An American Original

In the fall of 1972, Katharine Graham was, she later recalled, "feeling beleaguered." The Nixon White House was threatening to financially ruin The Washington Post Company. Graham was counting on the Post's raffish, risk-taking editor, Ben Bradlee, who called her "Mums" and teased and flirted with her. Bradlee seemed to be betting Mrs. Graham's newspaper on the reporting of a couple of then obscure, young city-desk reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who were in turn relying on anonymous sources, chiefly one named after a porn movie, "Deep Throat." No other news organization would touch the story not yet known to the world as "Watergate." After one particularly bullying call from a high White House official, Mrs. Graham decided to pay a visit to the newsroom and have a word with Bradlee.

Another, more timid publisher might have told the editor to back off. Or Mrs. Graham might have struck a pompous pose to hide her fear. Instead, she got to the point. "All I want to know," she said in her cultivated society drawl, "if this is such a great story, where the hell are the other newspapers?" Bradlee growled back, but he was inwardly cheered. "It showed me that we weren't scared of each other," he recalled last week. Graham's remark, direct but delivered slightly deadpan, was a shrewd way of at once reassuring and challenging her flamboyant editor. At a perilous moment, she was being disarming and candid and cool. In a word, confident.

Confident? Katharine Graham's insecurities were deep, wide and, toward the end of her life, well known. When her memoir, "Personal History," was published in 1997, many readers were shocked to see the so-called Most Powerful Woman in America describing herself as "a doormat wife" and "second-class citizen." Women of all ages were fascinated and touched. The book became a runaway best seller and was seen by some as a kind of postfeminist parable, the story of a downtrodden, self-doubting woman who, through slow and fitful consciousness raising, triumphed over her fears. Last week, when she died at 84 (of a brain hemorrhage after a fall), "Personal History" shot back to the top of the best-seller list.

Katharine Meyer Graham was not, by a long shot, an Everywoman. She employed a personal French chef, and NEWSWEEK correspondents, escorting her to see various world leaders, learned to make sure that the hairdresser and driver were on time. Her dinner parties for official Washington at her imposing house on R Street in Georgetown had an almost imperial air. When her mouth tightened and her eyes flashed, she could be imperious. But she was at other times vulnerable and painfully shy. Standing, a bit wobbly, at a cocktail party before a black-tie bash for Washington journalists and bigwigs a couple of years ago, the woman generally regarded as the social arbiter of the nation's capital said to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, "I hate these things. I never know what to say."

Mrs. Graham's occasional awkwardness could be off-putting and intimidating. But in a complicated human way, her weakness became a source of strength. Her sense of herself as an outsider, of not really belonging, was ultimately a key to her greatness. She often said she felt dowdy and dull next to her dashing, brilliant husband, the late Philip Graham. But she turned out to be a better journalist. Phil Graham wanted to be a player and kingmaker, not a mere publisher. When the Kennedy White House embarrassed the United States by staging a failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961, Graham crossed the line between the publisher's office and the newsroom to water down a NEWSWEEK cover story about the fiasco. The Post's publisher was a patriot, but at the same time he did not want to go too hard on his close friend President Kennedy or his buddies in the CIA. A decade later his widow showed no such deference toward the Nixon administration--and struck a blow for all time against the abuse of power.

In Mrs. Graham's doggedness, one sometimes sensed a grim determination to prove wrong the high-powered men who had once patronized her. She mocked herself as "Miss Dutiful," and she sometimes showed an eat-your-peas dourness. Yet her sense of obligation was heartfelt, not put-on or showy. Not infrequently, Post or NEWSWEEK reporters with sick children would be startled and moved to hear the chairman of the board on the phone, asking if there was anything she could do (and then doing it).

She could also be joyously--and wickedly--funny. Part of Mrs. Graham's humor was in the setup--the grande dame who has a salty tongue, the Lion Queen of the First Amendment who loved to gossip and sneak out to the movies in the afternoon with her best friend, the late Meg Greenfield, the longtime Post editorial-page editor and NEWSWEEK columnist. A Washington Post reporter recalled gingerly asking her boss's views about a high-minded but stuffy figure in the Reagan administration. "Oh," said Mrs. Graham, "I always thought he was a star f---er." After quietly watching so many powerful men show off for so many years, "she was very quick to see through the phonies and bulls----ers," said Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon. It is fitting that Mrs. Graham was at a media conference hobnobbing with Murdoch and other moguls when she died. She was no longer the only woman chief executive of a Fortune 500 company (there are now four). But she remained the only one who could evoke belly laughs while striking awe.

The slow but steady sapping of Kay Graham's confidence by her mother and husband is the stuff of good plays and bad dreams. The daughter of a wealthy banker who hid his Jewish roots, Katharine Meyer grew up in a kind of chilly grandeur. She was surrounded by governesses and private tutors but once had to make an appointment to see her mother. Agnes Meyer was a self-dramatist who fed her own ego by trampling on her daughter's. "If I said I loved 'The Three Musketeers,' she responded by saying I couldn't really appreciate it unless I had read it in French, as she had," Mrs. Graham recalled in "Personal History." Mrs. Meyer did not pay her daughter a real compliment until Mrs. Graham was a young matron preparing her own daughter's coming-out party. "Darling," she said, "you are very good with lists."

Katharine was perhaps not the pitiful little rich girl she appears to be in "Personal History." Her classmates liked her (at Vassar she was chosen for the Daisy Chain, a kind of Skull and Bones for debutantes), and she was brave enough to drink and flirt with a union boss as a labor reporter in San Francisco in the late 1930s. But her marriage to Philip Graham in 1940 stuck her back in the shade. A Florida poor boy who had become editor of the Harvard Law Review and a law clerk to Justice Felix Frankfurter, Graham gave off a blinding light. Katharine called Phil "the fizz in our lives" who "liberated" her and gave her "laughter, gaiety, irreverence for rules, and originality." But he called her "Porky" when she put on a little weight and colluded with his mother-in-law to keep her down. "We're having an intellectual discussion, dear," Agnes scolded when Kay interrupted her with Phil. "I increasingly saw my role as the tail to his kite," Katharine later lamented. While Phil built up The Washington Post--given to him by Katharine's father--and bought TV stations and NEWSWEEK, Katharine slid into silent self-doubt--and growing fearfulness. As early as her engagement, she had noticed a "frightening" side to Phil. At a dance he had become "more than ordinarily drunk--there was a sort of out-of-hand, frenzied quality to him." In fact, he was manic- depressive, and in time the highs became briefer and the lows deeper, until, one summer's day in 1963, he shot himself.

His wife found him. Stunned, alone, "abysmally ignorant" about the publishing business, Katharine at first wanted to hang on to The Washington Post Company only long enough to pass it on to her son Donald, then a student at Harvard. She was so unsure of herself around the Post's employees that she spent hours practicing saying "Merry Christmas" just to get through the holiday office party. The men who ran the Post and NEWSWEEK by and large condescended to her, and, though she resented the treatment, she didn't fundamentally question it. Women didn't belong at the top of a news organization, she told Women's Wear Daily in 1969. After NEWSWEEK was sued for sexual discrimination in 1970, Mrs. Graham asked her male colleagues, "Which side am I supposed to be on?" But when they scolded her for not being serious about the legal challenge, she meekly played along and defended management.

And yet, slowly and uncertainly, she was coming into her own. For many years, the custom at Washington dinner parties was for the women to retire after dinner so the men could drink their brandy and discuss important matters. One evening at the home of columnist Joe Alsop, Mrs. Graham realized that she knew as much as or more than the men sitting around the table about the affairs of state. She rebelled, though discreetly: she told her host that she didn't mind an early evening and wanted to go home to read. Alsop got the message. That was the last time Kay Graham was asked to "join the ladies." In the nation's capital, the custom itself quickly withered away.

Without perhaps quite realizing it, she was learning how to stand up, even to presidents. Lyndon Johnson invited Kay to his Texas ranch to ride in his speedboat and drive too fast in his car. But when he groused about Lady Bird, Kay interjected, "She got you where you are today." That really set LBJ off, and "he went on blaming her and complaining," Mrs. Graham recalled, "until I finally heard myself saying, 'Oh, shut up, er... Mr. President'." She was "acutely embarrassed," but LBJ was at least briefly silenced. In official Washington in the '60s, Mrs. Graham recalled, bright men "liked other bright men and they liked girls," but they didn't have much interest in "middle-aged women." Yet in New York in 1966, society gadfly Truman Capote built a glamorous masked ball around her. She couldn't quite believe it. A hairdresser remarked how busy she was with hairdos for the Black and White Ball and asked Mrs. Graham, "Have you heard about it?" "Yes," she replied. "It seems funny, but I'm the guest of honor." Surrounded by "sophisticated beauties" at the ball, "my very best still looked like an orphan," she recalled. But she was launched: from now on, her guest list was by definition the A list.

The smartest move she made in the '60s was to hire Ben Bradlee as her managing editor at the Post. With his sharp good looks and brio, Bradlee reminded her more than a little of the late Phil, but Bradlee was steadier and, beneath his gruffness, much sweeter. Editor and publisher seemed to spar at times, but usually playfully. When Kay's stuffier friends squawked over the Post's irreverent and saucy new Style section and she complained, Bradlee told Mrs. Graham, "Get your f---ing finger out of my eye." She did, and backed him up when society matrons--or presidential aides--called to fuss.

Her faith in Bradlee was rewarded in the two great tests of the paper (and American journalism), the Pentagon Papers case and Watergate. Bradlee was determined to catch up to The New York Times, the pre-eminent paper in the country. In June 1971, when the Times was stopped by a federal judge from publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government's secret history of its involvement in the Vietnam War, Bradlee saw his chance. The Post had obtained its own purloined set of papers, and Bradlee wanted to rush them into print. The businessmen who ran the Post were extremely wary. The Post Company was about to sell its stock publicly for the first time. A criminal indictment would be financially disastrous. With a deadline fast approaching, Mrs. Graham sat on a sofa at a dinner party as her business advisers urged her to wait and Bradlee pressed her to say yes. "Frightened and tense," she later wrote, "I took a big gulp and said, 'Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let's go. Let's publish'." She gambled and won: the courts ruled for the Post, and as Bradlee later said, readers began to speak of the Post and the Times "in the same breath."

The Pentagon Papers was a warm-up for the main event. It is hard, so many years after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, to realize how lonely and risky it felt in the Post newsroom in the early days of Watergate. A story aimed at Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, elicited an almost primal scream from the nation's chief law-enforcement officer. The "boys"--Woodward and Bernstein--had learned that Mitchell controlled a secret fund used for the mysterious break-in at Democratic headquarters that June of 1972. Called for his comment, Mitchell erupted, "Jeeeesus! If you print that, Katie Graham will get her tit caught in a big fat wringer." Bernstein passed on the outburst to Bradlee, who said, "Run the whole quote except the word 'tit'." The next day, Mrs. Graham appeared in the newsroom beside Bernstein's desk. "Carl," she asked, "do you have any more messages for me?"

She did not always feel so insouciant. Nixon was threatening to strip the Post of broadcast licenses for its TV stations. The company's stock lost half its value. There were vague but menacing threats. "Who is Deep Throat?" Mrs. Graham asked Woodward at one point during the siege. The young reporter blanched. He was about to speak when she put her hand on his arm and said, "No, don't tell me. I don't want to carry that burden." Yet when federal prosecutors threatened to subpoena a Post reporter's notes on the alleged bribery of Vice President Spiro Agnew, Mrs. Graham took them for safekeeping--figuring, or at least hoping, that no judge would dare throw her in jail.

She became a national hero instead. After the Post won a Pulitzer and Robert Redford made a movie of Woodward and Bernstein's "All the President's Men," she wasn't above a bit of tongue-in-cheek gloating. A California dentist sent her a tiny gold hand clothes wringer as a charm, and humorist Art Buchwald gave her a tiny gold breast to go with it. She proudly wore both until someone threatened to tell a gossip columnist.

There were more struggles ahead. During a violent strike by the Post's pressmen in 1975, Mrs. Graham worked around the clock, taking ads over the phone and walking past picketers who spat and held up signs saying, Phil shot the wrong Graham. But the paper survived and the company grew into a $2.4 billion media empire. Mrs. Graham was careful to make sure it remained in family hands. The Grahams have remained close-knit and productive: eldest son Donald is the Post Company's CEO, daughter Lally Weymouth is a NEWSWEEK contributing editor and a Washington Post columnist, while son William is an investor on the West Coast and her youngest, Stephen, is a theatrical producer and doctoral candidate.

During the '80s and '90s, Graham was able to balance genuine friendships with high officials and their wives--Nancy Reagan was a frequent lunch partner--and her role as an icon of the increasingly restive and adversarial press. Mrs. Graham's house in Georgetown became a combination salon and summit, a neutral ground for pundits and working reporters and the officials they covered. "You had to be invited to Kay Graham's to know you had arrived--and that included presidents," said former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. At Mrs. Graham's 70th-birthday party in 1987, the toasts were given by President Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger (her frequent houseguest on Martha's Vineyard) and Secretary of State George Shultz (her weekly tennis partner). "There is one word that brings us all together here tonight," joked Buchwald. "And that word is fear."

When George W. Bush came to Washington last winter as the 43d president, one of his first acts, arranged through a go-between, was to get himself invited to Mrs. Graham's for dinner. Characteristically, she gathered 100 of the most powerful business and media leaders in America, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. When Bush arrived, she ushered him around, careful to make sure that the president was never "trapped" for too long with a boring guest. An old friend observed how nervous she had been that everything go right, how she fretted all day long over the smallest details.

The most celebrated hostess in America never got over her social anxiety. But her friends thought that she had obtained a measure of peace in her last few years, especially after the publication of "Personal History." The reviewers gushed: her literary skills, they testified, exceeded those of any of the "professionals" on her payroll. The book went straight to No. 1 on the best-seller list and stayed there. Bantering as usual with Ben Bradlee, she would inquire about the sales of his memoir, "A Good Life." He'd answer, and she would say, triumphantly, "Well, I've sold more!" The success surprised and pleased her, especially when she won the Pulitzer Prize. "Now do you believe you've written a good book?" her pal Meg Greenfield wryly asked as they stood in the cheering Post newsroom. She did, and she may have even realized why. "Personal History" will live on long after the memoirs of most statesmen because it is honest. It is hard to imagine a powerful man, especially one who worked all his life in Washington, displaying such self-knowledge. From it, she found true power.

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