Katharine Graham, the Heroine of the Washington Post

A surprise announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post has signaled the end of a distinctive era in family publishing. The Washington Post has been owned by three generations of a single family since Eugene Meyer bought it in 1933. The Post was then only one of several scrappy newspapers in the District of Columbia, and it wasn’t until Eugene’s daughter Katharine married a very smart young journalist and entrepreneur named Philip Graham that the Washington Post began to rise above the Capitol City sludge to become a world-class newspaper. Eugene Meyer entrusted his new son-in-law to run the entire Washington Post organization. Philip Graham became a sensationally successful newspaper publisher, also establishing himself as an early multimedia visionary when he bought Newsweek magazine and a radio station.

Philip and Katharine Graham married for love — they were part of a fashionable young set in Georgetown, and had a strong relationship at first. But Philip Graham was a complicated man, prone to terrible episodes of weird manic-depressive extremes, and he seemed to resent the fact that he had only become publisher of the Post by marrying into the family. The young businessman pushed himself hard and pursued risks, alternately stumbling and flying. He became a close friend and supporter of Lyndon Baines Johnson, which gave him a distinctive position both as a newsman and as a Georgetown socialite when LBJ was elected Vice President in 1960. He fell in love with another woman, which put him in an impossible position because his marriage to Katharine Graham was his connection to his business, his life: the Washington Post/Newsweek company.

Caught in an unbreakable bind, and in the midst of a painful emotional spell, Philip Graham violently killed himself in June, 1963, just a few months before another gunshot would put his friend Lyndon Johnson in the White House. He enacted his suicide in the Graham family’s idyllic Virginia country house, as his perplexed wife relaxed nearby.

At this point, the story told in Katharine Graham’s Personal History — one of the most amazing, charming and unforgettable memoirs I’ve ever read — begins to get happier. This is a rare story where most of the tragedy (Katharine’s childhood relationship with her eccentric mother is another) happens early. After Katharine’s husband’s suicide, nobody believed the bright, prim, genteel wife of the publisher could possibly do the job herself except for one person: Katharine Graham.

Following her husband’s suicide, Katharine Graham named herself the new publisher of the Washington Post. This was an unusual step for a woman in a man’s business, and much of Personal History describes the powerful sexist barriers Katharine Graham had to knock down. She found that she was good at knocking down barriers, sexist and otherwise. In the next two decades, Katharine Graham would surprise the world and probably herself by becoming an even more legendary newspaper publisher than her husband or father had been.

This is mainly because she found herself with a hotter potato to handle than either Eugene Meyer or Philip Graham ever had in 1972, when her city beat reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began digging up odd messy stuff about the Committee to Re-Elect President Nixon. The Watergate scandal exploded, and Katharine Graham handled her key role coolly. She and editor Ben Bradlee agreed to support Woodward and Bernstein through some risky acts of reporting, and the Nixon White House began to threaten the Washington Post both directly and indirectly.

Kay Graham became a tangible symbol of the weird Watergate state of mind when Carl Bernstein reported that Nixon’s close associate John Mitchell had hissed to him during an intrusive phone call that Kay Graham would get her “tit caught in a wringer”. If John Mitchell could have read Personal History, he would have understood how tough Kay Graham was, and would not have bothered trying to frighten her.

These stories and more are told in a sparkling voice with a deep penchant for honesty in Personal History — a book that I only began reading because I am a Watergate buff, but liked far more than I ever expected to. There is no book I’d recommend more to anybody who wants to read about adventures in journalism, or about the unique insular culture of Washington D.C., the city where Graham was a regal presence until her death in 2001.

It’s her probing self-directed honesty that makes this memoir so remarkable. At one point, during a thoughtful summary of the strengths and weaknesses of her past marriage to Philip Graham, she reveals that her beloved husband never really did respect her mind. Worse, he often made fun of her for having a “limited intellect” in front of family and friends. It must have been painful for Katharine Graham to reveal something as personal as this. I guess that explains the book’s title.

For one year of my life, in 2009, I found myself working for the technology department at Slate, a Washington Post company, and I was invited often to meetings in the famed Washington Post building on 15th and L Street in Washington DC. I cherished the moments when I could walk into this building (though I didn’t always cherish the meetings of the Washington Post digital brain trust, which often consisted of a lot of huffing and puffing and very few ideas other than “let’s add a Facebook button”).

The Washington Post building always had a homey, warm mood — much more so than the New York Times or Time-Life Buildings in New York City. This may have been due to the friendly presence of several members of the Graham and Weymouth families, who were always around. It happens to be a favorite WaPo fact of mine, for anyone who’d like to know, that Tina Weymouth, bassist of the Talking Heads, is a member of the extended Graham-Weymouth family — here she is with the Tom Tom Club:

It’s been a few years since I stepped inside the Washington Post building, but I wish the legendary Washington Post well as it transitions into whatever the hell it is that Jeff Bezos plans to transition it into. What would Katharine Graham think? I don’t know, but maybe she’d think “I could do it better.”

4 Responses

  1. Great stuff! Thanks for all
    Great stuff! Thanks for all the background. Haven’t read her book but have always admired her from afar. Thanks for the first-hand in-building reports. She’s a genuine female American hero who’s often not put on those lists.

  2. So amazing. Looks like I am
    So amazing. Looks like I am off to read this myself. Thanks for the great share and suggestion.

  3. Interestingly enough, there
    Interestingly enough, there was a profile of Katherine Weymouth in the New York Times magazine this weekend. She is the granddaughter of Kay Graham and the publisher of the Washington Post. I knew that Bezos had bought the paper, but there was not mention one of a sale in the profile. Interesting. Written well before but never updated?

  4. Correction – the profile of
    Correction – the profile of Katherine Weymouth is in the Style section, not the magazine. Subconsciously I must not have wanted to admit that I read the style section. Also, Katherine Weymouth is the niece of Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads.

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