Shelved Dolls: Pamela Harriman – The Last Courtesan

pamela harriman

Sometimes I’ll be sitting eating an ice cream cone or Spaghetti-Os, and I will think, “It’s sad there are no real modern day courtesans.” There just aren’t. Partly because there are very few real monarchies, so you can’t sashay out and seduce a string of noblemen and then the King of Bavaria as easily as you could when there were nothing but aristocrats running around Europe.

Beyond that, the sexual revolution did in courtesans. Premarital sex doesn’t make you part of demimonde society now, because nearly everyone does it. I think that freedom is good for at least 99% of the female population. But back in the time of the real courtesan there was that 1% who somehow parlayed seducing powerful men into a lifetime of carriages, diamonds and castles.

Who finds a wealthy lover and protector today using her sexual wiles? Courtney Stodden may seem to have no real talent outside of her seduction prowess, but she didn’t get a castle out of that skill. Kim Kardashian? I just like courtesans to have more style. The last woman that I think of as a true courtesan was Pamela Harriman.

Vanity Fair wrote:

Her men were all said to have been dazzled not only by her champagne voice but also by her desire to take care of them, her managerial skills, her flawless dinner parties, her superbly run houses. “Even the towels felt as if they were woven with silk threads,” a friend said. “Pamela understood that if you wanted to attract powerful men—the best men, in her view—you had to know everything.” If some of her men viewed her as frivolous, Mrs. Harriman knew better, even then. “I was always very serious,” she says now. “We used to say about Pamela that if you put a blindfold on her in a crowded room, she could smell out the powerful man,” a close friend since the forties said, with admiration in her voice.


Like a bloodhound! But with better towels.

She definitely found the most powerful men, including Edward R. Murrow, Élie de Rothschild, Jock Whitney, Gianni Agnelli, and Aly Khan. She also married Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph, producer Leland Hayward and Averell Harriman.

So, everybody good. How did she accomplish this? Supposedly by following the advice in Ovid’s Amores.

Which is pretty much my favorite “how to seduce men” technique, ever.

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    • Veronica

      That’s not Ava Gardner. That’s Rita Hayworth.

      • Krusticle

        I was about to make the same correction, Veronica. Aly Khan and Rita produced the Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, who is a champion of Alzheimer causes in memory of Rita. Ava Gardner married Mickey Rooney! (Okay, she also Frank Sinatra.)

    • gm

      Jennifer, I love these pieces, but it’s very naive of you to think there are no 21st century parallels to Pamela Harriman or her predecessors.

    • MR

      The Rothchilds. Yeah, I’m curious about your Canadian connection. :)

    • Honest Man

      “Who finds a wealthy lover and protector today using her sexual wiles?” ROFL! Have you never heard of a ‘trophy wife’? How many very wealthy men (esp. politicians) have either much younger wives or paramours. Fret not about the sexual revolution; the oldest profession is unscathed.

    • Ellen W.

      Howard’s stepdaughter has a great writing voice. I’d love to read more.

    • Mature Courtesan

      Fabulous story!

    • Frances

      ‘Babe was on Team Slim’ – I love that sentence. I love that those were actual names, people in these kind of stories always have the most fabulous names that we can’t pull off nowadays!