Kathleen Harriman Mortimer dead at 93

| 22 Feb 2012 | 04:58

Editor’s note: The following obituary was written by David Mortimer, one of Kathleen Harriman Mortimer’s sons, and provided by the Smith, Seaman & Quackenbush, Inc. Funeral Home in Monroe. Kathleen Harriman Mortimer, the younger of the two daughters of W. Averell Harriman and his first wife Kitty Lanier Lawrance, died at age 93 on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011, in her cottage at Arden, N.Y. Mrs. Mortimer grew up in town houses in New York City and estates on Long Island, Aiken, S.C., and in a 100,000-square foot house designed by Carrere & Hastings, perched at the highest point in the Ramapo River Valley with sweeping views. Commissioned by her grandfather, Union Pacific Railroad magnate Edward Henry Harriman, Arden House had a funicular, or cable railway, for taking guests and supplies up the mountain—and even the occasional horse, either for riding or a visit to the halls of the house, which happened on more than one occasion. Love for sports, but not organ music Growing up in a large house with a massive organ in a cathedral-ceilinged music room had its drawbacks. Mrs. Mortimer was made by her grandmother—the richest woman in America upon the death of her husband—to sit through endless Sunday recitals of guest organists, which put her off organ music for the rest of her life. Like her father, Mrs. Mortimer was a fearless, natural athlete: A crack shot, tennis and golf player, fisherwoman and, at the Foxcroft School, a member of the elite riding team distinguished by their Garibaldi-style lamb’s fur hats. Instead of attending one of the more traditional Seven Sisters women’s colleges, Mrs. Mortimer chose Bennington, where she was a member of its fourth graduating class. There she skied on Mount Washington before going on to become a leading racer on the East Coast as well as one of the champion women skiers at the resort of Sun Valley, Idaho, founded in 1936 by her father, as a destination for the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1940, Mrs. Mortimer was chosen as an alternate for the U.S. Olympic Ski Team, but decided to stay in college and graduate rather than train. Well into her 70s she could be seen schussing down Sun Valley runs with her friend Gretchen Fraser, the first American to win an Olympic gold medal for skiing, in 1948. Witness to history At age 23 in 1941, Mrs. Mortimer joined her father in London where he was administrator for the Lend-Lease Act and served as the principal liaison between President Roosevelt and the British government. She had only planned to stay a short time but instead became a reporter for Hearst’s International News Service and Newsweek magazine. In London she shared an apartment with Pamela Digby Churchill and turned over her paycheck to the always strapped for cash daughter-in-law of the prime minister. Thirty years later her former roommate would become her step-mother. It was in the middle of a birthday party given for her by Prime Minister Winston Churchill at his country estate Chequers on Dec. 7, 1942, that Churchill and the other guests learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. When her father was appointed Ambassador to Russia in 1943, he took his daughter, who acted as his hostess at Spaso House in Moscow, where Lillian Hellman stayed for a while in Mrs. Mortimer’s sitting room recovering from pneumonia. George F. Kennan, the senior career Foreign Service officer in Moscow, commented that blessedly Mrs. Mortimer had - very un-Harriman-like - a sense of humor. During that time, Mrs. Mortimer worked at the Office of War Information, visited hospitals, came in third in the 1943 Moscow slalom championships, acted as her father’s interpreter with her basic Russian and accompanied him everywhere meeting every important figure in Europe and Russia during World War II. In 1944 Ambassador Harriman placed his daughter in the middle of one of the most highly sensitive situations of the war - the Soviet attempt to escape blame for the massacre of the Polish Army officers when the Russian Army occupied eastern Poland. That year, along with 17 western correspondents, Mrs. Mortimer was transported by a luxurious train and then driven into the Katyn Forest where the mass graves had been opened, and the thousands of disintegrating bodies had been laid out in tents, so autopsies could be observed. Based on her and the other reporters’ notes, Germany was blamed. The Russians continued to deny responsibility for the massacre until 1990. At the beginning of 1945 Mrs. Mortimer boarded a train to Yalta two weeks in advance of the conference attended by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in order to prepare accommodations for the large American contingent at the climatic meeting of the war. She came away very skeptical about Stalin. Two months later the U.S.-Soviet relationship had disintegrated. In January, a year later, Mrs. Mortimer left Moscow with her father via the Far East where they met with Chiang Kai-shek and General George Marshall. Several months later two Russian thoroughbred stallions called Fact and Boston arrived in New York as a farewell gift to the Harrimans from Stalin. Activist with old school beliefs According to Harriman biographer Rudy Abramson: “Having been pursued through the war by journalists, diplomats, and military officers, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., Kathleen returned to New York and became engaged to Stanley G. Mortimer, Jr. who had grown up in Tuxedo Park just down the road from Arden.” Mr. Mortimer was a Standard Oil heir and advertising executive, and had been married to Barbara Cushing Paley. Mrs. Mortimer was indefatigable in campaigning for her father in his runs for political office as governor of New York State in 1954 and 1958 as well as for the candidacy for the Democratic Presidential Nomination in 1952, and again in 1956 when he was endorsed by Truman. Harriman lost, both times, to Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson. An activist, but raised with old school beliefs and finding notoriety unseemly, Mrs. Mortimer was greatly influenced by her aunt Mary Harriman Rumsey, who founded the Junior League in 1901 as a Barnard College student and mobilized 80 of her friends, including Eleanor Roosevelt, to work to improve settlement houses in New York. Mrs. Mortimer followed her aunt’s example and remained engaged throughout her life in health care, educational, public policy and philanthropic interests. She was on the board of trustees of the Visiting Nurse Service, The Harriman Institute, the Foundation for Child Development, The American Assembly, Bennington College, among other organizations, and she was president of the Mary W. Harriman Foundation. Several years ago a foundation was renamed the Mary and Kathleen Harriman Foundation in honor of Mrs. Mortimer and her sister Mary Fisk. Mrs. Mortimer remained a competitive amateur athlete all her life and seemed prouder of her three sons’ athletic achievements than anything else. She and her husband hosted spaniel field trials in Arden and she continued to exercise horses into her mid 80s. She is survived by her sons David, Jay and Averell Mortimer of New York, her stepson Stanley G. Mortimer III of Palm Beach and stepdaughter Amanda M. Burden of New York, ten grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren.