Gene Lyons
May 27, 1994 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Life of the Party

Current Status
In Season
Christopher Ogden
Biography, Politics and Current Events

We gave it an A

All right then, it’s settled: The rich are different, dear reader, from you and me. At least the ones who inherit their loot, and especially those who make a career of marrying it. Indeed, they are so different that to the average book-buying stiff, the experience of reading Christopher Ogden’s maliciously entertaining biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman- U.S. Ambassador to France, world-class hostess, and ”First Lady of the Democratic Party,” in the words of President Bill Clinton-is apt to be a bit | like watching one of the grislier nature documentaries on the Discovery Channel or PBS. The Life of the Party is fascinating, yes, but faintly sickening, too, with voice-overs by Robin Leach instead of Jacques Cousteau.

That’ll teach Ambassador Harriman to dismiss an official biographer as if he were an unsatisfactory butler. But perhaps an explanation is in order. Back in 1991 when George Bush looked unbeatable and her own political ambitions seemed fruitless, Pamela Harriman decided that the time had come to tell her life’s story. And a remarkable, improbable, one-of-a-kind story it is. After all, who else was playing cards with her father-in-law Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street while Nazi buzz bombs rained on London during the Blitz? Or conducting a love affair with statesman Averell Harriman while barely out of her teens? (He later became her third husband, and she inherited a huge fortune upon his death.) Who else had liaisons with Edward R. Murrow, international playboy Aly Khan, Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli-not to mention various and sundry generals, European titled heads, even, it’s rumored, Frank Sinatra?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again. Back to the story of Harriman and the spurned biographer. Having admired his previous book on Margaret Thatcher, Harriman approached Time correspondent Christopher Ogden to collaborate with her. Then after Ogden had quit his magazine job and put in months doing research and interviews, he writes, ”Mrs. Harriman got colder and colder feet. Declining to sign the publisher’s contract, she pulled out of the project….I was never paid a penny, not even for expenses.” Not too smooth a move for a diplomat. Stiffed by her lawyers when he sought a fair settlement, Ogden decided he was ”a writer, and not a litigator.” So rather than sue, he decided to write the book anyway.

If Life of the Party has a weakness at all, it’s in failing to make clear why Harriman expended so much effort to keep the seemingly impossible presidential hopes of the Democrats alive. But any way you look at it, it has been an extraordinary life, extraordinarily well presented by an author who, objective or not, surely knows how to tell a tale. A

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