Pamela Beryl Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman 1920-1997

Pamela Beryl Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman 1920-1997

Excerpt­ed from “Great Con­tem­po­raries, Pamela Har­ri­man,” Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. To read the full-strength orig­i­nal with more illus­tra­tions, click here. Bet­ter yet, join 60,000 read­ers of Hills­dale essays by the world’s best Churchill writ­ers. by sub­scrib­ing. You will receive reg­u­lar notices (“Week­ly Win­stons”) of new arti­cles as pub­lished. Vis­it, scroll to bot­tom and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email will remain a rid­dle wrapped a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Pamela: she got there on her own

In Decem­ber 1941 Win­ston Churchill. dis­arm­ing what­ev­er crit­ics he still had, told the U.S. Con­gress: “Had my father been Amer­i­can and my moth­er Eng­lish, instead of the oth­er way round, I might have got here on my own.”

Pamela Har­ri­man was all-Eng­lish, yet rose to high Amer­i­can office on her own mer­it. She served as U.S. Ambas­sador to Paris from 1993 until her death. Small-mind­ed peo­ple, and there were plen­ty, belit­tled her lack of edu­ca­tion, her glit­tery friend­ships with the great. All that was easy to mock, but beside the point. Her col­league Richard Hol­brooke rat­ed her quite dif­fer­ent­ly: “She spoke the lan­guage, she knew the coun­try, she knew its lead­er­ship. She was one of the best.” Pres­i­dent Jacques Chirac com­pared her to the two most notable Amer­i­can ambas­sadors, Ben­jamin Franklin and Thomas Jef­fer­son. Pret­ty good for a girl from the sticks who left home ear­ly, deter­mined to succeed.

Pamela Beryl Dig­by was born in Farn­bor­ough, Hamp­shire, Eng­land, daugh­ter of the 11th Baron Dig­by. Her moth­er Con­stance was the daugh­ter of 2nd Baron Aber­dare. Her child­hood saw her first Churchill con­nec­tion. Minterne Magna in 1642 was the res­i­dence of John Churchill, father of the first Sir Win­ston. In 1937 at board­ing school in Munich, she met Adolf Hitler, a dubi­ous achieve­ment her future father-in-law missed. Intro­duced by his admir­er Uni­ty Mit­ford, Pam nev­er fell for what­ev­er spell the Führer cast over Mitford.

“You are not still a Catholic?”

Pamela Digby’s first mar­riage, at age nine­teen in 1939, was to Ran­dolph Churchill, a deci­sion tak­en on the fly. Friends and fam­i­ly warned her that the mer­cu­r­ial Ran­dolph was not a good long-term risk: Con­ser­v­a­tive Chief Whip David Marges­son, “took me for a long walk in the coun­try and tried to dis­suade me.” She replied, “If he is not killed and we do not get on togeth­er, I shall obtain a divorce.” In 1946, she was as good as her word.

Thomas Maier, author of The Churchills and the Kennedys, says the only Churchill con­cerned about the match was Win­ston. “Your fam­i­ly, the Dig­by fam­i­ly, were Catholic, but I imag­ine you are not still a Catholic?” he asked her. WSC had no reli­gious prej­u­dice, but as a politi­cian had to con­sid­er poten­tial crit­i­cism. Pamela assured him the Dig­bys had long been Church of England—and faith­ful Con­ser­v­a­tives. “Yes, you had your heads chopped off in the Gun­pow­der Plot,” Churchill grinned. “That is right,” she answered—Sir Ever­ard Dig­by.” (Mr. Maier notes that Sir Ever­ard, a Catholic con­vert, was actu­al­ly hung, drawn and quartered.)

“How great a man…”

Win­ston Churchill wel­comed Pamela into the fam­i­ly. Becom­ing Prime Min­is­ter, he invit­ed her to Down­ing Street. Preg­nant with her son Win­ston, she recalled sleep­ing in a bunk bed in the bomb shel­ter, “one Churchill above me, anoth­er inside.” Pamela loved and admired the PM, and lat­er did amus­ing imi­ta­tions of him in her own deep voice.

Once dur­ing din­ner amidst the Blitz, Churchill gazed around the table. “If the Ger­mans come,” he told them, “you can always take one with you.” Pamela, all of 20, expressed shock. “But Papa,” she protest­ed, “what would I fight with?” WSC peered at her with a benig­nant smile: “You, my dear, may use a carv­ing knife.” Her son Win­ston said she recit­ed that vignette often, cap­ti­vat­ed by her father-in-law’s indomitable spir­it. He added: “It was through her that it first dawned on me how great a man my grand­fa­ther was.”

Friends warned that mar­riage with Ran­dolph would not be smooth. Nei­ther were celi­bate in each other’s absence, and her affair with Roosevelt’s envoy, Averell Har­ri­man, was an open secret. Anx­ious for good rela­tions with the Amer­i­cans, nei­ther Win­ston nor Clemen­tine spoke of it. Years lat­er it still strained rela­tions between father and son.

“Never give in”

After her divorce Pamela moved to Paris. She was soon enjoy­ing a lav­ish life and romances. In 1960 she mar­ried Broad­way pro­duc­er Leland Hay­ward. The mar­riage last­ed until Hayward’s death in 1971. Six months lat­er she mar­ried Har­ri­man, then almost 80, car­ing for him devot­ed­ly. The old flame had nev­er died, her son told me: “She often called Averell ‘the most beau­ti­ful man I’ve ever seen.’”

Through Har­ri­man and with Churchillian deter­mi­na­tion, Pamela became immersed in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. In 1980 and 1984, the Democ­rats were in dis­ar­ray fol­low­ing twin sweeps by Ronald Rea­gan. Pamela quot­ed Sir Win­ston: “In war you can only be killed once, but in pol­i­tics, many times.” At her home on N Street in Wash­ing­ton she host­ed glam­orous par­ties and fundraisers.

Her son Win­ston told me that pol­i­tics aside, she was “one of the most con­ser­v­a­tive peo­ple I know. She would have brought the same zest had she mar­ried Ronald Rea­gan.” She sup­port­ed Clin­ton in 1992, and he offered her the Paris Ambas­sador­ship. Yet at her con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings she was praised to the skies by the most con­ser­v­a­tive mem­ber of the For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee, Sen­a­tor Jesse Helms.

“Darling, this is Pamela…”

She rep­re­sent­ed the pol­i­tics of a bygone age. She saw pol­i­tics as a noble pro­fes­sion, where mutu­al respect was de rigueur. Years ago I pub­lished a piece on Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Cur­tain” speech by then-Sec­re­tary of Defense Cas­par Wein­berg­er. As one might expect, he stressed the Ful­ton theme of peace through strength. Pamela Har­ri­man wrote a rebut­tal empha­siz­ing Churchill’s Ful­ton title, “the Sinews of Peace.” Paul Robin­son, for­mer­ly Ronald Reagan’s ambas­sador to Cana­da, read it, dis­agreed, and con­fessed that he remained among her great­est admir­ers. Ear­li­er he had named Har­ri­man and Wein­berg­er co-vice-pres­i­dents dur­ing his chair­man­ship of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Union. He said they were superb. “And very good together—despite everything!”

When Mr. Clin­ton arrived in office he pro­claimed an admi­ra­tion for Win­ston Churchill. I remem­ber send­ing him, through Pamela Har­ri­man, a blue sweat­shirt embla­zoned with the Churchill five-cent U.S. com­mem­o­ra­tive stamp. Delight­ed, she deliv­ered it her­self, and so we made her a pink ver­sion. She tele­phoned to express her thanks, with the husky open­ing line that must have thrilled a thou­sand Wash­ing­ton insid­ers: “Dar­ling, this is Pamela.” It would have been, and always was, super­flu­ous to ask, “Pamela who?”

“Elegance itself”

Not many peo­ple could have jour­neyed so suc­cess­ful­ly and far with a for­mal edu­ca­tion that end­ed at age 16. How did she man­age it? She was grace per­son­i­fied, at home equal­ly in Churchill’s air raid shel­ter or the Élysée Palace. Pres­i­dent Chirac mourned her death: “To say that she was an excep­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Unit­ed States in France does not do jus­tice to her achieve­ment. She lent to our long­stand­ing alliance the radi­ant strength of her per­son­al­i­ty. She was ele­gance itself….a peer­less diplomat.”

That old Fran­cophile, her father-in-law, would have smiled.

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