William Averell Harriman was born in New York City, one of six children of railroad baron Edward Henry Harriman [1848-1909] and his wife Mary Williamson Averell. The elder Harriman had worked his way from a $5 per week job as an office boy to the head of the Union Pacific Railroad, and left a fortune estimated at $70 to $100 million at his death. Young Averell was educated at the Groton School and Yale University, graduating in 1913. By the following year he was a vice president at the Union Pacific, but left in 1917 to start his own shipping business. In a deal that was called the biggest in the history of American shipping, Harriman's company took over the prewar trade routes of the Hamburg-American Line, making Averell one of the most powerful figures in American shipping. Averell was also active on Wall Street, where with his brother E. Roland Harriman he formed the investment house of W.A. Harriman & Company, which later merged with Brown Brothers. In 1926 Harriman ended his shipping career and returned to his heritage in railroad business, where six years later he was elected chairman of the board of Union Pacific.
In addition to his business activities Harriman held various diplomatic and government positions throughout his life. Until 1928 he was a Republican but in that year shifted his support to the Democratic party where he remained for the rest of his life. He served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1943-1946), and to Great Britain (1946). In October of 1946 he became the American Secretary of Commerce. He was an advisor to Truman on post-war foreign policy and acted as coordinator of the Marshall Plan recovery effort in Europe. When Truman withdrew from consideration for renomination for president in 1952, Harriman launched his own political career. Between 1955-1958 he was Governor of the State of New York but lost his reelection bid to Nelson A. Rockefeller. During the Kennedy administration Averell served as a foreign policy advisor to the President with the title of Ambassador at Large and, after negotiating the Geneva accords the civil war in Laos, was named Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. In 1963 he was promoted to Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and headed the American team negotiating the nuclear test bans with the Soviet Union. After Kennedy's assassination, Harriman remained with the Johnson administration, reverting at his own request to the title of Ambassador at Large. Harriman played a large role in the Vietnam problem under Johnson, who placed him in charge of the American effort to get peace talks underway. He served as chief of the United States delegation at the Paris peace talks in 1968 and was later replaced in this capacity by the Nixon administration, but remained active in foreign affairs until late in his life.
Harriman was married three times. On 21 September 1915 he married Kitty Lanier Lawrence, with whom he had two children: Mary (Mrs. Shirley C. Fisk) and Kathleen (Mrs. Stanley G. Mortimer, Jr.). This marriage ended in divorce. His second marriage, to Marie Norton Whitney, took place on 21 February 1930. Marie Harriman, who operated an art gallery in New York between 1930 and 1942, died in 1970. On 27 September 1971 Averell married Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward, the widow of Broadway producer Leland Hayward and the mother, by a previous marriage, of Winston Churchill's grandson and namesake. W. Averell Harriman died in 1986 at age 94, survived by his wife, two children, and six grandchildren.