How a 27-Year-Old Heiress Helped Shape the Post-WWII World

On Kathleen Harriman's Days at Yalta

In the winter of 1945, Livadia Palace, its once snow-white façade now covered in grime, stood empty on its perch above the Black Sea. The furniture and priceless art were long gone. Sinks, toilets, and lamps had been ripped from their fittings and pulled from the walls. The Nazis had stolen everything, even the brass doorknobs.

Situated less than three miles down the coast from the resort town of Yalta, on the southern tip of the Crimean Peninsula, this palace had once been the summer home of the tsar and tsarina, Nicholas II and Alexandra. They had torn down the old Livadia Palace where Alexander III had died and replaced it with a new 116-room imperial retreat better suited to family life. The Mediterranean climate and black pebble beaches offered the tsar, tsarina, and their five children a respite from the humidity and opulence of Saint Petersburg. Palms and cypress trees filled the lush gardens surrounding the neo-Renaissance Italianate palace constructed from white Crimean stone. The tsar and his children bathed in the sea, played tennis, and rode horses over rocky trails while the tsarina sold her needlework at the bazaar, to raise funds for the local hospital. But amid the relative simplicity, there remained splendor. In the white ballroom, where French doors opened onto a courtyard, the tsar’s eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Olga, celebrated her sixteenth birthday with a grand soiree. She swirled through the night in her pink gown, her hair swept high on her head for the first time, while her first jewels—a necklace made of thirty-two diamonds and pearls—sparkled in the chandeliers’ light.

The tsar and his family visited Livadia only four times before they were murdered, in 1918, in a basement outside the city of Yekaterinburg. This brutality marked the end of the Romanov dynasty and imperial Russia. The Bolsheviks soon transformed the palace into a sanatorium for favored Soviet workers needing rest, quiet, and treatment for tuberculosis. The comrades sterilized the gleaming white palace and removed or covered all signs of the Romanov family, just as they tore down monuments to royalty across Russia, replacing them with monuments to themselves. Then came the war, the second in a quarter century.

In 1942, the Nazis overran the Crimea after a months-long onslaught of the nearby port city of Sevastopol, part of the grisly and ultimately ill-fated Operation Barbarossa, when the Nazis broke their non-aggression pact with the Soviets and charged east across the steppe. Only the tsar’s summer palace would do for the Nazis’ Crimean headquarters, so the invaders commandeered Livadia. In the spring of 1944, the Soviets finally reclaimed the Crimea and pushed the Nazis out, but not before the retreating enemy plundered Livadia Palace, taking everything they could carry.

It was here, in this despoiled palace in February 1945, that Kathleen Harriman, the glamorous, 27-year-old daughter of the fourth-richest man in America, now stood. Thousands of workers crowded the palace and the gardens, sawing, hammering, painting, fumigating, polishing, and planting, not to mention installing much-needed plumbing. Cots had been set up for the conscripted laborers and the Romanian POWs the Soviets had brought in to clear the area of the wreckage the war had left behind, but there were still hardly enough places to sleep for everyone toiling away across the once imperial grounds.

Kathy and her father, W. Averell Harriman, the United States ambassador to the Soviet Union, had arrived several days earlier from Moscow, where they had lived for the past fifteen months. They had intended to fly, as they had little more than ten days to oversee final preparations for one of the most crucial conferences of the war, but bad weather had kept them grounded. In the end, their eight-hundred-mile journey by train had taken nearly three days as they crawled past the bombed-out villages and trampled countryside to which Kathy had grown accustomed over these past months. Every train station she saw was in ruins. “The needless destruction is something appalling,” Kathy wrote to her childhood governess and friend, Elsie Marshall, nicknamed “Mouche,” back in New York. (Whether or not this observation would make it to Mouche was up to the censor.) To her older sister, Mary, she wrote, “My God but this country has a job on its hands—just cleaning up.”

Though the war was by no means won, by late 1944, British and American forces had liberated Rome, Paris, Brussels, and Athens from German and Italian occupation, while the Red Army marched westward across Poland and Romania. Notwithstanding the surprising and remarkably forceful counteroffensive of the Wehrmacht, Germany’s combined fighting forces, in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg that December, which threatened to break through the western line in the bitterly cold Ardennes Forest, it was evident that the Allies had gained the upper hand. The war in the Pacific was far from over—American generals estimated it might last another eighteen months unless a secret, untested weapon could be finished in time, which might change everything. But the British prime minister, Winston Churchill; the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt; and the Soviet general secretary, Joseph Stalin, realized they had reached a critical juncture in Europe. As their armies raced to Berlin, the three leaders were facing complicated questions about the end of the war on the continent, questions they could resolve only face to face.

It was not the first time they had called such a meeting. In late November 1943, the “Big Three,” as they were known, had conferred in Tehran to lay the foundations for the long-awaited second front, which they launched just seven months later, on the beaches of Normandy. At the time, in an effort to appeal to Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had generously made the arduous journey to Tehran, a location significantly closer to Moscow than to London or Washington. Now it was only fair that Stalin should come to them. The western leaders proposed holding the conference in the Mediterranean, but Stalin claimed his health was too fragile to leave the Soviet Union. On the advice of his doctors, he refused to consider any location beyond his own country’s borders. Churchill and especially Roosevelt believed they needed Soviet cooperation to guarantee victory in the Pacific and the success of Roosevelt’s newly imagined organization to secure world peace, as well as Stalin’s long-term commitment to ensure political self-determination for recently liberated nations such as Poland. The two had more to lose in their vision of a democratic postwar world than did Stalin, whose Red Army unambiguously controlled Eastern Europe. Roosevelt quietly directed Averell Harriman to acquiesce to Stalin’s request without much haggling—to confirm that he and Churchill would come to the Soviet Union before Churchill could raise any further objections.

The Soviets had just three weeks to turn the ransacked villas into a site fit for one of the largest and most important international summits in history.

The Black Sea coast was as far west as Stalin was willing to travel, and the string of resort towns along the southern coast of the Crimea, a stretch nicknamed the “Romanov Route” for the number of residences that once belonged to the imperial family and their aristocratic friends, still held a certain allure among high-ranking comrades. Though the Soviets decried the corruption of the imperialist age, they apparently had no moral qualms about using these luxurious palaces themselves. After assessing various locations around the Black Sea, from Odessa to Batum, the Soviets and the Americans deemed Yalta and Livadia Palace the best of several options; the other choices were too damaged by war to accommodate large delegations or were less accessible by ship or plane. Harriman and the American embassy in Moscow begrudgingly agreed, even though, as Churchill underscored, the Black Sea was still littered with mines, making it impossible for the leaders to risk traveling to Yalta by ship—though some of their support staff would have to do so. By the New Year of 1945, it was decided: Roosevelt and Churchill would rendezvous on the island of Malta, sixty miles off the southern tip of Italy, and fly the remaining distance to the Crimea to meet Stalin at the former tsar’s summer palace.

Though Livadia was an imperial residence, it was smaller than the 100,000-square-foot mansion in the Hudson River Valley where Kathy Harriman had grown up. It was also too small to house all three of the delegations, which seemed to swell exponentially with every passing day. Playing the genial, accommodating host, Stalin had graciously offered Livadia to President Roosevelt. As the largest palace of the several nearby, its ballroom was perfectly suited to hosting the formal meetings of the Big Three and their advisers, and, given that Roosevelt was paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, Stalin thought the president would be most comfortable if he did not have to travel to the conference sessions each day. Meanwhile, Churchill and his party were to be accommodated at Vorontsov Palace, another Russian aristocrat’s home the Soviets had nationalized, which was a thirty-minute drive down the road.

Stalin opted for a slightly smaller estate nearby referred to as both the Koriez Villa and Yusupov Palace, which was conveniently situated between the American and British residences. Vorontsov Palace and the Koriez Villa were in a much better state of repair than was Livadia, though a certain uncomfortable aura surrounded Stalin’s chosen abode. It had once belonged to the man who, according to rumor, had murdered Rasputin, the mystic (or charlatan, depending on one’s perspective) and adviser to Tsarina Alexandra, whose unsavory influence over the Romanovs had hastened their decline. Whether the inscrutable Stalin intended to send a message of some sort—of either intimidation or dark humor—in his selection of this particular villa, or if he simply found it to be the most comfortable, remained a mystery.

Once it was decided that the three leaders would gather at Yalta, the Soviets had just three weeks to turn the ransacked villas into a site fit for one of the largest and most important international summits in history. Lavrentiy Beria, the forbidding head of the Narodny komissariat vnutrennikh del—the dreaded NKVD, the Soviet Union’s secret police—and the man Stalin could always rely on to execute his most unpleasant tasks, took charge of the preparations. This encompassed overseeing everything from structural repairs to the transport of provisions to the removal of any “undesirable elements” from the surrounding area—including 835 supposed anti-Soviet individuals discovered over the course of the 74,000 security checks the NKVD had conducted within twenty kilometers of Yalta. Ambassador Harriman was to arrive approximately ten days before the conference to see that the improvements were up to American standards and to ensure that the logistical and protocol-related matters were in order, so that no problem, no matter how small, could hamper the progress of diplomacy.

Realizing that her father would never have time to master the language while also performing his ambassadorial duties in Moscow, Kathy had decided to learn Russian for both of them.

In theory, Averell Harriman was responsible for the conference’s final arrangements, but in reality, that was not exactly the case. Averell never passed up the chance to be at the center of the day’s action. In early 1941, isolationism still ran rampant in the United States and the nation remained neutral. Roosevelt had been eager to support the fight against the Nazis but could do so only while maintaining a position of neutrality. Thinking creatively, he discovered a loophole that accomplished his objectives, and the Lend-Lease program was born: the United States would provide Britain and its allies with food, fuel, ships, airplanes, ammunition, and other war materiel that Britain would theoretically return after the war. When Roosevelt named Averell the Lend-Lease envoy in February 1941, he moved to London without a moment’s hesitation to take up the post, despite the fact that the Blitz raged on. But after the United States entered the war, the action shifted east, and Averell was eager to follow it. Roosevelt offered him the position of ambassador to the Kremlin in the autumn of 1943, and he left London for Moscow without delay.

This time was no different. Three days after Averell and Kathy arrived in the Crimea, he flew off to Malta to meet Churchill and Roosevelt, eager to take part in any important pre-conference developments. Meanwhile, Averell left his daughter in Yalta to carry out the rest of the preparations at Livadia over the week that remained before the delegates arrived.

While surprising at first glance, it actually made perfect sense for Kathy to supervise this work. She spoke Russian; Averell did not. Realizing that her father would never have time to master the language while also performing his ambassadorial duties in Moscow, Kathy had decided to learn Russian for both of them. As soon as they arrived in Moscow, where she was to serve as the official hostess of Spaso House, the residence of the American ambassador, Kathy hired a tutor. The small number of English-speaking Russian tutors in Moscow were already engaged, so she had to employ a French-speaking tutor and translate from Russian to French to English. Kathy practiced her Russian at every opportunity, listening intently during productions at the renowned Bolshoi and Maly theaters and mumbling Russian phrases to herself as she walked down the street. Sometimes the locals gawked at her, but, as she told her sister, Mary, they tended to stare at her anyway because of her fur coat and silk stockings, scarce luxuries few in Moscow could afford. Her Russian was hardly perfect, but she spoke well enough to act as her father’s interpreter at social gatherings. Now she took on the task of communicating with the Russian sentries, bureaucrats, and laborers in the melee at Livadia. Even if she struggled occasionally, she hoped the Russians would forgive her, just as she forgave them as they struggled to properly pronounce her name. The formal word for “mister” in Russian was Gospodin, so the Russians addressed her as “Gospodina Harriman.” Many, however, found it impossible to produce the “H” in Harriman, so “Miss Harriman” came out sounding something like “Gaspadeena Garriman,” which reminded Kathy of the sound made by “an old man clearing his throat early in the morning.”

It was not the first time Averell—always Averell or Ave, never Father or Daddy—had left Kathy to fend for herself in a remote place. During her four years at Bennington College in Vermont, Kathy spent her winter vacations at Sun Valley, Averell’s ski resort in Idaho. It was the first of its kind in the United States. When Americans caught the ski craze following the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, Averell realized that an enormous opportunity lay before him. As chairman of Union Pacific Railroad, he was looking to increase business on western railroad lines. People needed a reason to go west, and a glamorous ski destination rivaling the Alpine resorts of Europe would be just the thing. A “seaside ranch in the mountains,” as it was billed, Sun Valley was an instant success—especially after Averell directed his engineers to invent and install the world’s first chairlift. Sun Valley quickly became as much a home to Kathy as the Harrimans’ city residence in Manhattan or their country estate, Arden House, in the Hudson River Valley. Kathy’s parents had divorced when she was ten, and her mother, Kitty, had died of cancer when Kathy was just seventeen. Averell had remarried in 1930, to Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney’s ex-wife, Marie Norton, and Marie naturally assumed the role of mistress of Arden. Though Kathy and her stepmother were on good terms and Arden House was surrounded by glorious grounds for riding and shooting, two of Kathy’s most serious pursuits, Sun Valley was the place that truly connected Kathy with her father.

While Averell chased across the world, attending to his various endeavors, first in business, then increasingly in government, he left Kathy as his deputy for weeks at a time to assist with the day-to-day operations of the resort: assessing slope conditions, seeing to publicity, and looking after celebrity guests such as Ernest Hemingway, who soon called Sun Valley home. She even performed the occasional bit of reconnaissance on rival resorts, which had begun to spring up in the west. Though the family was remarkably wealthy, the Harrimans were not ostentatious and held something of a Spartan attitude. Kathy had attended the Foxcroft School, a boarding school in Virginia known for its fox hunts, its multi-day horseback expeditions to the Luray Caverns, and its requirement that its girls sleep on unheated outdoor porches every night, regardless of the weather. Embracing a life among the elements, at Sun Valley, Kathy quickly developed a passion for skiing. Before her father had chairlifts installed, she often made the five-hour trek up a mountainside—fashionably clad in a monogrammed jacket and cashmere sweater, her skis encased in sealskins—all for one run down the untouched Idaho powder. Her friends and family started calling her “Puff” for the sound of her ragged breaths at high altitude, as, unyielding, she trudged higher and higher. But the precious weeks Kathy spent at Sun Valley meant so much more than athletic thrills. They served as a proving ground for a daughter determined to show herself worthy of standing at her father’s side as an equal.

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daughters of yalta

Excerpted from The Daughters of Yalta: The Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War by Catherine Grace Katz. Copyright © 2020 by Catherine Grace Katz. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Catherine Grace Katz
Catherine Grace Katz is the author of The Daughters of Yalta: The Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War, which will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on September 29.





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