W. Averell Harriman

48th Governor, 1955–1958
W. Averell Harriman

William Averell Harriman (1891–1986), shown here with his dog, Brum, began a long and distinguished political career in 1933 while working at President Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration and ultimately served under five Democratic presidents. Before he was governor, Harriman was both Ambassador to the Soviet Union and United States Secretary of Commerce. As governor, his socially progressive agenda included advancement in consumer protection and services for the mentally ill and elderly. He continued his career in international diplomacy as Ambassador-at-Large under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and numerous other posts.

Painted portrait of W. Averell Harriman.
About the Artist

Frank Mason (1921–2009) was born in Cleveland and studied at the Art Students League, where he also taught for over 50 years. In 1992 he co-founded ArtWatch International, which helps protect works of art and architecture from injurious art restorations.


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From The Encyclopedia of New York State

Harriman, W(illiam) Averell (b New York City, 15 Nov 1891; d Yorktown Heights, Westchester Co, 26 July 1986). Financier, diplomat, and governor.

The fifth of six children born to railroad magnate E. H. Harriman and Mary Averell, W. Averell Harriman was reared in New York City and at Arden, the family’s estate in Orange Co. He was educated at private schools in New York City, at Groton School in Massachusetts, and at Yale University. Although frail in his youth, Harriman was an avid sportsman who played polo in international competition during the 1920s. His marriage to Kitty Lanier Lawrance, mother of his two daughters, ended in divorce in 1929. Soon thereafter, he married Marie Norton Whitney, who died in 1970. As a financier in the 1920s and 1930s, Harriman engaged in high-profile business ventures ranging from shipbuilding, shipping, and aviation to manganese mining in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. After 1931 he was a partner in the private investment bank Brown Bros Harriman and Co, and from 1932 until 1946 he was chairman of the board of Union Pacific Railroad. In 1933Harriman joined the New Deal’s National Recovery Administration (NRA), beginning a government career that eventually included service in five Democratic administrations over half a century. In March 1941 he was posted in London as expediter of US arms and war supply shipments to Great Britain, and from1943 until the conclusion of World War II, he was ambassador to the Soviet Union. With the return to peacetime, Harriman opted not to resume his business career. In the ensuing years of the Cold War, he served as ambassador to Great Britain, secretary of commerce, European coordinator of the Marshall Plan, and chief of the Mutual Security Administration.

Although he lacked the natural skills for elective politics, Harriman yearned to hold office in his own right. In 1952 he campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination but in 1954 was elected governor of New York State, defeating US senator Irving M. Ives. Staffed with veterans of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations plus young aides such as future senator Daniel P. Moynihan, the Harriman administration was socially progressive and fiscally cautious. It was marked by important initiatives in consumer protection, mental health, and services for the elderly, but the efforts were overshadowed by tax and budget battles between the administration and the Republican-led legislature. With the backing of former president Harry S. Truman, Harriman made a second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1956 but won little support outside his home state. Running for reelection as governor two years later, he was branded as a captive of Tammany Hall and lost to Nelson A. Rockefeller by more than half a million votes.

Harriman had naively provided the vehicle for Rockefeller to launch his political career by appointing him chairman of the Temporary State Commission on the Constitutional Convention.

Following his term as governor, Harriman served as assistant secretary of state, undersecretary of state, and special envoy for Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. His third wife, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward, with whom he had a wartime liaison while she was the daughter-in-law of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was with him when he died, four months shy of his 95th birthday.


Abramson, Rudy. Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman, 1891–1986 (New York: William Morrow, 1992)
Rudy Abramson


Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 698].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.