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The author shoots back immediately: '' Without the slightest embarrassment, several months grew to two years, with the implication that she had received a prestigious degree.'' A thick-skinned chameleon, Mrs. Smith records an ''absence of joy'' in this odyssey, yet one gets quite the contrary impression. Harriman was clearly having a ball, albeit with a packed and complicated dance card. Harriman once recalled, '' I woke up one day and said ' My God, you've never had any fun.' '' Bear in mind that she had spent most of the war years going to parties, having affairs and reveling in the company and patronage of Sir Winston Churchill, the most amusing and powerful man in Britain, and you have a woman with a most demanding definition of ''fun.'' Mrs.
Harriman appears infinitely adaptable: while with Gianni Agnelli she developed a bogus Italian accent; for her job in Paris she swotted up on trade agreements. Such chutzpah enraged her contemporaries (particularly those with husbands), but she just went plowing on, stroking egos, making contacts, heading upward. Harriman's early frivolity, as distinct from her later incarnations as Democratic den mother and foreign affairs expert, was surely a key ingredient in her allure.
Her French is not quite up to scratch and even the hat she wears for her first wedding is ''unbecoming.'' Some of the knife work is not for the squeamish, and readers may wish to skip the detailed description of the techniques employed by Mrs.
Harriman the promiscuous social mountaineer and naked self-promoter alongside Mrs.
Harriman's quoted rationales for marrying him is chilling. Murrow, Gianni Agnelli, Aly Khan, Stavros Niarchos and Elie de Rothschild, to name only the first division.
'' I was getting so terribly upset by seeing all my friends going off, as they dramatically thought, to be killed, and I thought how marvelous it was to be going out with somebody about whom I didn't give a damn.'' From her inevitably failed marriage to Randolph, we follow Mrs. Most of these relationships appear emotionally arid. Harriman, the men got a pliant and socially skilled mistress and in return she got glamour, power, cachet and cash.
'' It was always ' I'm moving on to the next,' never 'he's tired of me,' '' her friend Lydia Redmond recalled of Mrs. She could be witty if she cared to -- she turned to a neighbor at one of Elie de Rothschild's dinner parties and suggested he try some of the Chateau Mouton Rothschild ''because it's homemade, you know'' -- but she is permitted a rare joke in 560 pages.
In other ways the portrait is finely balanced, and the fullest we are likely to get. Harriman emerges as hard, dismissive and snobbish, a poor mother and a worse stepmother, but also as a woman with an innate knack for survival who turned social charm into an art form and who, perhaps as a result, has proved to be a most effective power broker and diplomat.