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Stealthy, Wealthy and Wise : SPANNING THE CENTURY: The Life of Averell Harriman, 1891-1986 By Rudy Abramson , (William Morrow and Co.: $25; 748 pp).

August 09, 1992|Godfrey Hodgson | Hodgson's most recent book is "The Colonel: The Life and Wars of Henry Stimson" (Knopf). and W. Averell Harriman

The last time Averell Harriman visited Moscow, Ronald Reagan was in the White House. But Harriman had first visited what was to become Soviet territory more than 80 years earlier, traveling with his father to its remotest tip on the shores of the Bering Strait.

When he was only 8, his dad, railroad king E. H. Harriman, took it into his head that he wanted to shoot a Kodiak bear. When a Harriman conceived such a wish, it was not just a matter of heading for the Arctic, hiring a professional hunter, finding a bear and killing it. Harriman pere set out for Alaska at the head of an expedition, 126 strong, complete with hunters, botanists, artists, stenographers, taxidermists, a chaplain and John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club.

On a whim, the whole expedition crossed into Russian territory and dropped in on a fragile community of Eskimos. Four decades later, that strange encounter enabled Harriman, as President Roosevelt's ambassador, to boast to Josef Stalin that he first visited Russia without a passport.

As we learn in this most engaging, fair-minded and yet shrewd biography of a great American grandee, all his life E. H. Harriman's son traveled first-class. It was not just the $70 million he inherited, or Arden House, the great stone castle his father built on a 30,000 acre estate in the Ramapo Mountains, almost within sight of New York City, or the controlling interest in the Union Pacific and all its tributary railroads, not to mention all the homes from Sun Valley to Hobe Sound by way of Manhattan, Georgetown and the Virginia hunt country. It wasn't just the upbringing in the heart of the American upper class, from the Reverend Peabody's Groton through Skull and Bones at Yale and all the doors that upbringing opened for him on Wall Street and in Washington, in London and Paris, as well as on polo fields from Meadow Brook to Pasadena.

One of the less obvious consequences of his fortune was that Harriman "knew everyone." When his resignation from the Moscow embassy was accepted by the acting secretary of state in a dry form letter, for example, he fell about laughing at the idea that he should be treated like a run-of-the-mill diplomat by good old Dean Acheson, who had been in the rowing crew he coached at Yale. He was an acquaintance of everyone from J. P. Morgan to George Bush's grandfather, as well as Al Capone and Charles Lindbergh. He lunched tete-a-tete with the Prince of Wales at Piping Rock in the 1920s, and was a regular for family supper with the Churchills at Chequers 20 years later.

The Harriman inheritance enabled him to start out in life where only the ablest end up, initiating and directing great ventures. In World War I, in his 20s, he took over a shipyard and pioneered the techniques of prefab shipbuilding. As an investor, he was in on the glory days of domestic aviation, and he introduced the streamliners to American railroads. He was one of the leaders among the bankers who poured money into German industry in the 1920s, and before he was 40 he had negotiated with both Trotsky and Stalin over his controlling interest in the strategic manganese mines in Soviet Georgia, flirted with oil in Azerbaijan and invested heavily in Silesian zinc.

In 1941, President Roosevelt sent him to London to "expedite" lend-lease, his program to bolster Allied countries "resisting aggression." With extraordinary self-confidence, and taking the utmost advantage of the British government's desperate need of American supplies, he ruthlessly undercut the official ambassador, Gil Winant, perhaps without fully understanding what he was doing. With even greater effrontery, having been admitted into Winston Churchill's family circle, he began the great love affair of his life with the wartime prime minister's daughter-in-law, Pamela. She was 21 years old at the time, and her husband, journalist Randolph Churchill, was away in the army.

In 1943, Harriman was sent as ambassador to Moscow, where he stayed until January of 1946. He proved to be an excellent ambassador, fascinated by Russia but never for one moment by communism, and he despised the apparatchiks he had to deal with. Stalin, on the other hand, he found "ruthless and brutal, certainly, but basically dependable."

These are the words of Rudy Abramson, a Washington correspondent for the Times, not those of Harriman. As elsewhere in this enjoyable biography, however, Abramson seems to have summed up Harriman's complicated and not always very self-knowing attitudes fairly. Harriman did not allow himself to be conned by Stalin. Two days after the Soviet Union entered the war in the Far East, Molotov demanded, on Stalin's behalf, a share in accepting the Japanese surrender. Without bothering to consult Washington, Harriman turned him down flat. He took part in the great wartime conferences in Moscow and at Yalta, and played an important part in bringing Washington to understand that Stalin, in the aftermath of war, was not kindly old "Uncle Joe".

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