The Making of a Publisher

On the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham

Context clues: In 1997, Katharine Graham, having recently completed an extraordinary tenure as publisher of the Washington Post, wrote a memoir called Personal History; the following year, the book won a Pulitzer Prize. The following report appeared in the May/June 1997 issue.

In the interest of full disclosure, it must be noted at the outset that in the course of her number-one best-selling memoir Katharine Graham makes a passing reference to “the fucking Columbia Journalism Review.” The inspiration for that sentiment, expressed by the great lady publisher of The Washington Post in her annual letter to executive editor Ben Bradlee at the end of the momentous year of 1974, is not entirely clear, but it seems to have had something to do with a vague anticipation of unwelcome articles in the aftermath of the stunning climax to the paper’s coverage of the Watergate affair.

Other publications, in particular The New Republic and The Washington Monthly, get slammed more specifically for their “demonstrably wrong” and “outrageous” pieces on her handling of the long and painful pressmen’s strike in the mid-1970s. A similar fate befalls the renowned Ben Bagdikian, a national editor for the Post who, since leaving the paper, Graham explains to her readers, has “made a cottage industry of criticizing us.” Never mind that Bagdikian had been a prime mover in helping the paper catch up to The New York Times on the Pentagon Papers story—an achievement that finally managed, as Graham quotes Bradlee as saying elsewhere in the book, “to get the world to refer to the Post and The New York Times in the same breath.” Having had the bad judgment to write the offending Washington Monthly piece, Bagdikian, KG observes in a memo to BB, is now an “ignorant biased fool.”

Clearly, Graham, who turns eighty in June, does not suffer critics gladly. And fortunately—at least as far as her book is concerned—she doesn’t have to. The reviews have been universally favorable, the book-tour profiles flattering, the talk-show interviews fawning. No wonder. Everyone’s a sucker for transformation stories, and the makeover of an insecure, dowdy, poor little rich girl into The Most Powerful Woman in America, framed within the parallel tale of how a puny third-rate daily changed into a fearsome giant, is not to be resisted—certainly not by news junkies like you and me.

What becomes this legend most—and what appeals most to reviewers—is Graham’s confession of inadequacy, the deeply rooted belief that she could not quite measure up, planted by Agnes Meyer, her egocentric, hard-drinking, depressive, demoralizing mother, and cultivated by Philip Graham, her egocentric, hard-drinking, depressive, demoralizing husband, to whom Katharine’s father, the fabulously successful entrepreneur Eugene Meyer, handed the paper on a silver platter a few years after their marriage. True, the family portraits were by Steichen and the birthday music was by Serkin and the childhood camping trips were accompanied by seventeen pack horses and a staff of five. But there was also what she still remembers bitterly as the “first lavish compliment” her mother ever paid her, bestowed when the grown-up Katharine was planning a coming-out party for her own daughter Lally: “Darling, you are very good with lists.”

And true, there were breakfasts with Felix Frankfurter and parties with the Alsops and Restons, trips to the ranch with Lady Bird and Lyndon and picnics with Jackie and Jack; there was even laughter and love between Kay and Phil—Phil, who “was the fizz in our lives.” But there were also his demeaning jokes at her expense, the conspiratorial put-downs by Agnes and Phil, his inhibiting stares when she ventured an opinion, and that cruelly amusing gift, the head of a pig, a sign from a French butcher-shop: his reminder to the mother of his four young children that she should watch her weight. Afraid of being boring, eager to please, Katharine soon became, by her own account, a “second-class citizen,” a “doormat wife,” “the drudge” who “liked to be dominated” by the “brilliant, charismatic, fascinating” Phil—in short, the most unlikely person in the world to succeed him as publisher of the increasingly influential Washington Post.

If low self-esteem combined with high achievement—a paradoxical condition not unheard of in the twentieth-century American female—is an accurate headline here, it is also misleadingly incomplete. Even before her husband’s suicide in 1963, Katharine had begun to show her stronger stuff. When he announced his intention to divorce her and marry an Australian Newsweek reporter (not the first of his affairs) and to buy out Katharine’s 49 percent of the company’s stock—the majority had been given by Eugene to his son-in-law because “no man should be in the position of working for his wife”—Katharine vowed to fight him for control. “I was not going to lose my husband and the paper,” she writes. “My intention to dig in was total.”


The contest was settled, of course, by Philip Graham’s death. Still, had he lived to fight for the paper they both cared about so much, the smart money would have been on Kay. That she moved in fast—instinctively rejecting advice that she assume the title of president but leave the role of chairman to someone else—was not really so astonishing. After all, she was the daughter not only of Agnes, but also of Eugene.

From the moment of her inauspicious introduction to the paper in 1933—home for the summer from Madeira and puzzled by a chance remark, she was breezily told by her mother, “Oh darling, didn’t anyone tell you? Dad has bought the Post”—it was the centerpiece of her life. It became at once an intense and unwavering bond between father and daughter, the subject of what she describes as a “constant conversation over the years about newspapers in general and the Post in particular.” In one of their many cross-country correspondences, Eugene wrote to his young daughter, “You ought to be in on the job of putting it to the top.” Katharine wrestled with that possibility in a letter to her sister Bis:

Putting aside an unanswerable question at this time, my ability to be a good reporter, which is a gift given by God to a very few, I mean GOOD reporter, the fact remains that what I am most interested in doing is labor reporting, possibly working up to political reporting later. As you can see, that is no help to Dad. He wants and needs someone who is willing to go through the whole mill, from reporting, to circulation management and problems, to editorial writing, and eventually to be his assistant.

This presents the payoff in problems. . . . One, I detest beyond description advertising and circulation. Two, there is a question of point of view. . . . And three, I doubt my ability to carry a load like The Washington Post. . . . From Dad’s point of view, I think it would mean something, such as companionship, a living connection with the next generation, and the knowledge that all that he was slaving to build was not going to stop with him . . .

It was 1937. She was all of twenty years old.


Meanwhile, she was learning to be a journalist. At a summer job on the Mount Vernon Argus in suburban New York, she wrote a bylined story on women doctors (“Quite professional,” judged Eugene). At Vassar, she worked on the Miscellany News; later, as a student at the University of Chicago, she helped a stringer for the Daily News cover a strike at Republic Steel. A fan of “Terry and the Pirates,” she proudly persuaded Eugene to pick it up for the Post. After college, there was a job at Scripps Howard’s San Francisco News, where her assignments included the Warehousemen’s Union (and where she got involved quite unprofessionally, she realizes now, with the union’s very attractive negotiator).

In 1939, it was back to the Post, to write light editorials and handle letters to the editor. During the early days of her marriage, while Phil was in the army and planning a career in law, she kept her hand in, writing stories and helping Eugene with the off-the-record stag dinners that brought the paper’s editors and reporters together with administration bigwigs and visiting dignitaries.

On a special assignment from her father, she compared a number of papers for ideas and newsplay, adding to his list on her own initiative PM and The New York Times. In 1947, shortly after Eugene appointed her husband publisher, she began an eight-year run as the writer of a weekly column on magazines. A stint in the paper’s circulation department taught her how to handle “enraged subscribers.” She was closely involved with developments on the business side. She accompanied her husband everywhere, and when the acquisitions were being made—the broadcast stations, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times–Washington Post News Service—she was in on them. Here is her account of a “supreme moment in the history of The Washington Post Company”—the day in 1954 that the family achieved its long-sought goal of acquiring the rival Washington Times-Herald from Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune Company:

We were in Phil’s office waiting for news. . . . We all took turns talking to keep the line occupied. At last the board approved the deal, the check was delivered, and Colonel McCormick signed the agreement of sale. . . . We were terribly moved, and excited beyond all imagining. We now had the morning field in Washington to ourselves. . . . Daily circulation jumped immediately. That afternoon and evening, however, before we hit the streets with our combined papers, were a real challenge. We were running a more-than-double press run of a larger paper. Combining news and editorial was difficult, since we had two very opposite cultures to meld. We started that night by running two equal sized names on the masthead. The perception Phil and I shared was right. . . . This was the best short route to the future. At last we could believe that the Post was here to stay.


In truth, Katharine Graham knew more about running the paper—both sides of the paper—than Eugene and Phil put together when they first took the job. And, all the “quaking in my boots” notwithstanding, when crucial decisions needed to be made—to hire or to fire, to buy or to sell, to publish or not—she made them. Whether Phil would have decided those critical matters in quite the same way, whether journalism and politics would have come to intersect at quite the same place and time, are obviously unanswerable questions, though the record suggests that the answer is no.

Politically, Katharine and Phil had already diverged in 1952, when Phil, with his usual unbridled passion, threw the entire weight of the paper behind Eisenhower, while Katharine was “swept away with excitement by Stevenson.” Professionally, they played by different rules. Time and again, in recounting Phil’s actions as publisher—working feverishly to persuade Kennedy to pick Johnson as his running mate; convening a private meeting at which Phil and Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter managed to persuade civil-rights activist Joe Rauh to postpone the drive for school desegregation in favor of the more immediately attainable goal of voting rights; arranging a dinner for Senator John F. Kennedy to “sell himself” to New York Times publisher Orville Dryfoos and Washington bureau chief Scotty Reston; recommending presidential appointments to JFK; burying a story about a summer riot in Washington in exchange for a private promise of integrated community swimming pools from Truman’s top advisers—Katharine feels obliged to point out that while such close relationships between newspapers and government were usual, even common, in those days, they are unquestionably out of bounds now.

“I was not going to lose my husband and the paper. My intention to dig in was total.”

Philosophically, Phil viewed the paper as a means to a political end; Katharine was guided by Eugene’s conviction that “the American people could be relied upon to do the right thing when they know the facts.” They differed, too, in basic loyalties. Alone in their room after a late-night drinking session with Johnson, during which the senator from Texas had expressed in no uncertain terms his contempt for journalists—“You can buy any one of them with a bottle of whiskey,” the future president had said—Katharine rebuked her husband for letting him get away with it.

Indeed, when all is said and done—after the talks with Adlai and the walks with McNamara and the dances at Truman Capote’s grand masked ball; after the tragedy and comedy, the gossip and glamour, the humiliations and heroics—what lingers longest is the echo of that straight appraisal of herself half a century ago: “I wanted to be a journalist and my father had a newspaper.” One closes the book marveling anew at the forces that shape our history, and that made this woman one of them.

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Gloria Cooper was CJR’s deputy executive editor. For three decades, she wrote the magazine’s “Darts & Laurels” column.

TOP IMAGE: Katharine Graham; Photo by Juergen Frank/Corbis via Getty Images