’, and she was referred to more than once as The Last Courtesan.

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.”

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Stuart Husband

Published

March 2021

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