Such is the premise of Swimming At The Ritz, a play by Charles Leipart based on the true life of Pamela Harriman which will have its U.S. premiere in January. The play is being presented by New Jersey Repertory Company in a limited run from January 8 through February 1.
New Jersey Stage spoke with the playwright about what drew him to Pamela's story.
What attracted you to the story of Pamela Harriman?
I was fascinated. Pamela Digby, a chubby 17-year-old daughter of a minor British baron of diminishing fortune, arrives in London to work in a 20-pound-a-week government clerical job--about 3 dollars in U.S. currency in 1937 (the World Depression years). She becomes the daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill and at 19 finds herself pregnant with Winston's grandchild and he has her sharing the bomb shelter at 10 Downing Street. Subsequently over the years, she becomes the lover and wife of some of the richest and most powerful men of the 20th Century. Ultimately she becomes the First Lady of the Democratic Party, helps elect a U.S. President and when her life ends, she is the U.S. Ambassador to France. That's where we meet her in 1995 in a private suite at the Paris Ritz Hotel. Down to her last 10 million.
How did this happen to chubby Pamela?
Did she actually burn through the entire inheritance in real life?
In fact, she did. By 1995 Pamela had gone through the entire 115 million dollars left to her by Averell Harriman's death in 1986. As Pamela says in the play, "the cost of fresh flowers alone." She was spending her way through the 40 million dollars of a trust fund left in her care for the Harriman daughters and grandchildren when the Harriman clan brought a lawsuit against her to reclaim their inheritance. To keep the family wolves from her door, Pamela put her personal property up for auction. That's where the play starts.
Why do you think people generally love seeing the rich become penniless? It seems to present a classic storyline for a play.
I think we're more intrigued by the question of how some people get control of such vast amounts of money only to spend it all and end up with nothing. We can all fantasize about having vast wealth but we never think for a minute that we'd lose it. Yet, it happens. My interest as the playwright was in the breadth of Pamela's life experiences. She lived lavishly. She loved lavishly. All the while she was spending lavishly she was encouraged by the men in her life to do so.
This is the U.S. premiere of the play that originally ran in the U.K. in 2010-2011. Has the play changed much since then?
No, it hasn't. We were able to present the play for the first time in the U.K. supported by the Arts Council England, which was such a great opportunity. It was very well-received. Some details deemed "too American" were removed from the play and the play was slightly shortened. With this American premiere, Swimming In The Ritz is as I originally wrote it, with just a few modifications.
Considering her relationship with Winston Churchill's family, what was the U.K. reaction to the play?
The U.K. audiences and critics loved the play and were fascinated by Pamela's exploits. Interestingly enough, Pamela left the U.K. for New York in 1959 and spent the next four decades as a U.S. resident. Most of the British audiences were unaware of her U.S. history. What the British audience didn't know was that Pamela achieved so much more than simply being Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law.
Have you been working with NJ Rep on this production? Do you plan to make it to the opening?
Yes, I'm there to be as helpful as I can to SuzAnne Barabas the director, and I will indeed be at the opening. Pamela is on-stage throughout the play as is Pietro, the Ritz valet. The play requires quite a bit from both actors. While I've not worked with Judith Hawking or Christopher Daftsios previously or SuzAnne, I'm excited to be working with each of the three of them.
What do you hope audience members take from the play?
An entertaining and insightful theatre experience. Pamela was charming, intelligent, self-critical and remarkably intuitive about people. She had the uncanny ability to make whomever she spoke with feel important and that they were the only person in the room, especially the men. My hope is that at the end of the play, everyone in the audience will feel as if they have been in the presence of one of the greatest courtesans and diplomats of the 20th Century. I certainly have enjoyed her company.