AT THE WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS' dinner in 1993, Barbra Streisand was seated next to Pamela Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to France. Streisand asked Harriman the question surely on the minds of many women in the room: ""What's your secret?'' In Reflected Glory (559 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30), her new biography of Harriman, Sally Bedell Smith says Harriman laughed but did not answer. Fortunately for Streisand and other inquiring minds, this meticulously detailed book comes as close as anyone probably can to explaining the success of the woman Smith describes as the century's greatest courtesan.
These days, precious few little girls aspire to a life like Harriman's. But in the intellectually stifling world of Pamela Digby's childhood, it may have seemed a reasonable career goal. Born in 1920, Pamela, a daughter of the British aristocracy, grew up at the imposing 1,500-acre family estate in Dorset. As a deb in 1938, she was considered loud, pudgy and graceless. But in what would become characteristic bounce-back behavior, she wound up a year later married to Winston Churchill's only son, Randolph, whom she met on a blind date. The marriage was a disaster (he was a womanizer, a drinker and a gambler), but Pamela was not deterred. After producing the required son and heir--her only child, Winston, born in 1940--she set about becoming an integral part of the Churchill household. Her father-in-law doted on her, and through him, she met all the right people. For Pamela, the most significant turned out to be multimillionaire American diplomat Averell Harriman, sent to London by Franklin Roosevelt. Though their affair ended after the war, Pamela apparently found her calling. Her romantic resume was a Who's Who of the rich and famous: Jock Whitney, Prince Aly Khan, Gianni Agnelli, Elie de Rothschild and Stavros Niarchos.
In 1960 she gave marriage a second chance with Broadway producer Leland Hayward. They lived extravagantly, and his 1971 death left her financially strapped--but not without other resources. Within a year, the 51-year-old Pamela was reunited with Harriman, then 79 and a widower. They married and settled in Washington, where Pamela reinvented herself as a major Democratic Party fund raiser. After Harriman's death, in 1986, she set about becoming a diplomat. The most serious blot on her reputation in recent years has been a highly publicized legal battle over the management of Harriman's estate. With that now settled, she faces old age with some financial security--although far from a vast fortune.
In Smith's account, Pamela's ""secret'' was not so much what happened between the sheets but her ability to envelop her men in a velvet cocoon of undivided attention. Smith, who has also written a biography of CBS founder William Paley, puts Pamela's made-for-Judith Krantz life story into historical context. Under other circumstances, she might have been a CEO like Paley; she certainly had the drive. But given her times, she pursued one of the few available routes to power. A revealing set of photos in the book shows Pamela and her two younger sisters, all now elderly. Dressed in sweaters and plaids, the sisters appear ever so sensible. Pamela is alluring in black lace. Whatever else one might say about her, no one can deny that she made the most of what she had.