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Pamela Harriman Ready-Made Envoy to France : Diplomacy: At 73, the multimillionaire takes over a U.S. Embassy with a staff of 1,000. She plans to deal directly with French leaders, 'voice to voice.'

June 13, 1993|CONNIE CASS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Reading her name is like skimming Who's Who: Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman.

She's spent a lifetime as Mrs. Somebody Famous--the woman behind Winston Churchill's son, then a Hollywood producer, then one of the Democratic Party's great figures. Now a widow and 73, she's launching a career of her own--as ambassador to France.

How does a British-born grande dame esteemed for her charm and social savvy become the boss of a U.S. Embassy with a staff of 1,000? She took a common route: raising lots of money for the President-to-be.

But there is nothing common about multimillionaire Pamela Harriman, or the way she appeared--POOF!--a fairy godmother for the Democrats in the 1980s, their lonely decade of need.

The party had lost its Senate majority and a popular Ronald Reagan was in the White House.

"The Democratic Party was just gone, blown out of existence in 1981, and everyone was looking around saying, 'What in heaven's name has happened?' " said Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

"And suddenly there was Pamela, very calm, very strong, saying, 'Come on, let's put this party back together again,' " Rockefeller said. "And she did."

"You felt so impotent about what you could do," Harriman recalled in an interview with the Washington Post. "But rather than just cry about it, it was important to stand up and be counted and try to fight your way back."

She turned her Georgetown drawing room into a political salon, enticing the Democrats' top intellects, big contributors, leaders and candidates to dinner. They would mull over arms control or the economy or election strategy and raise money.

Harriman founded her own political action committee that, on the strength of these "issues evenings," raised $12 million over 10 years. One of her PAC's first board members was Bill Clinton.

Her success caught some Washington insiders by surprise.

"People thought this is a rich, beautiful society lady who grew up in another country; why should we pay any serious attention to her?" said former John F. Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen, a longtime friend.

But a lifetime in the orbit of power had prepared Harriman to become the Democrats' champion and cheerleader.

She was a red-haired, round-faced English country girl when she married Randolph Churchill during World War II. At age 19 she was pressed into service as a hostess for his father, the prime minister.

Her brief marriage ended in divorce after the birth of her only child, Winston, and she moved to Paris, where she spent the 1950s soaking up salon life among luminaries such as writer Jean Cocteau, culture minister Andre Malraux and designer Christian Dior.

During the '60s, she moved in Hollywood and Broadway circles as the wife of producer Leland Hayward. Together, they attended dinners at the Kennedy White House.

But her deep dedication to the Democrats was cultivated by her last husband, W. Averell Harriman, a former ambassador, governor of New York, and adviser to Democratic presidents for five decades. They were married in 1971, a few months after Hayward's death.

"She's always devoted herself to whatever her husband was interested in," said historian Arthur Schlesinger, another longtime friend. "With Harriman, it was politics and diplomacy."

Their weekends were spent relaxing at their estate in Middleburg, Va., where Pamela Harriman joined the fox hunt and took a quiet interest in town government. Even casual acquaintances noticed her ability to make people feel she was fascinated by their every word.

Even during a bumpy, painful ambulance ride to the hospital after a bad fall, "she was gracious as heck," said Mayor Carol Bowersock, who volunteers on the Middleburg rescue squad.

She started out as a hostess to the prominent Democrats who came to call on the party's grand old man at their Georgetown home, but as Averell Harriman's health weakened she began a gradual transformation from political wife to political power.

When he died in 1986 at age 94, some Washingtonians expected Pamela Harriman to abandon politics and disappear among her horses in Middleburg. She didn't.

"She was a real soldier," said Melissa Moss, former finance director for the Democratic National Committee. "Her home became a gathering place for the Democrats in exile."

Usually content to stay behind the scenes, her impact was never more visible than in June, 1991, when the Democrats' leading presidential aspirants and top donors convened on her rolling lawn in Middleburg. It was at Willow Oaks that the Democratic Party plotted the spend-early, spend-big course that helped win the White House in 1992. Later, Harriman became the national co-chair of the Bill Clinton-Al Gore campaign.

With the Democrats finally back in power, the daughter of Britain's 11th Lord Digby became true Washington royalty.

Her dinner party was one of the new President's first stops in Washington. No one was surprised that Clinton handed her the plum ambassadorship to France.

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