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Roger Smith

Ann-Margret's Love for Pamela Harriman

Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman was one remarkable woman, from pushing Bill Clinton into the White House to playing kinky tricks with an ice cube.

She's often seen as a manipulative global courtesan, but Ann-Margret, who plays her in Monday's Lifetime channel movie, Life of the Party, takes a sympathetic view. "She loved men with power, with money, men who were handsome. But she just wanted someone to take care of her. She never wanted to be in that position again." The actress refers to the late Harriman's first husband, Randolph Churchill, who drank, chased women and gambled away his money. Over the years, Harriman more than made up for that with a string of wealthy lovers from Frank Sinatra to Gianni Agnelli.

Ann-Margret, 57, looks startlingly like Harriman in the movie, though she attributes that to her hairstyle, makeup and lighting. But she watched news interviews to check "the way she walked, how her accent changed the longer she was here, the way she would approach and talk to people. She was fascinating. Everyone that I talked to, the one word that came out about her was 'charming.'

"She never wanted to be destitute like she was with Randolph, when he left her and their son." So she moved to America, "where she had two American husbands she loved very much." Those would be the producer Leland Hayward (The Sound of Music) and old-money statesman Averell Harriman. Pamela wasn't close to her son, neglecting him to chase about Europe, and her Harriman stepchildren hit her with a nasty estate lawsuit. But, explains Ann-Margret, "when she grew up, there wasn't a lot of love in her family. Her parents, Lord and Lady Digby, didn't show love or emotion, and her father always favored her sister, she thought."

Pamela was smart, but in those days girls were meant for marriage and babies, not university. She learned by listening: "That's how she became so politically savvy," says Ann-Margret. She knows Pamela was a calculating woman. "We tried to show that. She knew people were talking behind her back constantly."

That ice-cube scene takes place when Pamela is in bed with Hayward, and though it's not that graphic, it's definitely more suited to cable TV's standards. Pamela supposedly learned it from her friend the Duchess of Windsor, who enslaved a king. "It's funny when Leland talks to Jock Whitney about it. He was proud that Pamela was the courtesan of the century."

And Pamela triumphed as her own woman after her last husband died. Clinton's payback to her was the post of ambassador to France, and last year, when she died after a stroke while swimming at the Ritz in Paris, the president spoke at what amounted to her state funeral in Washington. Ann-Margret called me from Toronto, where she's making another true story, Showtime's Happy Face Murders. She stopped doing "a lot" of singing performances four years ago, "which is not to say I'll never do any more." Last month she found time to visit her native Sweden with husband Roger Smith, who co-produced Life of the Party, and her mother. "Half my family is still there, in the house I grew up in." Smith, 65, has myasthenia gravis, but is "basically in remission." Wed 31 years, they live happily at their Beverly Hills estate. Ann-Margret is often recognized on her travels. "I'll be walking along and somebody will give me this big smile. ... They're really kind. And I realize I've been around forever!"

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By Jeannie Williams

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