The Last Courtesan: The Life of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman

The life of a courtesan is not an easy one. She must be ‘on’ at all times, she must dress well, be a good conversationalist, spend her time focused on the male in her life not on herself, she must be able to entertain well, serve good food, keep abreast of current events but not be an intellectual. She’s one part geisha and one part siren. A courtesan is not a prostitute, although they both take money from men. A courtesan can have more than one protector, but she must cater equally to them. A courtesan must always keep an eye on the future, for the time when her protectors may leave her. If she’s smart, she’ll have arranged for an annuity to keep her in the style to which she is accustomed, long after she has moved on to other protectors. Is she’s lucky, like Elizabeth Armistead, and La Paiva, she might even get married.

Pamela Digby didn’t set out to be a courtesan. The daughter of the 11th Baron Digby, she was born on March 20, 1920. Her life was meant to be one of marriage to another aristocrat, and time spent in the country hunting and shooting, with spring and summer spent into town doing the season. Dull and conventional. But Pamela knew from childhood that she wanted a different kind of life. She was fascinated with the story of her great-great Aunt, Jane Digby who left her husband the Earl of Ellenborough in search of true love and adventure. It was a search that would take her from the court of Ludwig I of Bavaria all the way to the desert of as the wife of a Bedouin sheik.

The Digby’s had a long aristocratic lineage but very little money. At one point in her childhood, they lived in Australia to save money. Pamela was raised by governesses and taught the basics. When she was seventeen, she was packed off to the continent for ‘finishing off’ spending time in France and Germany to perfect her language skills before returning to England to do the season which was financed by her father’s win through a lucky bet on the Grand National. Pamela wasn’t a success in her first season. Red-headed and chubby, she was also seen as snobbish and arrogant, the product of her mother’s firm belief that she was the most beautiful, talented child around. Unfortunately her mother was the only one who thought so. Pamela found herself a wallflower at many of the balls and cocktails parties during the ‘deb’ season.

At 19, Pamela was fortunate enough to go on a blind-date with Winston Churchill’s son Randolph. He proposed to her on the night they met, and Pamela said yes. She wasn’t about to lose her chance at becoming the daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill, despite the fact that her future husband had a habit of asking women to marry him. His record was three women in one night! Apparently Randolph was afraid he was going to die in the war and wanted to sew up having an heir before his death.They were married a few months later and Pamela found herself pregnant shortly afterward. The marriage to Randolph was a disaster, he was an alcoholic womanizing wastrel, who although gifted as a writer, was also lazy and focused. He suffered from ‘son of a great man’ syndrome. However, Pamela got on like a house on fire with her in-laws. Her mother-in-law Clementine had devoted her life to her husband, basically neglecting her children, and she advised Pam to do the same. It was advice that Pamela took to heart, just not with her husband.

After giving birth to her only child, Winston, Pamela parked him in the country and spent all her time in London where the action was, even though there was a war on. She spent weekends with the Churchills’ at the Prime Minster’s country home, Checquers. At the age of 21, she met Averell Harriman, a wealthy American railway heir (Union Pacific) and intimate of FDR who was 29 years her senior, through his daughter Kathleen, who she had befriended. The two were soon having an affair, despite the fact that they were both married, using Kathleen as a beard. Pamela proved her usefulness to Averell by introducing him to a host of important people including Lord Beaverbrook. But Averell wasn’t about to divorce his wife and marry Pamela. He’d already gone through one divorce from his first wife. However, he paid for Pamela’s Grosvenor Square flat in London, as well as established a yearly allowance for her.

Harriman was not the only wealthy and powerful American that Pamela had set her sights on. She also enjoyed romances with Jock Whitney and William S. Paley who called her the courtesan of the century. When Averell had to go back to the States, Pamela moved on to Edward R. Murrow, famous for his broadcasts from London. Murrow fell madly in love with Pam and her with him. But there was one little snag; while Harriman’s wife had been safely back in the States, Murrow’s wife was with him in London and Janet was not about to give up her husband without a fight. When Janet became pregnant, Murrow broke off the relationship with Pam.

In 1945, Pamela and Randolph Churchill were divorced. Pamela’s relationships with wealthy married men were well-known in English society, so she decided to head to Paris for a fresh start. Leaving her son Winston behind in the country, she settled down in Paris. She soon met the young Gianni Agnelli, heir to the Fiat fortune, who was intrigued by this woman who had so many powerful men at her beck and call. Although Pamela was received an annuity from both Jock Whitney and Averell Harriman, she desperately wanted to get married again. She even converted to Catholicism, hoping that Agnelli would pop the question. However, Agnelli had no desire to marry his mistress, not even when Pamela tried to make him jealous by having flings with Aly Khan and Stavros Niarchos. His sisters also didn’t like Pamela.

Pamela then moved on to Baron Elie de Rothschild of the famous banking family, who liked to call Pamela his “European Geisha.” Married to his cousin, with three children, Elie wasn’t about to divorce his wife and marry Pamela either. He found it amusing to have as a mistress a woman who had slept with so many powerful men. His wife, Liliane didn’t find it so amusing, she once bashed her car into Pam’s Bentley. Although like Agnelli, he to supported Pamela in the style to which she had rapidly become accustomed too. Pamela held the men in her life by taking up their interests, molding herself to their culture and by focusing her attention of them completely to the exclusion of everything else. With Agnelli, she even developed an Italian accent; answering the phone ‘Pronto Pam.’ Once she had moved on to Rothschild, it became ‘Ici Pam.’ She also made herself useful to them, by providing them with contacts in business, politics, and society. Smart as a whip, although not an intellectual, she managed to stay friends with all her former lovers, except for Rothschild, doing them little favors. For instance, she helped Jock Whitney buy jewelry for his wife.

By the end of the 50’s, Pamela knew that her days were numbered as a mistress. She was fast approaching forty. She needed to get married. Her days in Paris over, and feeling out of place in England, there was only one place that Pam could go and that was the land of opportunity, America.

She set her sights on Broadway producer and legendary agent Leland Hayward. So what if he was married, Pamela could see that his wife Slim Hayward was neglecting him. Hayward was dazzled by her attentiveness and quickly made her his fourth and last wife, much to Slim’s chagrin. Unfortunately for Pamela, she met Hayward at the peak of his career with the production of The Sound of Music. As soon as he married Pam, his career took a nose-dive and he started drinking heavily. Still Pamela made the best of it, for a brief time she ran a shop on Madison Avenue that specialized in expensive tchotchkes. Leland still had money, and Pamela spent it like water, buying a country house and an expensive apartment on Fifth Avenue. She also managed to alienate his three children.

After 11 years of marriage, Hayward passed away, leaving Pamela a widow. After the shock of his death, Pamela received another shock when his will was read. Under the terms of his divorce from his second wife Margaret Sullavan, Hayward was required to leave half of his estate, which totaled $400,000 to his surviving two children Brooke and Bill. Pamela now found herself at the age of 51, right back where she started but not for long. The good fortune fairy must have smiled on Pamela when she was born because within months, Pam had hooked up again with Averell Harriman, her war-time lover, who was now a widower. Six months after Leland Hayward’s death, she and Harriman were married.

The final chapter in Pamela’s life saw her becoming one half of a political power couple in Washington DC. Harriman was a life-long Democrat and now Pamela became one too as well as an American citizen. She established her own political action committee, PamPac, giving money to all the rising Democratic politicians including Al Gore, Jay Rockefeller and Bill Clinton. In her marriage to Harriman, despite her new interest in politics, she still made sure not to neglect her hubby. She partly learned her lesson from her marriage to Hayward, this time she didn’t alienate Harriman’s children, just his step-children. As Harriman grew older, he became more deaf and crotchety and he often took out his anger on Pamela. She took it in her stride, making sure that when she traveled, Harriman always had friends and family to come and look in on him.

She also cracked open the purse strings that Harriman had held tightly during his first eighty years. They bought a private plane, an estate in Virginia, and another in Barbados. Pamela also managed to remove any traces of Harriman’s late wife Marie from all the homes, including the art collection that Marie had lovely put together over the years, donating it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. When Harriman finally died at the age of almost 96 in 1986, Pamela even made sure that Harriman wasn’t buried anywhere near his late wife.

Pamela inherited his entire $115 million fortunate at his death, and used the money to position herself as power-broker in Washington. For the first time in her life, she didn’t need a powerful man on her arm, she was the power. She immersed herself in foreign policy issues, making speeches around the country, reveling in the publicity that named her one of the foremost hostesses in DC. She worked hard for Bill Clinton’s election as President and was reward with her appointment as Ambassador to France. Pamela threw herself into her role as Ambassador, studying briefs like she was about to take an exam, giving speeches in French, which she spoke fluently if not well. This time she was arriving back in Paris in triumphant.

While her public life was going great gang-busters, her personal life was going to hell. Her relationship with her son Winston was often strained. He’d been raised mainly by both sets of grandparents and only saw his mother when she needed an escort to a function. Despite bearing the same name as his illustrious grandfather, Winston’s career never equaled his grandfather’s success. He managed to screw up his career in Parliament, by opposing sanctions against Rhodesia and having an affair with the ex-wife of arms dealer Adnan Khasshoghi, and eventually lost his seat. Pamela found him an extreme disappointment. Her relationship with Harriman’s children and grandchildren also took a blow when they accused her of mismanaging the family trust funds after his death. The family sued her, she finally settled with them for $11 million dollars, after selling several art works by Renoir, Picasso and Matisse that had been earmarked for donation to the National Gallery after her death.

She also had to contend with an unflattering biography by Christopher Ogden. Ogden had actually been hired to help her write her autobiography, but Pamela balked when she realized the publisher Random House wanted her to be more candid then she had intended. After canceling the contract, she asked for the hours of tape back that she had made with Ogden. He refused unless he was paid for all the work he had done as her collaborator. She refused to pay him; although he did return the tapes (he’d made copies). Ogden then turned around and wrote his own biography of Pamela called “Life of the Party.”

Pamela Harriman died on February 5, 1997 at the age of 76, after suffering a stroke while swimming in the pool at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, a place of great significance in her life. She’d enjoyed a clandestine rendezvous with her second husband Leland Hayward there, and celebrated the liberation of Paris with her lover Edward R. Murrow at the bar.

Like her great-great aunt, Pamela refused to be hemmed in by the judgments of others. She never apologized for her series of affairs with married men, nor did she object when her name appeared in gossip columns. “I would rather have bad things written about me than be forgotten.” After her death, Jacques Chirac, the President of France, called her ‘probably one of the best ambassadors since Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson.” In the end, Pamela finally got everything she had ever wanted, fame, money, admiration and finally in the end respect.


Life of the Party - Christopher Ogden

Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman - Sally Bedell Smith

The Fortune Hunters - Charlotte Hays


Lucy said…
What a roller-coaster life! I had no idea she lived such a colorfully intense life..Thanks for writing about another very interesting 'scandalous woman'.
~Wendy~ said…
I read some on her years ago- she was an awesome lady!
Thanks guys, she was really fun to write about. Particularly how she came into her own when most people are retiring to Boca!
dave hambidge said…
A plea from an old Brit. Can you translate 'using Kathleen as a beard' for me?

It means that her friendship with Kathleen was used to cover-up her relationship with Averell. Gay men used to have girlfriends or wives as a ruse to hide their real lives.
dave hambidge said…
Ah, thanks.

Thought we were getting into merkin land!

Unknown said…
Many years ago while a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines...Pamela and Governor Harriman flew F/C he was not in good shape physically. I have to say she was extremely attentive taking care of him. Both were impeccably dressed. He seemed to have had a stroke and she practically chewed his food for him. SHe must have had a strong love for him. I remember growing up and a few of the gossip magazines had stories about her.

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