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Roger Smith

Political Bedfellow:
Ann-Margret as Pamela Harriman

She was the Madonna of the upper crust, the Evita of America, using femininity and fellatio to conquer the Mount Everest of the world's political and social hierarchy. Democratic doyenne, sexual predator, Ambassador to France, Machiavellian home-wrecker, the courtesan of the century, perhaps - Pamela Harriman seduced history. By the time she died in Paris in 1997 at age 76, her lovers had included CBS mogul Bill Paley, news legend Ed Murrow, Prince Aly Kahn, Baron Elie de Rothschild and Fiat chieftain Gianni Agnelli. Her husbands were Randolph Churchill, son of Winston; The Sound of Music producer Leland Hayward, and former New York governor and political kingmaker W. Averell Harriman. Truman Capote described her as a "geisha girl" to rich and powerful men.

She was more than that, of course, as detailed in two major biographies during her lifetime and now this postmortem TV-movie, Life of the Party: The Pamela Harriman Story, starring Ann-Margret. Yet in a culture fixated on sex, from TV-commercial imagery to salacious details in government reports and Supreme Court hearings, Harriman's sexual prowess and predations have tended to overshadow her intellect and political accomplishments.

In both the boardroom and the bedroom she could be "very conniving, very manipulative," agrees Ann-Margret, who convincingly plays the British-born Harriman from her 1955 arrival in New York to her fatal stroke while swimming. (Natalie Radford plays the 20-year-old Pamela in wartime London.) Yet, "The men that she was with, one at a time, she truly focused on them and loved them. She found out exactly what it was in their lives that they needed, and she became indispensable to them."

How did Ann-Margret - a long-ago movie sex kitten who's been married since 1967 to manager Roger Smith (a star of the old TV detective show 77 Sunset Strip) - so fully absorb the thrice-married and much-affaired Harriman?

"I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but many of my friends did," the actress replies. "And I just talked to every single one of them, until they were exhausted!" She read the biographies - Life of the Party: The Biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman by Time correspondent Christopher Ogden and Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman by former New York Times reporter Sally Bedell Smith - and watched "clips of her from the 1984 Democratic convention when she did a speech there, and from a 1973 Diane Sawyer interview, and [a mid-1980s interview] with Barbara Walters."

The telefilm itself is rather a connect-the-dots sketch with lots of flashbacks and deliciously self-conscious name-dropping. "Sinatra wants us to have a drink with him at the Copa before a show," producer Hayward (David Dukes), her second husband, tells Pamela early on in their decade-long marriage. "Slim [the wife Hayward left] is partying all over Spain with Ernest Hemingway," we learn from Harriman's sniping society friends the Cushing sisters, Betsy (Gail Strickland) and Babe (Joan Severance) - who themselves were no slouches in "marrying well" (Betsy to philanthropist John Hay "Jock" Whitney and Babe to Bill Paley).

Physically, the still-lovely Ann-Margaret, at 57, photographs as a bit too chunky to play Harriman in her 30s and 40s. The biography Reflected Glory does paint Harriman, perhaps cattily, as "a banal milkmaid, a little plump, certainly not beautiful." Biographer Sally Bedell Smith goes on to write that in conversation, Harriman "was remembered neither for the originality nor the felicity of her contributions." Yet photos generally show an attractive woman, and Ann-Margret says that those of her own friends who knew her say Pamela was "charming, charming, so charming. And what everyone that knew her said [to me is that] when she concentrated on you, she was talking to you. You were the only person in that room." And then, too, there was her fabled senusality: As Leland Heyward in the movie tells a friend on the phone, "You wouldn't believe what she could do with an ice cube! (pause) You do?"

That part of her charisma may have been genetic. Harriman's ancestor Jane Digby (1807-1881), who seduced and married royalty and taught writer-explorer Richard Burton about harems and Middle Eastern sexual practices, was described in her own biography as a woman of "intelligence and charm, and unselfconscious sexuality" - traits Harriman seemed to inherit, and which Ann-Margret projects fiercely in the film.

Not that Life of the Party is all party and no life. Pamela's brief wartime marriage to Randolph Churchill produced a son she kept isolated from her at boarding schools. Mother and child's strained relationship, as well as Pamela's more-than-strained relationships with Hayward's and Harriman's families and her mismanagement or neglect of the latter's trust funds, get as much airing in the telefilm as her more storied moments.

Among the most important of these: helping hold together the Democratic Party through the 1980s. "The Democratic Party was just gone, blown out of existence," Senator Jay Rockefeller recalled at the time of her death. "And suddenly there was Pamela, very calm, very strong, saying, 'Come on, let's put this party back together again.' And she did." As news footage incorporated into the movie shows, President Bill Clinton himself eulogized her at her state funeral. Harriman, clearly, is a woman who has gone down in history.

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