30 July 2007

Pamela Harriman

Pamela Beryl Digby Churchill Heyward Harriman always made a point of recognizing Dan Rather, calling out to him and beckoning to him, and Dan was always willing to come over and greet her. Churchill’s sometime daughter-in-law, Brooke Heyward’s and Peter Duchin’s stepmother, Averell Harriman’s widow, America’s ambassador to France, Washington’s matchless hostess, and Edward R. Murrow’s (and God knows who else’s) lover: you can always spare a few minutes to say hello to a person like that.

If there is any other person like that.

I met her only briefly, a few times, outside political events. Dan would introduce me to her, and she would introduce Dan to John Carter Brown, her constant escort, whom Dan knew perfectly well already. And then we would all talk piffle.

Even at the time, far past the bloom of her fabled youth, she was very beautiful. She was also very dull.

Sometimes, standing there on the sidewalk outside the Democratic Convention or wherever, I'd hear my Inner Child whining, much as any kid does who's bored by the grownups' conversation: "Da-ad, let's go-o!" I was a political junkie and paid to follow these things; I'd have devoured any tidbit she offered about deal-making or debates. But she never said anything interesting. All I could do to keep myself from tugging at Dan's sleeve and dragging him away.

Yes, she was dull, but that’s not to say she was stupid. I don’t think she could have been: her career would not have taken its course if she weren’t possessed of at least a modicum of intelligence. She certainly knew how to ask enough questions to keep a conversation rolling, and she knew how to carry messages, keep secrets, arrange meetings, and (if you believe the stories) forge alliances. But there was no sign of wit, no sign of inquiry or probing, no sign of discernment, no sign of anything going on in her head at all. Instead there were superficial signs: she looked interested in what people, particularly men, were saying to her.

This at least gave her an advantage over other successful women of her generation. Once, Dan and I ran into Helen Gurley Brown, in the CBS studios on her way to tape an appearance on the old Jon Stewart show. Never as beautiful as Ambassador Harriman but manifestly smarter, she buttonholed Dan. Ms. Brown was desperate for material, she said, because even in those pre-Daily Show days, an appearance with Stewart was a demanding gantlet for any guest. Could Dan help her? Dan turned to me, and I gave her a few funny lines; I came up with a way to work in a pithy reference to her famous book, Sex and the Single Girl, too.

Eagerly, she wrote down a few notes — then thanked Dan and darted off. She never even acknowledged me. Even when Dan tried to introduce me, she didn’t look at me.

That’s a kind of discernment. It’s called snobbery. And Pamela Harriman didn’t possess it. She always, unfailingly acknowledged me. Maybe she’d been around long enough to know that lackeys sometimes grow up to be masters. Of the universe. And it cost her nothing to be gracious to me.

And maybe she saved the real charms for dinner parties and other, more propitious circumstances, when lackeys like me weren’t around, and she could concentrate on the masters. Naturally, I never got close enough to find out.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t imagine what had made her so appealing to so many famous and powerful men. I asked Dan once, and he said, “When you talk to her, she makes you feel that you’re the only man in the world.”

Was she the only one? Did Churchill and Murrow and William S. Paley and Aly Khan and Gianni Agnelli and Elie de Rothschild and Stavros Niarchos and Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac — and Dan Rather, for that matter — really have any difficulty finding women who paid attention to their conversation?

By the time I met her, some of these guys may even have felt a macho pride, engaged in a kind of dick-measuring contest with the giants of history, as it were: I must be as big as Churchill, because the same woman is giving me the same kind of attention.

When she died, unexpectedly, in the swimming pool at the Ritz Hotel here in Paris, a newspaper writer observed that she was an exemplar of what the French used to call a grande horizontale, a woman who used sex to acquire power. The writer added with relief that Ambassador Harriman was one of the last of that breed, as well, because modern women didn’t need to sleep their way to the top. They could acquire power for themselves.

That’s a cheerful thought, but I wonder how far men have advanced along that evolutionary scale, and whether they are quite ready to bid farewell to the grande horizontale. When I recalled Ambassador Harriman in conversation with powerful men, even those a fraction of her age, when I remembered the eager expressions on their faces, I doubted. And I still do.

So long as men need women like her, there will be others like her. And one way or another, they will all get what they want.