Pamela Hartwell was a remarkable figure of 20th century social and political history.
Born Pamela Smith just before the First World War, she was the second daughter of the famous lawyer and future Lord Chancellor FE Smith, first Earl of Birkenhead, who died suddenly and prematurely when she was 16. She soared from an unusually precocious and indulged childhood - much photographed by Cecil Beaton - to become one of the better known “It Girls” and socialites of her generation, with numerous suitors before marriage including the 2nd Baron Christopher Glenconner, the press tycoon Brendan Bracken, and Victor Rothschild. She married shrewdly into the Camrose family from South Wales which owned a group of national newspapers and magazines, including the Daily Telegraph. Both her father and father-in-law, the first Viscount Camrose, had risen from modest provincial backgrounds to positions of power and influence.
In her prime, post-war, she used her wit, beauty and influence as a newspaper proprietor’s wife to carry on the tradition of twentieth century London hostesses such as Emerald Cunard and Sybil Colefax; the more so, when her husband, Michael Berry, started a new national paper, the Sunday Telegraph. As a political stirrer, she was credited with, or accused of, unseating Anthony Eden, after the débacle of Suez, and his successor Harold Macmillan did not have an easy passage, despite his regular seat at her lunch table complaining that “Lady Pamela fancies herself as another Lady Londonderry”. Although her reputation was as a Tory hostess she was also intimate with a number of key Labour figures. She led an intense parallel life in the United States, where she travelled almost every year, had intimate American friends in powerful positions, revelled in their politics, and was an important insider’s source for the Telegraph.
Like other intelligent women of her generation she never had a paid career in her own right, but developed with unusual strength and energy in several different directions. When she took over London’s rather faded fashion couturiers’ group she corralled most of the Tory Cabinet to support her in prestigious events to raise its profile, in direct competition with Paris. She became a publisher’s scout for George Weidenfeld, travelling widely to accompany him to commission biographies and memoirs for publication in partnership with the Sunday Telegraph. She then moved over to the museum world, navigating between the opposing personalities of John Pope-Hennessy and Roy Strong, serving on the advisory panel of the V & A and eventually as a Trustee of the British Museum, surprisingly replacing the eminent art historian Ernst Gombrich on his retirement.
She died quite suddenly at 68, after a whirlwind life which included literary friendships with novelists such as Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, and bringing up 4 children; and at least one passionate love affair, over a decade, with Malcolm Muggeridge.
This biography by her daughter is a candid and dispassionate account of a larger-than-life mother. It brings out the paradox of her fiery and restless personality, and of how she felt an outsider in the establishment world she inhabited. It draws the curtain on vivid personal memories, and draws on many private and unpublished sources for key moments in 20th century history.
Harriet Cullen is a freelance writer and has contributed to History Today, the Daily Telegraph, the Keats-Shelley Review, and Starhaven Press. She is married to the Argentine novelist Martín Cullen, has 2 sons, and lives between Argentina and London.
She was awarded the BEM in the King's Birthday 2023 Honour's List, for Services to Literature as Chair of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association 1997-2018.
More about Harriet Cullen