W. Averell Harriman was a gentleman and a statesman but apparently not much of a father. Aloof -- often absent -- as his children grew up between the world wars, he spent so little time with their mother during an unhappy 14-year marriage that some friends assumed he was single.

There was one period of what might now be called "quality time" -- an episode that had repercussions lasting bitterly to this day. When his younger daughter, Kathleen, was 24, he welcomed her to live with him in wartime London, where he was an emissary of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Having her there was a comfort, no doubt -- particularly since she helped him conceal a liaison with his auburn-haired 22-year-old mistress, Pamela (who also happened to be British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law). Years later, Pamela Churchill became Averell's third wife, which is to say, the stepmother of her friend Kathleen.

If that sounds confusing, you're getting an idea what it's like to be a Harriman.

For a century or more, the Harrimans have been a fascinating force, a family that exercised its influence on every facet of life that matters to the powerful in America: business, politics, society. Averell's father, E.H. Harriman, carved out the family fortune in railroads. Averell became an adviser to presidents. His widow, Pamela, more recently established herself as the doyenne of Democratic politics and now serves as U.S. ambassador to France.

Averell's long life among the American plutocracy reads like an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel -- Fitzgerald was the one, after all, who observed that the rich are different -- but with more sex, licit and otherwise. His two daughters and six grandchildren were left to make what they would of his interesting life.

And whatever happened, as Harrimans, they were to maintain a sense of decorum. Kathleen, at 24, discovered that her father was sleeping with her friend. She said nothing. Years later, Averell all but cut his children out of his will, bequeathing his $65 million estate to Pamela. They held their peace.

Years before he died, Harriman had set up a variety of trusts for his family. But now those funds appear to be almost depleted. And this news has the family's stiff upper lip quivering. The family in mid-September slapped Pamela, now 74, with a detailed and inevitably public suit charging that she was in part responsible for squandering the money.

Whatever else Averell Harriman achieved in his long life, his legacy has become a family feud.

Pamela Harriman has spoken only through her attorney, Lloyd Cutler, the two-time White House counsel. Cutler says his client wasn't responsible for the unfortunate investments that diminished the family trusts. He says there is nothing surprising about a family showing hostility toward a vivacious younger woman who came along late in the life of a patriarch.

"There are very few people in that family who earn their own living," he says. "I'm not casting any aspersions on them. I'm just saying it's natural for a child and grandchild who had expectations about income from trusts and from the estate to be unhappy about the way it is left."

The family declines to discuss the situation -- though a source close to them provides a brief resume of their various careers and volunteer activities. "I'd rather you talk to the lawyers," Kathleen Mortimer, Harriman's younger daughter, says politely. "I'm involved in this -- not for social reasons, shall we say."

Harriman's older daughter Mary Fisk wants to keep things private too. "I hate to be miserable about this," she says as she declines to be interviewed. And she murmurs: "This is going to be very messy."

Quiet Confrontation

The Harriman offspring first confronted their stepmother quietly. Last December, 76-year-old Kathleen left her apartment in New York and flew to Paris with Charles Ames. Ames is a Boston lawyer long married to Kathleen's niece -- which is to say, his wife is Averell's granddaughter. The two set off to visit Pamela Harriman, who had been rewarded with the ambassadorship to France after playing a vital role, especially as a fund-raiser, in reviving the Democratic Party and electing Bill Clinton as president.

At the Harriman family's request, Ames had been looking into the performance of nine family trusts. Ames was not happy with what he found. It appeared that the trusts, which had been worth $30 million, had sustained staggering losses due to investment decisions that seemed questionable to Ames. Most seriously, the trusts had poured millions into a New Jersey resort that appeared to be hemorrhaging money.

Near the end of his life, Averell had asked two of his friends in Washington's upper crust, attorneys Clark Clifford and Paul Warnke, to act as trustees. They pooled the money into two investment vehicles and made Pamela Harriman their partner -- although her attorneys argue that Clifford and Warnke bore all the responsibility for making investment decisions. (They also are named in the lawsuit.)

According to a source close to the family, Pamela Harriman was gracious but aloof when she received Charles Ames and Kathleen Mortimer in Paris. Ames gave a slide presentation outlining the family's concerns. Pamela expressed shock that the funds had dwindled and assured them that she knew nothing about the matter. That evening, they had a polite but strained dinner together and Ames and Mortimer stayed at her ambassadorial residence.

Before they left, Pamela presented her visitors with a bundle of letters addressed to Averell's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. These were confirmations of Pamela's annual gift to each of them: $10,000 in Union Pacific stock. During his lifetime, Averell had given his offspring as much as allowable under federal tax law each year, and Pamela had continued the tradition.

If Charles Ames and Kathleen Mortimer meant to suggest through their visit that they might sue Pamela Harriman, then perhaps her request that they deliver the annual gifts could be taken as a warning too. Pamela still owned or controlled the bulk of the Harriman millions, even if much of it was tied up in art and real estate. If the children crossed her, they realized, this year's gift might be their last.

In and Out of Love

While the glamorous and romantically vigorous Pamela Churchill Harriman has always attracted public attention, the Harriman children have led comparatively quiet lives. In biographies written about Averell, his two daughters are mentioned only sporadically until Kathleen joined him in Europe during World War II.

"During his daughters' early years, his far-flung business interests and polo had kept him on the move," Harriman biographer Rudy Abramson wrote. "When he and {his first wife} Kitty divorced in 1929, Mary was twelve years old and Kathleen was eleven, and the girls had gone to live with their mother. As teenagers, both were off to the Foxcroft School in Virginia, and then Bennington College in Vermont."

"He was not a dad," says orchestra leader Peter Duchin, who was raised as a sort of foster son by Harriman's second wife, Marie. "He was a very elegant, aloof, old-fashioned man."

Harriman was 24 when he married Kitty Lanier Lawrance. At 22, she was willowy, attractive, an accomplished horsewoman and a crack shot. But Abramson theorizes that the marriage might not have happened were it not for an accident that occurred when the courting couple went riding in Central Park one Saturday afternoon in April 1915. As they passed beneath a railway trestle, Kitty's horse reared and fell on her, crushing her pelvis. "Averell blamed himself for having taken the route," Abramson wrote. They were married that fall in an extremely simple ceremony: The bride did not even carry a bouquet and the service lasted only six minutes.

Kitty's health was poor -- she became pregnant soon after they were married and two months after their first daughter, Mary, was born, she was pregnant again with Kathleen. Still struggling to recover from her riding accident, childbearing was difficult for her. Then, in 1918, she developed tuberculosis. "Kitty ... has been forced to be out of things and feeling badly so consistently for so many years now that it is discouraging," Averell wrote to his mother.

Soon, Averell and Kitty were spending months apart. While Kitty was consoling herself with an old friend, polar explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, Harriman was threatening to create a scandal through his liaison with an actress named Teddy Gerard. The marriage might have ended then but for the opposition of Harriman's mother, who abhorred divorce.

But in 1928, Averell fell seriously in love with the former Marie Norton, who was mired in her own bad marriage to Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. She was gorgeous and irreverent and not very happy. One evening, by Abramson's account, Averell consoled her when her drunken husband's public insults drove her from a party in tears. By the fall, his marriage to Kitty was over.

Marie got a quick divorce in Reno, Nev., and she and Harriman were married in New York and dashed off to Paris. She had a taste for art and spent much of her honeymoon combing galleries there. Abramson surmises that it was at her suggestion Harriman paid $72,000 for van Gogh's "White Roses" -- now valued at $30 million or more.

Kitty remarried about a year after her divorce. But six years later, at 43, she died of cancer. She and Averell had remained friendly, and their daughter, Mary, urged him to come to the funeral. He didn't -- and rarely thereafter ever spoke of his first marriage.

In fact, Harriman grandson Robert Fisk remembers, some people assumed that Kathleen and Mary were Marie's children, even though Marie was 12 years younger than her husband. "People would come up to her and say ... 'You're so young to have these daughters,' " Fisk remembers. "And she'd just smile sweetly and say, 'If they only knew.' "

Kathleen's Time

Mary Harriman married a doctor at 23. But Kathleen was a year younger and had a taste for adventure. While World War II wracked Europe, she got work as a journalist and joined her father in London. Marie was having health problems during this period and couldn't make the trip. Regardless, theirs was never a bound-at-the-hip marriage.

So at a time when well-to-do British parents were sending their children out of harm's way to the United States and Canada, Harriman "felt that Kathleen's presence would be looked upon as a mark of American confidence," as he later wrote. "I remember that even Mrs. {Winston} Churchill showed surprise when I told her that Kathleen was coming over."

Averell's biographers suggest another reason he might have desired Kathleen's presence: He and Pamela Churchill, wife of Winston Churchill's son Randolph, had become an item. "Kathy was two years older than Pamela," wrote Christopher Ogden in his unauthorized biography of Pamela. "It would be natural if the two young women became friends. Kathleen Harriman could be a beard for her father and an alibi for Pamela."

If that was the plot, it worked. Pamela liked Kathleen, and Kathleen wrote to her sister that Pamela was "a wonderful girl, my age, but one of the wisest young girls I've ever met." When she discerned her 51-year-old father's relationship with Pamela she decided to accept it, even sharing an apartment in London for a time with her father and her friend.

Kathleen enhanced her father's reputation in more ways than one. "At the Dorchester, the Savoy or Claridges, they were surrounded," Abramson wrote. "At Churchill's dinners at Chequers, Beaverbrook's parties at Cherkley, and diplomatic affairs that would have otherwise been grim and overburdened by the war, they were ornaments that sparkled."

Father and daughter moved to Moscow in 1943, where Kathleen worked in the Office of War Information and acted as hostess to visiting dignitaries. She received President Roosevelt and was presented with a pair of horses by Stalin. And she wrote frequently to her friend Pamela.

She was never coddled. At her father's request, she toured the mass graves of thousands of Polish soldiers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. "Fortunately, Kathleen had a cold that day," her father wrote -- so she was less bothered than others by the stench.

Whether by training or instinct, Kathleen apparently never lost her poise -- even when she accompanied her father to see 72 American bombers landing in the Ukraine after a mission. "Jesus, but it was exciting," she wrote to her sister. "Ave said he'd never before been so thrilled by anything, and I'm damn sure I haven't." The Soviet general who accompanied them "was every bit as excited as we," she wrote, "only being Russian, he showed it."

Back in London, Pamela was hosting elaborate meals despite Britain's strict wartime rationing. "My guess is that all of us around the table were sort of smirking," Churchill's private secretary, John Colville, said later, "and saying that Averell was taking good care of his girlfriend."

The Low-Key Life

"Our family was fairly low-key," says Robert Fisk, middle child of Mary Harriman Fisk, grandson of Averell. "We didn't jet-set around."

Compared with the hectic matrimonial life of their father, Mary and Kathleen were models of marital stability. Mary married Shirley Fisk, an internist -- a union that lasted 39 years, until Shirley's death. Kathleen has been married to Stanley Mortimer, an executive descended from the founder of Standard Oil of California, for nearly 50 years. Mary and Kathleen had three children each. Kathleen's son David is a vice president of the American Assembly, a public affairs forum based in New York; Averell is an investment banker; and John J., who was born deaf, is an aide at the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, N.Y.

Mary's daughter, Kitty, has served as a school board member in Brookline, Mass.; her son Robert is a Washington attorney; and her youngest, another Averell, is an investor and developer who divides his time between New York and Palm Beach, Fla.

Kathleen and Mary raised their families in Manhattan apartments, spending summers in their cottages on the family estate, Arden, in the New York countryside. Robert Fisk says the life at Arden was rustic and relatively modest.

His grandfather, as he remembers, preferred quiet entertainment. "His idea of fun was a small group of people sitting around playing bridge, or if it was summertime, playing croquet. ... We didn't entertain a lot. We were not social. It was not our deal." Fisk remembers Averell's second wife, Marie, with special fondness. "She was outrageous and irreverent and had a caustic sense of humor," he says.

Birthday parties were simple affairs -- "We'd have a few friends over or go to a movie or something." Fisk doesn't remember receiving any dramatic gifts from his rich and famous grandfather. "When he'd come back from trips, he'd give me things he didn't want. I have a plaque that says '100 Million Mile Club' from American Airlines and a cigarette box that he got from Prince Sihanouk or someone like that, since he thought it was gaudy," Fisk says. "He had these doodads he'd give us but I don't remember him giving us anything {else}, not because he didn't care but because he was occupied. He was not a shopper."

As Averell Harriman grew old and Fisk had kids of his own, he would ask his grandfather to tell stories to his children. "He didn't really like to reminisce," Fisk remembers. "He wanted to keep abreast of what was happening and would ask what we thought of this or that -- political things."

But Averell would indulge Fisk by telling a story or two. One tale involved a trip he made to England as a Yale undergraduate to study the rowing technique at Oxford. After an initial hazing, he got on well with the Oxford lads, who invited him to prolong his six-week leave to see a big regatta against Cambridge. Dutifully, Harriman cited his commitment to return. "If he had disobeyed," Fisk says, "he would have sailed back on the maiden voyage of the Titanic."

The clan used to gather every year for Averell's birthday. The longtime Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, would send over splendid tins of caviar. Members of the family gave speeches, and Kathleen's middle child, Averell Mortimer, would write a poem to mark the occasion. "The problem was what to get him," Fisk remembers. "He would like small presents. I bought him a tie one year and he wore it constantly. I couldn't tell whether he wore it because he liked it or because he remembered that I gave it to him."

Reunited

In 1970, Marie Harriman suffered a heart attack and died. Biographers report she had expected her husband to outlive her and even tried to select Averell's next wife.

It didn't work out as she hoped. A year after Marie's death, Averell and his old friend Pamela were reunited at a dinner given by Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham. Some of the guests that night saw signs that the two would immediately resume their romance.

Robert Fisk remembers his grand- father as a man who didn't care much for money and didn't spend much on himself, considering his wealth. Marie had jokingly referred to Averell as a "cheap old bastard." But those days ended when he married Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward. She was 51 and he was 79.

"When Pamela entered the family, I asked Ave how things were," Peter Duchin remembers. "He said, 'Well, you know, she's redoing the house in Washington.' I said, 'That doesn't surprise me.' Marie had it done in a very comfortable way. You could go in and put your feet up. Pam had different tastes.

"I said, 'Oh, she must have a decorator.' He said, 'Yes. He's a little guy, wears double-breasted suits.' I said, 'Does the name Billy Baldwin mean anything to you?' "

Though Averell didn't know who Baldwin was, Duchin had guessed at once that high society's preeminent interior designer had gotten the call.

Stay Tuned to the Trial

Everyone agrees that Pamela made Averell extremely happy.

How the rest of the family responded to her is less clear, but it is likely to come out in court. For now, the family declines to discuss her.

But Washington society is feverishly speculating about her next move, about how much money she has left from Averell's estate, and whether she can sustain the expense of serving as ambassador to France -- the cost regularly exceeds the allowance granted by the federal government. Certainly, a substantial part of Pamela's money is tied up in art and real estate. Some of her property, including her house in Georgetown, is for sale. She has consulted an art dealer about selling some of her paintings, should the need arise.

Cutler declines to reveal how much ready money his client has, but he says she will manage nicely, thank you. "She will certainly be able to sustain her life as ambassador, live out her life quite comfortably by your standards and my standards, and take care of this lawsuit," he says.

Meanwhile, he says, his client cooperated fully in helping the Harriman offspring gain control of the trusts. By suing, he continues, the family may have done itself more harm than good. Before the litigation arose, "a lot of her own estate would have gone to these children, eventually."

Now, the chances of that seem slim.