Biographers are often knocked for devoting too much attention to pop psychologizing and not enough to "the work" — the accomplishments that justify a book-length treatment of any life. In her tart new unauthorized biography of Pamela Churchill Harriman, biographer Sally Bedell Smith is refreshingly uninterested in exploring the inner child of the current U.S. Ambassador to France. The book has been cleansed of the Freudian spoor that clings to the cracks and footnotes of most current biographies.
This leaves Smith free to poke around in Harriman's thin shelf of "accomplishments" — most notably her ability to make cozy with rich and influential people, primarily men. An early marriage to Winston Churchill's unimpressive son Randolph was followed by marriages to Broadway producer Leland Hayward and, later, the elderly diplomat and Wall Street heir Averell Harriman. Harriman married well, and she dated well: The men in her life also included CBS founder William Paley and Edward R. Murrow. Her marriage to Averell Harriman gave her the Democratic party connections (and the cash) to become a major Washington social figure and fund-raiser, cultivating Bill Clinton among many others as her friends.
Bedell makes it clear that Harriman's abilities as a gadfly outstrip any others she might possess.
Reflected Glory is vicious in its small details as well as in its large ones. Did Harriman perhaps possess some unseen talent as a writer? "Her personal correspondence showed scant literary merit," Bedell writes, and as a journalist "her commitment to the craft was thin." In conversation, "she was remembered neither for the originality nor the felicity of her contributions." Was she, then, a woman of bold principle, a political provocateur, on the model of her contemporary Margaret Thatcher? "Her political beliefs shifted along with the men in her life." Then she must have had style? Harriman is variously described as "dumpy" and "a banal milkmaid, a little plump, certainly not beautiful."
It was precisely because she lacked conventionally redeeming traits, that Harriman, Bedell implies, was naturally drawn to politics.
Reflected Glory is compulsively readable as Bedell details the rake and shovel of Harriman's busy PAC, and the final painful spectacle of her gropings toward respectability — an ambition which culminated in her appointment as an ambassador in 1993. "A lot of French," remarks a source, "were puzzled."
Solidly researched, smoothly written and full of tangy revelations,
Reflected Glory is a fascinating study of the triumph of mediocrity — and mediocrity's particular affinity to late 20th-century American democracy. -- Salon
In 1994, Christopher Ogden, employed by Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman to ghost her autobiography, published
Life of the Party. When she balked at exposing the spicier side of her career, he went ahead on his own, using her taped interviews, but legally he could quote nothing. Smith, another unauthorized biographer, quotes little from Harriman, written or vocal, for similar reasons, but 400 of her acquaintances cooperated, resulting in a deeply informed and revelatory study. Smith ( All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley) has done further homework in financial and court papers and in the diaries, letters and memoirs of contemporaries. Had it not been for Ogden's preemptive strike, Smith's intensely detailed biography of the least sedate of American ambassadors--British-born Pamela Harriman, now 76, represents the U.S. in Paris--would be even more explosive. Perhaps only in France, where premiers and presidents often have publicly acknowledged mistresses, would she be acceptable, even admired, as an envoy. Bedding her way to wealth and power, the resourceful red-haired beauty wed Randolph Churchill, Leland Hayward and Averell Harriman, filling in the interstices between marriages with Edward R. Murrow (her only unmoneyed lover), Gianni Agnelli, Aly Khan, Elie de Rothschild and other deep-pocketed admirers. Said one observer: "She could make a man, not just in bed. She stretched a man's horizons." Austerity was never her cup of tea, nor was familial loyalty to the children and grandchildren inherited from two American husbands. Her lifestyle, Smith contends, was always based on self-aggrandizement. As a former Hayward wife remarked, "Pam Churchill thought she would marry [Fiat heir] Agnelli, so she became a Catholic on spec." Brushing aside her reputation as grande cocotte, a French friend scoffed, "Everyone has a past. It is who she is today that counts." Photos not seen by PW. First serial to Vanity Fair. (Nov.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this fully documented biography of a modern-day courtesan, Smith (
In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley, S. & S., 1990) reveals details and anecdotes extracted from 800 interviews (using 400 named sources) to animate the extraordinary Harriman and her relationships, whether personal, public, or political. The English debutante, born in 1920 and until very recently claiming France as her latest conquest as U.S. ambassador there, has led many lives. Her reputations as "wartime hostess, international femme fatale, show business wife, diplomat's consort..., and American ambassador" evolved with her marriages to three famous men: Randolph Churchill, Leland Hayward, and Averell Harriman. Smith recounts all aspects of this female whirlwind with a straightforward reporting style yet impels us to follow Harriman's continuing saga. Although an interview with Harriman would have lent more credence to her work, Smith paints a portrait with less bias than Christopher Ogden's unauthorized Life of the Party (Little, Brown, 1994). This work lends itself well to a public library's biography section. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/96.]Kay Meredith Dusheck, Univ of Iowa, Iowa City