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.

It also helped that Pamela came from an aristocratic background. Born in 1920, her father was the 11th Baron Digby and her mother was the daughter of the 2nd Baron Aberdare. They were, alas, Counts without Accounts, which is a phrase I frequently drop into conversation, but no one knows what I’m talking about, and I just feel like these words fly past people without being fully appreciated. What I am saying is that they had a great name and no money. Good. If I see you at a cocktail party and you hear me use the phrase, please nod knowledgeably. Pamela was only able to debut in England because her father won a large amount of money in a bet.

Her debut went horribly, by the way. People thought she was weird and snobbish, which is true of all the most interesting people.

Fortunately, Randolph Churchill, Winston’s son, proposed to her on the evening they met! Not because she was really pretty, but because he was one of those guys who proposed to everybody. I know that sounds odd now (potential Cosmo magazine article How to Get Men to Propose in the 1920’s: stand in the room, be female) but supposedly Randolph proposed to three women in a single evening. I bet the others laughed it off. Not Pamela; she took him completely seriously. To be fair, she was only 19, and at that point she had been so sheltered in Dorset with her governesses and then at German boarding school that she’d never even had lunch alone with a man.

They were married a few months later. And promptly had a baby whom they named Winston.

Sadly, marrying Randolph turned out to be a less than stellar idea because, while he was a Churchill, he was also a womanizing alcoholic. And also, he just sucked. He served in a regiment during World War II, but was generally loathed by other officers. Even when transferred to Egypt, where he accumulated huge gambling debts, officers continued to despise him. And he kept reading his father’s letters out loud to mock the messages. I don’t know why no one in Winston Churchill’s family was nice to him, because Winston sounds awesome.

Pamela liked Winston. Once he became Prime Minister, she was moved into 10 Downing Street. In the middle of the night he would sometimes call her and ask to play bezique because he couldn’t sleep.

Unfortunately, Pamela’s friendship with her father-in-law only lead to a growing dislike of her husband. Evelyn Waugh stated, “Panto [Pamela’s nickanme] hates him so much she can’t sit in a room with him.”

Then Pamela met Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s emissary to organize the American aid program, Lend-Lease. Pamela said, “He was the best-looking man I had ever seen.” He was 49. She was 20. She soon became his lover, while supposedly continuing a simultaneous affair with Edward R. Murrow. William Walton claimed, “Pamela was the only person in London to receive three separate letters from three separate participants at Yalta, including Harriman.”

In 1945, she divorced Randolph, citing desertion (which seems unfair as he was off fighting in the war) and left England for Paris. Vanity Fair claims it was the right place to be at that time:

The horrors and deprivations of the war were almost forgotten, and the city was reawakening to luxury. Dior reigned. In the world that Pamela Churchill moved in, according to [Reinaldo] Herrera, every night was “lived in black tie, and one wore white tie eight times a year. If you got on a plane, you knew half the people on the plane. There was less money than in New York today, but far more luxury; there were fewer names and far more taste.” Although the country was Catholic, there was a fine appreciation of the European concept of the mistress in aristocratic life, the Gigi of a swan who provided a man with refuge, who lived in almost ostentatious splendor, and who had a special genius for creating “an atmosphere,” as one person put it.

So the atmosphere was great.

There she took up with Gianni Agnelli. Supposedly, she became so Italian she began answering the phone, “Pronto. Pam.” While she was enjoying time with the owner of Fiat (and the richest man in modern Italian history), her expenses were being covered by Jock Whitney and Averell Harriman – which is where the courtesan bit comes in. That situation was pretty cool because it meant that, although officially with Agnelli, she was able to have affairs with Aly Khan and Stavros Niarchos.

I would like to point out that the Aly Kahn is particularly awesome because he went on to marry Ava Gardner. Here is a picture of their wedding:

aly khan


Then in 1953, she ended the affair with Agnelli, who had not been faithful (surprise!), and moved on to Baron Elie de Rothschild who referred to Pamela as a “European Geisha.” So, a courtesan. That is what European Geishas were. Around that time she began answering the phone “Ici. Pam.” The Baron paid for her courses in art history and wine making. Unfortunately, the Baron’s wife, Liliane, was not at all amused, and smashed her car right into Pam’s car. If you watch movies from this period, furious wives are always smashing their cars into mistresses’ cars, which probably only reinforced the notion that wives are bad drivers.

Pam concluded it was time to leave Paris. She was nearing 40 and decided to move to America.

In 1959, she met Leland Howard, the Broadway producer developing The Sound Of Music. According to a friend, Pam “went from knowing absolutely nothing about Broadway to being able to quote box-office grosses in about two weeks.”

Leland’s stepdaughter claimed, that when he proposed to Pam:

The first night Father told me he had fallen in love with her, it was like he was telling me a fabulous story. It was my twenty-second birthday and this was the night I realized that men—or maybe just my father—were crazy. He knew I loved my stepmother, and he began to tell me about Pamela as if he were selling a movie script to a studio. I asked if she was beautiful, and he said no. But he said she was close to Max Beaverbrook, and that she had had famous love affairs with Edward R. Murrow and Gianni Agnelli and Élie de Rothschild. He said that she had an extraordinary attention span and wonderful lily-white skin, and that her apartment in Paris was known for its fabulous Louis Seize furniture. He talked about her incredible jewels, and said that Somerset Maugham had finally said to her, ‘Don’t you think it is time to get married?’ He talked to me for hours about wartime London and Churchill, and I came away from the table realizing that Father felt completely validated, as if her were entering a kind of golden circle through his association with her.

So, kind of like The Sound Of Music! But different. Incidentally, to marry her, Leland had to divorce Slim Keith, which makes me a bit sad because she was one of Truman Capote’s swans and a truly excellent woman. Truman, of course, reported that Leland and Pamela were having an affair, and New York society quickly became divided on whether to take Slim’s or Pamela’s side.

At one point, Babe Paley called a friend to ask how Leland and Pamela behaved at a party (Babe was Team Slim) and the friend joked that “they made love on the floor in front of everyone.”

They were married for 11 years and lived a lovely life at their home in New York City and their Westchester County estate called “Haywire”. However, when Leland died, Pamela was shocked – and outraged – to find that he had left half of his holdings to his children. She apparently exclaimed, “How could I have been married for so many years to a man who leaves me so little?”

He did leave her hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It was right around that time (actually the day after Hayward’s funeral) that Pamela resumed her acquaintance with her old wartime lover, Averell Harriman. Apparently his wife had just died and he had moved to New York, where he was asking people if they thought “Pamela would want to see him again.”

At age 79, he married her.

Alienated from Haward’s children – mostly because she was outraged that he left them assets in his will – Pamela didn’t do much better with Harriman’s children. One grandchild said:

Before, we could just go to Grandfather’s house anytime, and he would be thrilled to see us and say to the butler, ‘Thin the soup,’” one grandchild said. “But when Pam married Ave, everything was different. We had to schedule appointments, and when we got there, there were new butlers who didn’t know us, and my perception is that we were never allowed to be with our grandfather alone again.


Eh, Harriman seemed to be okay with it. And he was a very intelligent man, who was not only the Governor of New York but had advised four presidents and had been ambassador to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

And when Harriman died in 1986, she fared far better financially than she had with Hayward. Averell left her his entire $115 million fortune.

Having now spent a great deal of time in Washington, where Harriman had been very involved with the Democratic party, Pamela was in a perfect position to help advance various political causes. She campaigned for Bill Clinton’s election.

pam harriman

For her efforts, she was made ambassador to France in 1993. She died there in 1997, while swimming at the pool in the Paris Ritz. And was buried at the Harriman estate near New York.

If, having read this story, you come away feeling you would not have enjoyed Pamela, you can take comfort in the fact that some of her last words were “I’d rather have bad things written about me than be forgotten.”

Additional Reading:

Scandalous Women: Pamela Digby

A Histroy of Mistresses by Elizabeth Abbott

Vanity Fair, “The Prime of Pamela Harriman”