She fell for her first older, married, rich man when she was just 17, and according to a new unauthorized biography of Pamela Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to France has enjoyed the company of many powerful partners since, each older and richer than the last -- with one prominent exception.

The chapter headings of Christopher Ogden's "Life of the Party" are all named after men -- ("Fred, Bill and Jock," "Gianni," "Frank") -- except for the last chapter ("Madame Ambassador"), which describes how, as the supply of older and richer men ran out, Harriman became increasingly serious about being serious -- parlaying her formidable political skills and street smarts into a position of power within the Democratic Party, finding stability and a certain credibility all her own.

Yesterday, Harriman refused to comment on the book, which is based partly on 40 hours of taped interviews with her. According to several sources, she is extremely unhappy about it, wishing the book had spent more pages on policy and fewer on her romantic life.

"Until the last 10 years, her world was largely defined by the men she was with," says Ogden in an interview. "In addition to being a woman of substance and an ambassador doing well, Pamela is also widely known as the courtesan of the century. That's a part of her life -- and it shouldn't take away from what she is now."

Indeed, according to "Life of the Party," Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman lived a full and somewhat controversial life during the '40s, '50s and '60s -- receiving financial support from lovers, an alleged annual allowance of $20,000 for many years from then-married Averell Harriman, an apartment in London from Fiat scion Gianni Agnelli. Ogden says she was not motivated particularly by money, though. Obsessed with stories of her 19th-century ancestor Jane Digby, the life-loving mistress of kings and sheikhs, young Pamela set out to have an exciting, glamorous life. She didn't seek power of her own so much as a chance to be around it.

"I think it gives her a kind of rush," Ogden says.

As a young married woman during World War II, while husband Randolph Churchill was off fighting, Pamela lived at 10 Downing St. with her father-in-law, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and became romantically involved with a number of married men -- Averell Harriman, Bill Paley, Jock Whitney, Edward R. Murrow -- as well as two important generals, Frederick L. Anderson, head of U.S. bombing command, and Sir Charles Portal, Britain's chief of air staff. In a vault inside her Georgetown house, Ogden says, Harriman keeps love letters from three separate participants of the Yalta Conference.

Ogden describes her as an important "interlocutor" of the war effort. "Her sources were unparalleled," he writes. "No one else had the ability to move between the two sides {British and American} at such a high level and on such an intensely personal basis."

In 1991, Ogden, then the chief diplomatic correspondent at Time magazine, was selected by Harriman to write her official biography. Formerly the London bureau chief and White House correspondent, he was apparently raised in circles that made Harriman comfortable.

She wanted her story told, he says, in response to a biography being written by Sally Bedell Smith. She offered him 50 percent of the book's revenue -- a very generous sum for a ghostwriter -- and once Harriman agreed to "tell the complete story," according to Ogden, he agreed to take on the three-year project.

Problems started when Random House offered $1,625,000 for her story -- and the respectable grande dame of the Democratic Party grew concerned that she'd have to reveal the most intimate details of her life for that colossal price. "She knew she could get me to be reasonably discreet," says Ogden, "but for that money, she knew that Random House wouldn't settle for anything less than all the personal details."

When Harriman backed out of the deal, Ogden says, he was happy to back out too. But when Harriman and her lawyer refused to return his calls or letters, offering him nothing for his time spent, he signed on to write his own book.

He fleshed out his interviews with Harriman -- which he decided to use strictly as background material -- by contacting hundreds of colleagues and former friends and lovers, along with a handful of bitter wives and unhappy stepchildren. The surprising thing, he says, is that "some of the toughest judgments about her were made by her closest friends."

Harriman emerges as a focused, ambitious woman, somebody who always runs with the in-crowd, finds the eye of the storm and the most handsome, richest man wherever she goes. Polo players! Tycoons! Admirals! In London during the war, she consorted with generals and diplomats; in Paris she spent her days with poets, artists and jet-setting Mediterraneans. In New York, married to producer Leland Hayward, she became a part of the Broadway elite. In Hollywood she became involved with Frank Sinatra.

How did she do it?

How did she attract all those fabulous guys?

"Focus," says Ogden. "To make that man -- at that particular moment -- think he's the greatest thing to happen since the convergence of the planets."

But Harriman has also, he says, been greatly disappointed by men.

"Randolph {Churchill} was a disaster -- hardly a pleasant experience. He proposed to eight women in the two weeks before he asked Pamela -- he strictly wanted to leave an heir before going off to war. At 21, she started an affair with Averell Harriman but he left her. She picked up with Paley and Whitney and the generals -- she wasn't faithful to Harriman -- and then picked up with Ed Murrow, who promised twice to leave his wife for her and never did."

In France, there were Aly Kahn and Elie de Rothschild. Then Agnelli, who eventually married an Italian princess.

"She left for America," says Ogden, "when it became clear that the men in Europe weren't going to marry her." After Hayward died, she resumed her wartime affair with the now-widowed Harriman and was soon engaged. And after Harriman died in 1986, Pamela had a face lift, lost weight and began a relationship -- not just a friendship, Ogden writes -- with a younger man: J. Carter Brown, then director of the National Gallery of Art.

"Some Washingtonians who did not know Carter well presumed that he was strictly a walker," Ogden writes. "But any woman who danced with Carter or accepted a ride home from him knew that he was intensely physical with women."

Ogden expects criticism that he's been unfairly interested in Harriman's sex life -- presumably because she's a woman.

"Authorized or unauthorized, it's really an extraordinary success story," he says. "If this were about a man traveling in the league she's in -- the political big league -- a biography would include a thorough discussion of a man's social life. We have written about the personal lives of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, of Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt. I treat her fairly -- and just the way I would any of these serious public figures. To omit it is to treat her like some '50s matron."

Special correspondent Sharon Waxman contributed to this report from Paris.