Graham, Katherine

views updated

Graham, Katherine

Washington Post


Katherine Myers Graham is world renowned for her leadership, particularly during her 10 year reign as publisher of the internationally acclaimed Washington Post. During that time, Graham won a United States Supreme Court decision to publish excerpts from the United States government's classified Pentagon study, known as "The Pentagon Papers." She also supported investigative reporting of Watergate, resulting in the resignation of then U.S. President Richard Nixon.

Personal Life

Katherine Myers was born on June 16, 1917 into a prominent New York City multi-millionaire family of Jewish and German decent. Her father, Eugene Meyer, was a banker who purchased the newspaper, Washington Post as a hobby and mother, Agnes (Ernst) Meyer was an author and philanthropist. Katherine's education included the elite Madiera School in Greenway, Virginia, where she continued her growing interest in journalism by working on the school paper. Her higher education included a year at Vassar College. There she became uninspired with the traditional education she perceived she was getting and transferred to the University of Chicago, considered radical in the 1930s. During summer vacations, Katherine worked at the Post, but after she received her BA in history, she moved to California and worked as a waterfront reporter for the San Francisco News. She covered a strike on the waterfront, which would later serve as a valuable learning experience. A year later, Katherine followed through on her father's suggestion to return to Washington, where she became part of the editorial staff on the Washington Post. Earning twenty-five dollars a week, she handled the "Letters to the Editor" department and also wrote some 100 editorials.

In 1939, Katherine met the love of her life, Philip Graham. Philip, two years Katherine's junior, was not a stranger to poverty. His family struggled until they achieved a more prosperous lifestyle. His father, Ernest Graham, became a successful dairy farmer, later winning a seat in the Florida state senate. His mother, Florence, was a former school teacher who instilled the love of learning in Philip, encouraging reading throughout his upbringing, while he gained insight into politics from his father. Bright, eager, and with an unaffected, easy-going manner, Philip did extremely well at the University of Florida and went on to Harvard Law School. Because of his intelligence, he was able to become a law clerk, first to Supreme Court justice Stanley Reed and then to Felix Frankfurter. Katherine met him at a party where the aggressive and funny Philip immediately got the attention of the more subdued Katherine. The Dictionary of Literary Biography reported that he told her, "He was going to marry her, and did not want her father's money." Instead, they would ". . . move to Florida. He would go into politics and they would be so poor she would have only two dresses." The couple was married on June 5, 1940.

Traditionally, particularly in 1940, a woman was conditioned to believe that her role was to marry, stay at home, and raise a family. Because of Katherine's wealthy upbringing, she had never learned to cook, but persevered, determined to be a model wife. She willingly deferred to her husband while he encouraged her to retain her job at the Post. At the same time, Katherine's father, Eugene, encouraged Philip to consider taking over the Washington Post. But when World War II broke out, Philip enlisted. Although Philip's dream was to have a career in politics, he agreed to his father-in-law's offer before he went overseas. Meanwhile, Katherine's father continually ignored his own daughter's interest in the paper. After distinguishing himself in the US Army, where he was awarded the Legion of Merit for decoding Japanese military strategy and identifying bombing sites in the Philippines, Philip returned as a major. Subsequently, he became publisher of the Washington Post and he and Katherine were given 5000 shares of voting stock by her father, assuring the newspaper would remain in the family. Philip received the majority of the stock, while Katherine received the lesser share. Together the couple had four children, and Katherine settled into the role of wife and mother.

Opportunities for Philip to capitalize on his leadership skills and enhance his reputation as a dynamic publisher were plenty. He countered the McCarthy era, noted for an unwarranted anti-communism campaign that ultimately persecuted innocent people, with a scathing editorial, likening McCarthy to a Salem witch hunter. This set the tone for a more liberal newspaper and enforced and allied the Democratic Party. Overwhelmingly, Philip's outstanding successes were shadowed with a worsening illness called manic depression. Katherine valiantly tried to endure her husband's symptoms over some five years, which included promiscuity, verbal attacks, outrageous behavior, and suicidal thoughts. Medical knowledge, particularly drug therapy, was not as sophisticated then and although the best of care was provided, depressed Philip Graham committed suicide by shooting himself on August 3, 1963. In the aftermath of shock, Katherine Graham was faced with the doubly formidable task of raising four children and taking care of her family business.

Career Details

After her husband's death, Katherine Graham took control of her family's business and made changes which included replacing the former editor of the Washington Post with innovative Benjamin C. Bradlee. Because of Bradlee's reputation, new, bold, and enterprising reporting talent was attracted to the paper. This affected news coverage and gained worldwide attention. In 1971, despite a restraining order, Graham pursued publication of the famous "Pentagon Papers," revealing United States government involvement in the Vietnam War. This resulted not only in attempted governmental censorship, but a US Supreme Court decision upholding the right for the Washington Post to publish the story.

Acquiring more confident public speaking skills, Graham made the decision to change the privately owned family company, forming a public corporation which successfully encouraged and attracted investors. Stock value soared. Another opportunity to report controversy came with the 1972 investigation of a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington's Watergate complex by courageous Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. As the investigative reporting continued, illegal governmental involvement was revealed culminating in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. In 1973 a Pulitzer Prize for public service was award to the Post. Katherine made the news again in 1975 when she was faced with a 139-day pressmen strike that disabled presses. Determined to keep the press running, she hired non-union pressmen. Graham turned the title of publisher over to her son, Donald, in 1979, but remained an enthusiastic advisor and consultant on all aspects of the corporation. At 81 years of age, she authored a best selling autobiography titled, Personal History.

Chronology: Katherine Graham

1917: Born.

1938: Graduated from University of Chicago.

1940: Married Philip Leslie Graham.

1963: Became President of Washington Post Company.

1965: Hired Benjamin C. Bradlee as an editor.

1971: Supported publication of Pentagon papers.

1972: Supported Woodward and Bernstein reporting Watergate.

1973: Became CEO of Washington Post Company.

1973: Washington Post wins Pulitzer Prize for public service in uncovering the Watergate conspiracy.

1975: Took tough position against striking pressmen.

1979: Remained Chairwoman of Board.

1979: Became first woman publisher elected president of American Newspaper Publishers' Association.

1989: Fortune magazine named the Post Company one of 20 most profitable corporations.

1998: Authored best-selling autobiography PersonalHistory.

Social and Economic Impact

One of the nation's most powerful women, Katherine Meyer Graham emphasized freedom of the press. To be sure, she is an example of effective leadership, and "one who mastered the intricacies of profit margins, strategic planning," according to the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The Washington Post promoted the hiring of minorities and women. She stated at a Women in Communications luncheon in 1984 that she recognized that for women to get ahead in business their close relationships sometimes suffered, adding, "But men in power have always been willing to pay this price." Remaining board chairwoman, Katherine Graham managed to change and grow with each decade while following and achieving her dream of being a journalist.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Washington Post
2920 R St. NW
Washington, DC 20007
Business Phone: (202)234-6000


Cooper, Gloria. Columbia Journalism Review, May-June 1997.

Green, Michelle. "Katharine Graham: A Publishing Power Broker Writes a Very Personal History." People Weekly, 24 February 1997.

Nelton, Sharon. Nation's Business, June 1997.

Platt, Adam. "Special Kay." Harper's Bazaar, February 1997.

Solomon, Norman. The Progressive, June 1997.

About this article

Graham, Katherine

Updated About content Print Article