Daughter of aristocratic titan Averell Harriman, Kathleen Harriman Mortimer was born to wealth, beauty, and blueblood values. But when her father plunged into the politics of World War II as President Roosevelt’s special envoy to Britain and later the ambassador to Russia, she went with him, going from working as a wide-eyed ingénue reporter to enchanting both Churchill and Stalin. After Mortimer’s death last February, and with exclusive access to her previously unknown scrapbooks, Marie Brenner excavates the heiress’s backstage pass to history, including Averell’s affair with Churchill’s daughter-in-law, the legendary Pamela, who would be his last wife.
On May 16, 1941, Kathleen Harriman, the daughter of the new American special envoy to Britain, W. Averell Harriman, was on a train speeding to London for her first look at war. She would have worn a hat, and probably gloves—that was the kind of girl she was, pretty and very rich, a graduate of Foxcroft and Bennington who wanted to be taken seriously. She had with her a small black notebook and her father’s New York shopping requests: silk stockings and chiffon handkerchiefs for the Churchill family, Stim-U-Dents, Time magazine, The New York Times, and six Guerlain lipsticks—which she knew better than to question. The notebook would become indispensable—the only place where the 23-year-old would feel safe to confide her thoughts—and she would fill pages from her seat at the center of power. All that summer and autumn of 1941, she set down moments small and large, then tucked the notebook away and never discussed its existence or contents with anyone—including her children—for 70 years.
She gazed at the craters in the streets, the charred remains of towns, children playing in the rubble. “Perhaps someday I’ll be able to figure out what made me want to come . . . pluck has nothing to do with it,” she wrote in pencil in a boarding-school hand. The previous week in London had been an unimaginable hell: the British Museum, Waterloo Station, and the House of Commons had been almost destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Delayed in Lisbon, Kathy, as she was known, had been spared the thousands of buzz bombs dumped on central London, which killed 3,000 people.
“When are you Americans coming to help us? Because you know we can’t win without you,” she was asked by a woman in her compartment soon after the train left Bristol. Did Kathy let on who she was? By then, her father was already on page one of every newspaper. Averell Harriman was in London on a mission of desperation: to help save the British from Hitler. A senior partner of Brown Brothers Harriman, he was nicknamed “the crocodile” for his outbursts of sovereignty. But Harriman’s own urgency about the need to go to war had given him bleeding ulcers. Months before Japan attacked America at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt was still holding off on entering the war even as England was battered by the Blitz. Roosevelt’s stopgap was to send Harriman, the lordly financier and a co-owner of Newsweek, as a personal liaison to implement the new aid program called Lend-Lease. It was understood inside Washington that Harriman’s real task was to help forge an alliance between Churchill and Roosevelt, known for their chilly relationship.
“Are those silk stockings you’re wearing? Are you American?” Startled by the cheerful conversation, Kathy wrote down the questions, as well as her new friend’s zinger: “Looking at her own stockings of cotton lisle, she announced that hers were far more serviceable.” When Kathy told her of the latest New York fashions—“hip-length jackets, apron skirts, the big competition for bigger and better hats”—the woman was dismissive: “Oh, well, we have all of that You see, war or no war, we keep up.”
Kathy had no real reporting experience, but her father had managed to pull a plum assignment for her: she would write of the heroics of the Englishwomen. The series—for Hearst’s International News Service—would be called “The British Woman at War.” “Just give us everything you can observe and think of, sobbing all over the page,” one editor would later instruct her. Her bona fides were that she was intelligent, stylish, and a Harriman. She was clearly worried about the entitlement. “I’m no Dorothy Thompson,” she confided in her diary. She wouldn’t have to be.
An expert rider and an Olympic-level skier, she was called Kathy by her friends and Puff by her father, who was, in 1941, the fourth-richest man in America. A member of the elite circle of titans educated at Groton and Yale later known as the Wise Men, Harriman would become an architect of the American Century. Remote and often charm-free, Harriman in private was an affectionate father who pushed his two daughters to excel. He critiqued their schoolwork and encouraged their closeness with his favorite sister, Mary Rumsey, a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle who was an early consumer advocate. She had inspired her younger brother to become a Democrat and helped transform him from a polo-playing rich boy. At 49 he was still dazzlingly handsome. The New York Post’s Dixie Tighe would tell Kathy, “For God’s sake, tell your father the next time I have to cover his conference to wear a gas mask so I can concentrate on what he is saying.” On the slopes, with his head tossed back and wearing sunglasses, Harriman exuded the effortless style of an American aristocrat. So did Kathy, who could out-ski him and out-shoot him. Harriman adored her.
things ok here cable whether you seriously want to come, he had wired shortly after his arrival in England. Not long out of Bennington, Kathy was marooned in Sun Valley, the Idaho ski resort her father had built at the height of the Depression to be America’s Saint-Moritz. Her favorite Austrian ski instructors had fled to join Hitler or were threatened with arrest as enemy aliens. Put to work writing press releases in the winter of 1940, Kathy wrote in her diary that she felt lost and melancholy. At a time when no reporters were easily cleared for London, Harriman had pressed hard to get her a passport and a job. it is hard to understand in new york the significance of what is going on here it is a unique privilege to be here therefore i am going to encourage kathleen to come . . . can get newsweek appointment if none other available, he cabled home. Secretary of State Cordell Hull wrote back: passports . . . have had to be refused to the families of officials . . . might prove an added embarrassment i strongly advise against. Other cables followed, to Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson and to John Gilbert Winant, the American ambassador to Britain, known as Gil. Harriman’s final cable was to Kathy herself: get in touch with harry. There was no one more influential in America in 1941 than Roosevelt’s top aide, Harry Hopkins, a hero to many, a Rasputin to others, and one of Harriman’s closest friends. Soon Kathy could cable her father: passport okay love kathleen harriman.
For years Harriman had struggled to overcome his legacy as the son of the robber baron who started the Union Pacific Railroad, a man President Theodore Roosevelt had blasted as a “malefactor of great wealth.” It was said of Harriman that he was forever trying to measure up to his stern and remote father, who had died when Averell was 17. Desperately ambitious, he had set out to make a fortune in minerals in Russia. He traveled on private Streamliners—America’s first all-coach rail service—and counted among his close friends the New Yorker writer Alexander Woollcott and CBS head Bill Paley. His lust for power and his zeal had alienated America’s old money—especially Franklin Roosevelt. As Washington filled with bankers during the New Deal, Harriman was placed on financial commissions, and not until March 1941 had he been allowed a seat at the table. London would be a test for both father and daughter.
Harriman knew that Kathy’s poise and elegant presence would bring him luster. As slender as a model, she wore Worth suits that she could buy off a mannequin. With her wide smile and natural curiosity, she would be a perfect hostess for her father. Harriman’s wife, Marie, an earthy art dealer, had severe vision problems, which kept her in America. For Kathy, “Ave,” as she called him, had always been a bachelor father. Kathy’s mother had filed for a divorce when Kathy was 12, and died seven years later. Kathy and her older sister, Mary, had been raised by a beloved governess, Elsie Marshall. An invitation to London to be with her father was a chance for her finally to have him all to herself—or so she thought.
Once off the train at Paddington, Kathy typed up her notes and telexed them to a Hearst re-write man. Her schmaltzy column closer was just what her editor had in mind: “These English women may not have my silk stockings, but they have something else, something I’d like to catch hold of.” Captioned “N.Y. Girl Looks at War,” a picture of her at the Stork Club occupied three columns in the New York Journal-American. Her story, “Silk Stockings Still Important in London,” ran all over America and in London’s Evening Standard. She soon discovered that even if she wasn’t Dorothy Thompson she had a good ear for a quote. Her father wrote home immediately, “She is the center of attention among certain groups in London—if it weren’t for her Spartan upbringing (for which I take no credit) she would become unbearably spoiled.”
Her unstated role was as urgent as her father’s mission—to boost sympathy for the need to help the British. It would also become her burden to be a witness to the affair that would ensnare her father with Winston Churchill’s daughter-in-law for the next 45 years. When Kathy died at 93 in February of this year, the Telegraph cut to the chase, saying, “She facilitated his affair with Winston Churchill’s young daughter-in-law Pamela, but following the lovers’ eventual marriage, sued her stepmother for millions.”
The Telegraph overlooked the real essence of her life: Kathleen Harriman was a link to a vanished world that prided itself on discretion and distinction. The names in her diary represent the pantheon of that historical moment: Winston Churchill, press tycoon Lord Beaverbrook, British politician Duff Cooper, even the royal family. And as her father carried on with Pamela Churchill, Gil Winant fell in love with Sarah Churchill, the prime minister’s bohemian daughter. When biographers approached Kathy in later years, her answer to most of them was polite but irrevocable: Thank you, no.
But a curious revelation startled many who read Kathleen Harriman’s New York Times obituary: Cleaning out the cupboards at his mother’s apartment in the city a few weeks before she died, Kathy’s son David Mortimer, a public-policy expert, noticed a box that held two large brown leather scrapbooks. Inside was a mix of photographs and dozens of newspaper clippings with her London byline, products of a career almost unknown to her family. Page after page had scores of her dispatches with datelines all over England. Later, presiding in Moscow when her father was made ambassador in 1943, she was, noted the New York Herald Tribune at the time, “with the possible exception of Eleanor Roosevelt and Deanna Durbin . . . the best-known American woman in the Soviet Union.” She helped to arrange the 1945 Yalta summit, where Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin negotiated the end of World War II.
The Times detailed her summers as a child spent at Arden House, a 75-room château in upstate New York, on the 25,000-acre Harriman estate. The house, once reached by funicular, was designed by John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, who also built the New York Public Library.
It was impossible to conceive that her life had a secret compartment almost unknown to her sons. “Hey, Mom, what is this about?,” David asked her upon discovering the boxes. “Oh, that,” she said, then changed the subject. Since her mind, sharp until her 90s, was beginning to fade, David let the matter drop.
The news of the discovery caused a frisson among those who knew of the Harriman family’s celebrated history. A cluster of biographies had already mined the vast Harriman archives in the Library of Congress, but in all of them Kathy remained elusive, known from brief quotations from her letters, but little else. This was very much a part of her code. For David and his younger brothers, Jay and Averell, the sons of Stanley Mortimer, the Standard Oil heir Kathy had married at the age of 29, and for her stepdaughter, Amanda Mortimer Burden, New York City’s visionary urban planner, a missing puzzle piece of Kathy’s early life was mysterious and thrilling.
At first there was hesitation about showing the scrapbooks. The Mortimers are among the last of the old school, who expect to be in the papers only at birth and death. The three sons revered their tomboy mother, who taught them to jump their horses and drove through blizzards to get them to the ski slopes. She served as chair of a foundation, skied through her 70s, rode in her 80s, and supervised forums on public issues, but she always disliked the spotlight.
The letterheads on her correspondence are impressive: the Dorchester hotel, 3 Grosvenor Square (an area where so many Americans stayed that it came to be called Eisenhower Platz), Chequers (the prime minister’s country house), Cherkley Court (Beaverbrook’s estate). But little of this was ever part of the Mortimer family’s dinner conversations. “We knew our mother had been there—and the names would come up from time to time—but she deftly changed the subject or referred us to Ave’s own book,” said David.
David and his brothers learned that in addition to her stint at Hearst their mother had written for Newsweek, spending much of the winter of 1942–43 at the London office, working 12-hour days when the bureau chief and the correspondents were transferred to the front. In Moscow, she helped run the embassy, learned a passable Russian, and enchanted Stalin and his Cabinet. Stalin gave the family two horses, Fact and Boston, which followed them home to Arden. Her father went on to become Harry Truman’s secretary of commerce and, later, governor of New York, and in 1952 and 1956 he was a candidate for president. He remained an integral part of international diplomacy and Democratic Party politics until his death, at age 94.
A Reporter at Work
London loved the diplomat’s daughter from the first, and Kathy loved her new profession. She kept all the notes from her first real assignment, a profile of Lady Astor, the peppery American-born Nancy Langhorne, who had become a heroine to the British. Kathy typed on her Underwood portable: “ ‘I’ll stand on my head on Plymouth Hoe, if anyone thinks that will help Plymouth.’ That’s what Lady Astor said to me today in the course of an exclusive interview as she drove to Plymouth Station to see 200 evacuating children on their way.” She also quoted Lady Astor asking her, “Child . . . come and tell me about home. What are they thinking and talking about these days?” Kathy telexed the story to the International News Service with her kicker: “If invasion comes, incidentally, I won’t envy the Germans who meet her.”
Ave threw his daughter into the mix from the moment she arrived. The world she had grown up in was small and tightly bound by the strictest social rules: you wore white in summer, kept Jews out of your clubs, and knew the families of everyone you might marry. If you were a Harriman, your world was expanded: you skied at Sun Valley with champions, had your Labrador on the cover of Life, had Jewish friends who ran networks, banks, and newspapers, or wrote plays and musical comedies. “It will make a real person out of her,” Ave wrote Marie, whose mother was Jewish. On the night Puff arrived, he tossed a lavish party for her at the Savoy and invited every correspondent in town.
From his 27-room suite of offices in Grosvenor Square, Harriman pulled her into meetings with editors and generals. For the first months, Kathy lived with her father at the Dorchester, a glittering fortress during the Blitz. The dining room had a steady supply of crème caramel and lobster, champagne flowed, and an orchestra played late into the night. The novelist Somerset Maugham was also a guest at the time. During the day, Kathy wrote home, “the telephone never stops ringing in our suite…. Combine the war and journalism and you’ll never have a moment of boredom.”
Some of the best women reporters in the world were in London then—the Chicago Daily News’s Helen Kirkpatrick; the London Sunday Times’s Virginia Cowles; Life’s Mary Welsh, who would marry Ernest Hemingway. But Kathy’s arrival was splashed in the English press. kathleen has had royal reception, Ave cabled. He also sent a long letter to Marie: “It is too bad she had so much publicity, but it couldn’t be helped She is the only girl other than Helen Kirkpatrick reporting in London. (Two others are writing books.)”
Kathy’s arrival on Fleet Street was hardly the coronation her proud father described. “Telephone all your stuff to central six seven six five, our dictaphone number, where your copy will be recorded,” her editor told her, but gave her little further assistance. Thrown into a world she had no experience to handle, she worried that she would never be able to make it as a journalist. “None of the American reporters have been the least help to me on my stories,” she complained to Mary, “even though they are a wonderful help in every other way.” She was chilled by the staff, but Kathy was not to be deterred. “This week-end we again went to Lord Beaverbrook’s, where Averell collared one Frank Owen, the most brilliant editor over here, and I at last got somewhere. Today I go to my boss Chris and he tells me the exact opposite from Frank. I almost laughed in his face So you see it is not very easy to turn overnight into a reporter.”
At first, she did not stray far from the gilded ghetto. She went with her father to greet the first Lend-Lease ships and railed in her journal about the photographers who dogged her every move. Taken to Chequers to meet the Churchills, she was struck by the ease of the prime minister. She would be at Chequers many weekends in the subsequent months, “watching everyone coming in and out.” Her father had quickly forged a strong relationship with Britain’s wartime leader, who was desperate for Harriman’s help. The half-American Churchill was drawn to Wall Street’s players. Often the Harrimans’ phone would ring at night and it would be Churchill’s secretary asking if Ave could come for a meeting. Those meetings were the infamous games of bezique, a French card game. Harriman would remain for hours, trading confidences with Churchill, who had already placed the American in his secret war-cabinet meetings. In her letters home, Kathy wrote Marie, “Do you all appreciate what a hell of a job he’s doing? I’ve finally decided that he ought to be triplets, one for Washington, one for London, a third for Moscow.”
After three weeks in England, Kathy wrote in her diary: “Sat next to P.M. at dinner—he was in wonderful mood. Was excited to find he’s good at shooting the English brand of Tommy gun Saw That Hamilton Woman—with Sea Lord there, the P.M. and everyone else being in England and so close to the war made the movie mean so much more. All the C.’s cried—that impressed me too.” On another occasion, they watched Citizen Kane, “a violent flop,” Kathy wrote home. On Saturday afternoons, she often played croquet with Clementine Churchill. Kathy’s private notes are filled with intimate conversations: “The P.M. was depressed at dinner tonight. Turkey is giving in. Russia won’t hold out more than 6 weeks, he says. All Europe is swaying toward a Hitler victory. They are giving in. ‘We need a victory.’ The battle started today—we talked about Lend-Lease. What they are getting—about the censor—America won’t come in til we’re almost there. The P.M. knows that. ‘I’d like to be a cat—without worries.’ ”
Kathy was beginning to understand the desperation. “Remember, I am an American,” she wrote in an early dispatch. “All this is new to me. I’m not accustomed to wholesale horror.” Her range of reporting expanded to refugees, gas masks, and food shortages.
When Averell took her to meet the Canadian Lord Beaverbrook, she at first found him “gruff He overpowers you and makes you feel rather young and inexperienced (a good idea).” The son of a Presbyterian minister, Beaverbrook, born William Maxwell Aitken, owned the Evening Standard, but he was now the minister of aircraft production, ramping up the British effort against Hitler. He was encouraging to Kathy, telling her, “Come ’round to see the old man who taught them.” He asked his top reporter, Hilde Marchant, to take Kathy under her wing. Kathy noted in her diary, “She’s scathing, cynical, a disapproving socialist. I’ll learn a lot from her.”
Kathy was kept off breaking news until she finally submitted a dispatch that showed she might have a gift for the profession. Visiting a military hospital, she produced a sensitive portrait of soldiers with maimed hands and faces in their saline baths. “Last week, believe it or not, I wrote a story all the office seemed to like on the plastic surgery hospital,” she wrote home. “Now they have given me a desk—and they are allowing me to write spot news They want me to try to be Dorothy Kilgallen [the New York reporter].”
Harriman bragged to his wife that Kathy was at one event “chic as chic . . . in a flowered summer suit and black gloves.” She was having the time of her life, borrowing her father’s official car and heading for the Derby with Quentin Reynolds, the best-selling Collier’s correspondent, telling her family, “Every night next week is booked up already. The only thing people seem scared about is being lonely.”
Pam Moves In
Midway through the first album, I came upon a photograph that seemed out of place, a Cecil Beaton picture of Pamela Churchill taken for Life in 1940, when her son, Winston, was born.
It took Averell Harriman only one day to introduce Kathy to Pam. The day after Kathy got to London, she and her father were whisked to the country, to Leeds Castle, home of the ferocious Lady Baillie, a prominent hostess who had been largely displaced by Emerald Cunard, the very social shipping heiress. It would be Kathy’s first real experience with the snide, coded society. Leeds was now an officers’ hospital, and Lady Baillie, Kathy noted, was a “beautiful lady of the 1920 model—nervous and out for effect. Husband a bore—hopes I’ll write a story on his place. Food all weekend amazing.” And there too was the prime minister’s daughter-in-law. Kathy wrote, “Pam Churchill is charming . . . a born leader in a quiet effective way—the Foxcroft type!”
No higher praise could come from a Foxcroft girl, and it has always been believed that Kathy was smitten by her new friend, who bombarded her with invitations and favors. It seemed a natural match—Pam was 21 and Kathy 23—and they became close very fast. But there were profound differences in their personalities: Kathy had the staunch personal code of a champion athlete with a first-class education; Pam, the scheming heart of a country aristocrat who modeled herself after a great-aunt, Jane Digby, a famous 19th-century courtesan.
Known for her flirty giggle, creamy shoulders, auburn hair, and laser attention to powerful men, Pam was as irresistible as Becky Sharp. “On Wednesday, I’m going down with Pam Churchill—the one on the cover of Life some time ago—to see the feeding center she has setup and to talk to some of the people,” Kathy wrote to Mary. “She is a wonderful girl my age, but one of the wisest young girls I’ve ever met.”
At 21, Pam was still in formation as “the greatest courtesan of the twentieth century,” as a future husband, producer Leland Hayward, reportedly called her later; but her free-wheeling sexuality had already scandalized the Cliveden set. Harriman was her first major conquest of a wartime platoon that would include Edward R. Murrow, Jock Whitney, Bill Paley, and a cluster of generals. The vicarious erotic thrill of being a witness to her father’s romance would become a complicated dance that required Kathy’s deft navigation. “Pam is also a bitch,” Kathy would later note about her new friend. “I like her and think we’ll get on OK.”
A part of Pam’s allure was her ability to absorb and reprocess the large issues of political life. She took Kathy to a hospital, where she saw her first shell-shocked children, and later to her family’s house in Dorset, a drafty hall that Kathy noted “needs interior painting.” The two trips solidified their bond. Back at the Dorchester, Kathy wrote in her diary, “Came home—learned about Pam’s courtship. Engagement first night—Married 10 days later—Everyone hates her husband—wonder if he’s the louse they think.”
Under Pam’s influence, Kathy’s learning curve was rapid. “The funny thing about England is that age makes no difference. Tonight Pam’s dining alone with a guy Ave’s age. I’m going out with Quent [Reynolds]…. Who do I go around with? People I’ve met through Pam, mostly older men…. You can’t imagine how interesting life over here is,” she wrote Mary. Pursued by Churchill’s oil adviser Geoffrey Lloyd—Ave called him “an opportunist”—and Polish aristocrats in exile, Kathy’s main beau was her I.N.S. colleague Red Mueller. She described her weekend routines: Saturday at Chequers with the Churchills, then to Cherkley to be with Max Beaverbrook, who “looks like a cartoon out of Punch. Small, baldish, big stomach and from there he tapers down to two shiny yellow shoes His idea of sport is to surround himself with intelligent men, then egg them on to argue and fight among themselves. . . . All this makes N.Y.C. seem very remote My only regret is that I didn’t get out of college a year earlier and learn the ropes about reporting.”
Meanwhile, Harriman was desperately trying to solidify his own position. The newsman Edward R. Murrow, the most influential American in Europe, at first dismissed him as calculating and self-interested. The earnest ambassador Winant, loved by the British for his nighttime walks through bomb-torn London, complained bitterly that Harriman had ignored him to get to Churchill. Already in a power struggle with the State Department, Harriman knew his best shot was to be Churchill’s inside man. He wangled a seat on the plane to tell Stalin that there would be no second front in 1942. However close they were, Churchill was still prime minister and had a chain of command. Early on, when Harriman learned of a top-secret meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt on the high seas to forge what would ultimately become the Atlantic Alliance, he pushed to be allowed to accompany the prime minister. Kathy was privy to all of this, but she lived a split-screen life, protecting her father’s privacy in all matters. At press conferences, she learned to smile and say “I have no idea” when reporters asked her about her father’s activities.
Kathy had a gift for sliding quickly over difficult terrain, and for doing so with remarkable detachment. “She was magnesium,” said her niece Kitty Ames. Writing home after seeing bombed-out Plymouth with Lady Astor, she coolly noted, “I’m in a wonderful mood I’m glad I went early I think I will be able to be less emotional A dead city filled with such alive people.” One of her early dispatches starts, “It’s so easy to forget there is a war going on in England.” She goes on to describe the daffodils and cows and sheep you see in the country. As she wrote to Mary, “Except for the continual stream of tanks and lorries filled with soldiers, this might be the same England we saw in 1936.”
That detachment would serve her well when Kathy learned that Ave was having yet another fling. From the time they were children, Kathy and Mary were aware that their father had an active romantic life. In the section of the albums in Kathy’s box marked “Childhood,” there are pages of photos of the girls on trips with their governess and mother, with no sign of Ave. Ave had met Kathy’s mother, Kitty Lanier Lawrance, a frail debutante, at a time when his own mother was hounding him to settle down. When Kitty was out riding one day, her horse shied, and she was seriously injured. Ave proposed. She recovered but was always delicate. Soon after Kathy was born, Kitty contracted tuberculosis.
From the time their mother died, in 1936, Kathy and Mary were embraced by Marie. “Ave, stop being such a stuffed shirt!” she would berate the remote financier, to Kathy’s huge amusement. Before Marie, there had been a nightclub singer and the star ballerina Vera Zorina. In fact, Marie had left her husband, Sonny Whitney, a Vanderbilt heir, to marry Ave. Glamorous and fun-loving, she presided at the Marie Harriman Gallery, on East 57th Street. On their honeymoon in Paris, she took Ave to meet Picasso and bought van Gogh’s White Roses for their heirs. Marie pushed progressive education and accomplishment for her own children and her stepdaughters. At home, she was every bit as freewheeling as her husband, in the midst of an affair with the suave bandleader Eddy Duchin. Duchin’s wife had died in childbirth, and he frequently parked his baby son, Peter, with Marie and a French nurse. All through the war, as Duchin toured with his band, Peter grew up at Arden and called Marie “Ma.”
It is easy to imagine Kathy trying first to puzzle out what was going on with Ave and then making a quick decision to look the other way—as she had seen everyone else in her family do. In the London of 1941, a frenzy of sexuality, it was probably inconceivable to her that Pam was anything more than an amusement.
What Kathy intuited, almost everyone in Beaverbrook’s circle already knew. Soon after Harriman had arrived in London, in March 1941, Pam was seated next to him at one of the weekly dinners given by Emerald Cunard at the Dorchester; Pam conveniently lived in a small room on the top floor. That night she was dressed in gold. “I saw the most beautiful man I’d ever seen,” she said of Ave. Pam’s own marriage had been a misguided social leap. Randolph Churchill was handsome, a fiery orator, a gifted journalist, and a charmer when sober, but he was a rude drunk. He was also a heavy gambler and was known to propose to every girl he wanted to sleep with. Only one ever accepted, on her first date with him. Pamela Digby had a clear-eyed understanding that her future would be rosier as a Churchill. By the time she met Harriman, she had already given the prime minister a grandchild and seen her reckless husband off to sea, where he immediately gambled away two years of income, forcing his young wife to make herself indispensable to rich older men. What else was she to do? Beaverbrook counseled her to leave baby Winston with a nanny at his house in the country and move to London, where, he said, he would give her a job at the Ministry of Supply. Their tacit agreement, it has long been assumed, was that Pam would become his inside source for information. “There’s a very rich American coming to London for Roosevelt,” Beaverbrook is said to have told her, and his meaning was implicit. As the head of British war production, Beaverbrook wanted to stay well informed on the activities of the chief of Lend-Lease.
Soon Pam was put next to Harriman at dinner. “He was a hick from America. He knew nothing,” she told author Christopher Ogden many years later. “Averell would never have had this close relationship with Winston and Max without me. I mean, it was just that night that Averell and I met when I went back down to his apartment in the Dorchester, because it was safer.” Writing home, Harriman told Marie, “A bomb hit so close that it almost blew us back in the room Bombs dropped all around us The clusters of flairs coming down very slowly lit parts of the city like Broadway and 42nd.” He made no mention of Pam. Did Beaverbrook know immediately what was up? “Oh yes, Max knew immediately,” she later said.
Pam said that Harriman soon mentioned that his daughter Kathy was coming over, “and would I take care of her when he had to travel? So I moved into their apartment when he went off with Churchill Then she and I took a cottage in the country together. We were already ensconced in this cottage by the time Averell came back So that was kind of a good alibi She was wonderful. She was the sort of typical American college girl. Long-legged and attractive-looking—totally captivating.”
If Kathy captivated Pam, Pam had definitely caught her father. Like Beaverbrook, Harriman used her to pick up information and relay messages. In return, Pam had found the answer to her dire financial straits. When Kathy and her father took an apartment on Grosvenor Square, Pam moved in, and the three of them lived together for almost a year. Shocked that Randolph had left Pam without an income, Kathy gallantly volunteered to turn over her Newsweek salary to her new friend, biographer Sally Bedell Smith later would note. Soon Kathy would learn that Ave was also giving Pam money. Due to an overlooked accounting error, she would actually receive a monthly check for the next 30 years. When she and Averell married, in 1971, Harriman received a call from his bookkeeper: “Now may I take Mrs. Harriman off our rolls?”
“What? We’ve been paying her all these years?,” Harriman said.
Going through Kathy’s dispatches, I came upon a dusty envelope filled with letters that had either never been sent or had been returned by the censor. At the bottom of the envelope was the black notebook that Kathy had carried from the time she got to Lisbon. In those handwritten pages, the real Kathy began to emerge. Landing in a Lisbon filled with desperate refugees and the Gestapo, her first night at dinner, she noted, “the conversation was of one Victor Sassoon—rich English Jew—who is said to own much of Shanghai.” However much a Bennington girl Kathy was, she was also of her class in a time of intense parlor anti-Semitism. A few days later, in London, she was taken to another dinner, this time at a gambling club. “All tough looking Jews—women worse than men,” she wrote.
While Harriman was away at the Churchill-Roosevelt summit, Pam set out to win Kathy’s affections. Writing from the ship on his way to Washington, Harriman sent his first clue to Marie: Kathy “has teamed up with Pamela Churchill, the red-headed 22-year-old wife of your friend Randolph.” “Your friend Randolph” was added in with an arrow as a hasty afterthought. Then he casually dropped the news of a country house the girls had rented together. The diary makes it clear how perceptive Kathy was about her new friend. On the day she escorted her father to the airport, she wrote: “Have decided Pam has a narcissist’s complex—not quite—but she sure does fancy herself. E.g.—all her pictures around the room—Has C. Beaton do new ones every other week.”
That entry was dated June 21, and it was clear that Kathy had already figured out what was going on: “[Pam] got very upset at Lady Baillie’s remarks about her using me as a means to get to Ave—Lady B. is a terribly frustrated bitch to be so jealous of someone else having Ave’s attentions.”
What happened the next day changed the course of the war, and, ultimately, the fortunes of Averell and Kathy Harriman. The world turned upside down as Russia was invaded by Hitler. Overnight, the Soviet Union morphed from enemy into ally. At Chequers, Harriman now spoke at length about his benighted years chasing mineral concessions in 1920s Russia and about what needed to be understood concerning Stalin and the Russian character.
One question about the Harriman-Churchill affair still remains: did Kathy ever confront Pam? Years later, Pam Harriman told Christopher Ogden the details of what had happened, but the pages conveniently vanished from a complete transcript of their interview sent to the Library of Congress. It took weeks to track down the missing pages:
C.O.: While you’re there—alright, you’re in the Dorchester, are you—when does Kathy catch on?
P.H.: Well . . . to show you how different things were, I mean, I never discussed it with Kathy. Kathy never discussed it with me At one point, she and I were driving down to the country on a Friday, and something happened, and she said to me, “Well, you know, I am not a total fool.” I knew immediately, and I was very surprised, and I said, “Uh, what?” And she said, “I had a big decision to make. I had to either decide to go home and not be part of it or—but I thought I should protect my father, and the best way to do that was by staying.”
On the World Stage
By August, Kathy understood the state of the world. “The war hit us today—the first time it’s hit me since I arrived,” she wrote Mary, when a close friend, flying for the R.A.F., was shot down. Suddenly she was working long days and spending weekends in the country. She wrote home angry letters about American friends “who still believe that we should do business with Hitler.” She wrote about the arguments Ave had with Beaverbrook on the subject of Russia—“the only subject anyone is discussing.” Soon the two men would take off for Moscow and another conference. Harriman had become indispensable. He was finally Churchill’s inside man.
One astonishing letter in the dusty envelope had never been mailed. It was written by Kathy to her sister from Chequers sometime during the weekend of December 7, 1941. “It’s come at last—it’s exciting.” It was her 24th birthday, and the Churchills had given her a cake. As always, the valet brought in a small radio so that the prime minister could hear the latest bulletin. It was short: “The news has just been given that Japanese aircraft have raided Pearl Harbor, the American naval base in Hawaii.” Churchill, who had been deeply depressed all weekend, bolted out of his chair. “Pearl Harbor? What is that?” Kathy continued, “Dinner—people running back and forth until finally I was left sitting alone in dining room P.M. came back, talked to Roosevelt. He seemed in very good spirits Then all of us heard midnight news P.M. pacing in dragon wrapper, danced a jig. Ave standing by the fireplace.”
Kathy originally planned to stay in England for the summer, but in the end she remained with her father for the next five years. In the spring of 1942, Harriman was stricken with a form of typhoid so serious that it looked as if he might not survive. Pam never left his side.
Not long after, Kathy confided to her former governess, Elsie Marshall, in a letter, “Averell goes to the Middle East and comes back with reports of what Pam said about him; he goes home and comes back with reports about what I say about Pam. Life is annoying! (Averell is anyway!)” In New York, Marie Harriman had taken a job running a volunteer corps to help the navy. Kathy wrote her: “You’re working too hard. Don’t you think that a prolonged vacation is in order?” She added, “Averell is terribly proud of you . . . getting up at the crack of dawn I was sort of hoping you might come back with him this trip . . . I do wish you would. There are all kinds of jobs to be done.”
Later in her life, Kathleen Mortimer kept out of the Library of Congress scores of intimate letters she had written to Elsie Marshall. Mouche, as she called her, still lived at Arden and was close to Marie. In this new stash of letters, recently discovered, Kathy seemed to want to alert Marie about Pam. Her father had put her in an untenable position, and Kathy was clearly worried about her role. With exquisite care, she had drawn a floor plan of the new apartment she and Ave had taken on Grosvenor Square. She indicated Ave’s bedroom and identified hers as “my bedroom, huge.” On a sitting room that adjoined hers, she wrote, “Small room—Pam’s when in town.” By then Kathy was working full-time at Newsweek, and as usual asked Mouche to send her a dress or two. Mouche was pressed into service for Pam as well, with lists of “Pam’s Wants.”
Marie finally reacted by firing off a cable to her husband: keep your affairs clean and out of the papers or you will be facing the most costly divorce in the history of the republic.
In 1943, Roosevelt pushed Harriman to become the ambassador to Russia when Leningrad was under siege. Harriman did not want the post, but the president convinced him that he was the man for the job. By this time, Harriman too was seemingly tired of Pam and asked Kathy to deliver the message. For the rest of her life, Kathy kept a note from her father in a jewelry box: “Help Pam straighten herself out—poor child. She is in a tough spot. Tell her I am sure she will do the right thing if she follows her own instinct. Give her my best love and to you. P.S. Destroy this letter or keep it locked up.”
Kathy accompanied her father to Moscow, where she helped to run Spaso House, the dreary official residence. Often Harriman held meetings all night long trying to keep Roosevelt’s relationship with Stalin on course. Kathy worked for the Office of War Information and placed third in the 1943 Moscow Slalom Championships. Kathy’s letters to her sister, she later said, became a diary of the endless social obligations of a Moscow outpost where communication was spotty. She wrote to Pam as well, but it was clear that their friendship had cooled. On several occasions, Pam complained she had not received her monthly stipend on time. Kathy quickly arranged a wire to Max Beaverbrook, who served as the conduit. Whatever Kathy thought of this task, Pam’s wants had become a dim secondary preoccupation as the news of the carnage from Germany began to seep into Moscow. Kathy wrote Mary the first moment she had news of the camps, heard from Bill Lawrence, the New York Times correspondent. Returning from Majdanek, Kathy wrote as if she were still reporting for Newsweek of Lawrence’s description: “the [victims’] articles were carefully categorized, women’s corsets, nail files, shaving brushes. I’m sort of glad I wasn’t there to see it. Bill Lawrence, the biggest skeptic among correspondents here, told us about this with tears in his eyes.”
In 1944, Harriman commandeered a private railroad car for Kathy and 11 other correspondents to cover the exhumation of mass graves at Katyn, near a former P.O.W. camp for Polish officers. “I was lucky I had a cold,” she wrote, “so I could take notes seeing 1,000 corpses All of the other reporters were so ill.” Kathy and her fellow journalists accepted the Russian explanation, that German soldiers had slaughtered the Polish officers. In fact, it was later learned, the Russians had. The episode would later, in the context of the Cold War, be considered a notorious international incident. At the time of the Yalta Conference, Kathy would write, “I don’t trust Stalin. Nobody does.”
Not long after the war, Harriman was appointed Truman’s secretary of commerce. Pam went to work as a columnist for Max Beaverbrook and appeared in New York, trying one last time to get Averell to leave Marie. At El Morocco, Marie stared at her and then looked the other way. Pam had kept herself busy by having a brief fling with the handsome Standard Oil heir Stanley Mortimer, who had just broken up with his wife, Babe. She was with him at El Morocco and introduced him to Kathy, then reporting on the United Nations for Newsweek. Later that evening he became ill. The two women helped him back to his apartment. Pam promptly twirled off into the night, but Kathy stayed. She and Stanley were married four months later. Babe Mortimer married Bill Paley, and they all remained friends; Kathy helped raise her stepchildren, Stanley III and Amanda.
Soon after Marie died, in 1970, Pamela Churchill Hayward surfaced again and rigged a seat next to Averell at a dinner. He was then 79 and deeply depressed, feeling out of the game, but Pam immediately revived their sexual chemistry. They were married in September 1971. By then she had a long list of conquests behind her—including Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli—and had delevoped her reputation for purloining the property of her husband’s children and heirs.
Pamela Harriman created a new career for herself. She helped Bill Clinton get to the White House—he called her “the first lady of the Democratic Party.” After Ave’s death, in 1986, she was for years a Washington power hostess, opening her N Street town house for a merry-go-round of political-strategy sessions. As a reward, Clinton appointed her ambassador to France. In 1994, allegations of mismanagement of the Harriman trusts made front-page news when the Harriman family sued Pam and her advisers, citing egregious mismanagement of their assets. At stake was at least $30 million, lost to bad investments in a “conspiracy to breach fiduciary duties,” according to the court papers. Prior to the suit, Kathy had reportedly flown to Paris and quietly presented Pam with a long letter of allegations at the American Embassy. The suit was eventually settled.
Visiting Arden this past June, I found perhaps a clue to Kathy’s inner fortitude. It was here among the lakes and stone cottages and 40 miles of horse paths, a world unto itself, that the extended Harriman family met often for celebrations and rituals. Entering by a long road off the Taconic Parkway, I was thrust back into an Edith Wharton childhood where Kathy grew up in a cocoon of privilege, with a private polo field, a track for trotting horses, and a dairy that had supplied nearby West Point since the Spanish-American War. Whenever Pam, as Mrs. Harriman, visited Arden, she would be besieged with dogs and the family’s homey way of life. The Carrère and Hastings mansion had long ago been given to Columbia University, and the family stayed in modest cottages on the grounds, just as Averell always preferred. One Thanksgiving, Kathy had to snatch the pâté for hors d’oeuvres out of the mouth of one of the dogs. Putting it back on the platter, she turned to her stepmother without missing a beat and said, “May I make you one?”
In private, Kathy rarely complained about Pam, even when the Harriman heirs brought suit against her. At Arden, on the day I went to visit, Kathleen Harriman Mortimer was celebrated by her family and friends as a woman from another era who never surrendered her principles.
I thought of a letter Kathy had written to Mouche from Moscow on August 8, 1945. “Tonight the Soviets declared war on Japan. I’m about to go out on the town. . . . Among other things it means that the end of my session here is in sight! What next?”