Graham, Katharine (1917–2001)

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Graham, Katharine (1917–2001)

American newspaper publisher who guided the Washington Post through its most turbulent period when it published the "Pentagon Papers" and investigated the Watergate affair . Name variations: Kay Graham; Mrs. Phil Graham; Katharine Meyer. Born Katharine Meyer on June 16, 1917, in New York City; died on July 17, 2001, in Idaho; daughter of Eugene Meyer (owner of the Washington Post) and Agnes Elizabeth (Ernst) Meyer (1887–1970, a publisher, journalist and social worker); graduated from the University of Chicago, 1938; married attorney Philip Graham (an attorney and publisher), in 1940 (died 1963); children: Elizabeth "Lally" Graham (b. 1944, who writes under married name Lally Weymouth ); Donald E. Graham (b. 1945); William Graham (b. 1948); Stephen Graham (b. 1952).

Worked as a journalist in San Francisco before joining the staff of the Washington Post, which her father had purchased some years earlier; married attorney Philip Graham in 1940, who eventually became publisher of the family's newspaper and greatly expanded its operations and reputation; following husband's suicide (1963), became publisher and guided the Post through its most turbulent period during and after its publication of the notorious "Pentagon Papers" and its investigative reporting of the Watergate affair, the revelations of which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon (1974); elected the first female president of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, and was the first woman to serve on the board of the Associated Press.

On a spring evening in 1933, some two weeks after pretty young Kay Meyer had returned from her Virginia boarding school to her family's sprawling estate in New York's Westchester County, the dinner conversation between her parents seemed unusually mysterious. They spoke incessantly of Washington D.C. and, in particular, of the capitol city's lively newspaper business. Shy Kay finally found a convenient moment to inquire politely what it was all about. "Oh, didn't we tell you?" Kay's mother Agnes Meyer casually remarked. "We bought the Post."

Eugene Meyer's purchase of the bankrupt Washington Post seemed just the latest event in a shrewd business career that had made him one of America's wealthiest men, a respected adviser to the White House and, at the time of the Post purchase, the chair of the Federal Reserve Board. Twenty years before, when he married Agnes Ernst, a lawyer's daughter and a Barnard graduate, he had already made enough money in investment banking to build his bride a fine townhouse on East 51st Street in Manhattan. By the time his third daughter Katharine was born on June 16, 1917, Eugene had bought an entire building on 5th Avenue, turning the upper floors into his family's residence, along with a mansion in Washington so palatial that it was often mistaken for the nearby Library of Congress; he was completing plans for his country estate, Seven Springs Farm, in Mount Kisco, New York, some 40 miles north of Manhattan. Inspired by the French chateaux that Eugene and Agnes had so admired during their frequent tours of the Continent, Seven Springs was said to have cost more than $2 million by the time of its completion in 1919, an enormous sum in those early years of the century.

The Meyer children—daughters Florence (Meyer Homolka), Elizabeth (Meyer Lorentz) , and Ruth (Meyer) , in addition to Katharine, and son Eugene, Jr.—saw little of their parents as they grew to maturity, raised by nannies, governesses and private tutors. Agnes, an enthusiastic supporter of women's rights, had little interest in child rearing and housekeeping ("What a horror!," she was said to have exclaimed on being presented with her first baby, Florence, in 1920). Her credo did, however, grant considerable latitude for artistic and intellectual pursuits, for advising Eugene on his business strategies, and for the occasional extramarital affair. One of Agnes' adopted artists, novelist Thomas Mann, was sufficiently impressed with his patron's resourcefulness in dealing with a passport problem that he later wrote to her, "The impression grows that you are running the country." But Agnes showed little inclination to apply the same talents to her home life. "I believe she was often desperately unhappy in her marriage, especially at first," Katharine Graham would later write of her mother. She was "completely self-absorbed."

Her father's financial prowess insulated the family from the Depression, Eugene having taken care well before economic disaster struck the nation to consolidate his vast empire into the giant Allied Chemical Corporation, which he made sure was debt-free by the time of the great stock-market crash of 1929. It was of no great consequence, therefore, for Eugene to make an interest-free loan of $300,000 to Washington's exclusive Madeira School for the construction of a leafy new campus in rural Greenwood, Virginia, completed by the time Kay began her studies there in the footsteps of her older sisters, who had attended the school's original home on Dupont Circle in Washington. Kay excelled in academics and in the school's social life, eventually becoming the editor of the school newspaper. She later described herself as a "Goody Two Shoes" during her years at Madeira, anxious to fit in with her classmates and horrified that her family's immense wealth and influence would be revealed. "What I was trying to figure out was how to adjust to whatever life I found," she later wrote.

Although her father had conceived and set up the Hoover Administration's Reconstruction Finance Board to help keep failing banks afloat during the Depression, Eugene's fiscally conservative advice did not appeal to Hoover's successor, Franklin Roosevelt, who politely but firmly asked for his resignation from both the Finance Board and from the Federal Reserve. Meyer family lore much favors the story of the day Eugene, moping around the house with little to do, picked a fight with Agnes by noting the dust on a bannister. "This house is not properly run!" he complained. "Then you'd better go buy the Post!" Agnes is said to have snapped back at him.

Everyone knew that the Post, the most disreputable of the capitol's five dailies, had finally gone bankrupt after years of mismanagement and was being put up for auction. Eugene had always been impressed by the power wielded by press barons and decided to bid anonymously for the Post through a lawyer, facing stiff competition from Randolph Hearst, who already owned the Washington Herald. Eugene's bid of $825,000 won the day, much to Hearst's anger when the identity of his rival became public knowledge once the sale was approved by the courts. Indeed, in his first editorial as publisher of the Post, on June 12, 1933, Eugene took a thinly veiled slap at Hearst by promising that the paper's first duty was "to the public… and not to the private interests of its owner." It was the paper's editorial independence, in fact, that was to slowly win converts, including Roosevelt himself, who in 1935 admitted his admiration for the Post's editorial quality.

While her father worked at his new business, Kay left Madeira for Vassar in 1934 and soon found herself a job as an apprentice editor on the school paper, although she carefully hid her family's connection to the newspaper business. "She was not an aggressive person at all," a classmate later recalled. "She was very interested in being on a newspaper and very interested in hearing what you had to say." Kay's attraction to leftist politics was more difficult for her family to digest, but nonetheless of interest to her father. Eugene, now nearing 60 and concerned about the future of his fledgling business, took notice of his daughter's journalistic tendencies and intellectual curiosity, and was especially impressed by Kay's decision to spend a summer in Washington as an apprentice at the Post rather than at Mount Kisco with the rest of the family. "She's got a hard mind," he told a friend at the time. "She'd make a great businessman." He followed up on his observations by suggesting to Kay that she leave Vassar and its emphasis on a liberal arts education for the University of Chicago, known for its business school and its liberal politics.

Kay's a big shot in the newspaper racket.

—1934 Madeira School yearbook prediction for graduate Katharine Meyer

Arriving there in 1936, Kay was soon being exposed to everything her family background had kept at a distance—workers' rights and union organizing, socialist policymaking and political agitating so suspect that one of Eugene Meyer's contemporaries had withdrawn his daughter from the school because of its possible Communist influences. Kay took up residence in the university's International House where, in another radical departure from staid old Vassar, men and women lived in the same building (although on separate floors) and philosophy and politics were debated late into the night. As usual, Kay never volunteered information about her family or her privileged upbringing, although she was hurt by the fact that neither Eugene nor Agnes attended her graduation in 1938. She received instead a congratulatory telegram from Agnes' secretary which misspelled her first name.

In early 1939, as war loomed in Europe, Kay traveled with her father on a business trip to San Francisco and fell in love with the city. "I chucked my pride and asked my father to help me get a job there," she later remembered, gladly accepting a job covering the waterfront for the San Francisco News at $21 a week. The paper dutifully sent Eugene copies of all her stories. At the end of her two months, Eugene insisted she return to Washington to work for the family paper, the Post now being the capitol's third-ranked newspaper, behind the Hearst-owned Times Herald. "He wants and needs someone who is willing to go through the whole mill, from reporting to circulation management to editorial writing and eventually to be his assistant," Kay wrote home to her sister Elizabeth. "I doubt my ability to carry a load like the Washington Post and… damn well think it would be a first class dog's life." But she buckled down to learning everything Eugene laid out for her until December of 1939, when she met and fell in love with the man Eugene would finally choose over her as his newspaper's heir.

Philip Graham was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in Washington at the time Kay was introduced to him at a cocktail party. Handsome and recklessly ambitious, Phil had overcome the disadvantages of genteel poverty growing up in Florida by becoming a brilliant law student and was, at the time he met Kay, a protégé of Felix Frankfurter. He seemed destined for a rewarding law career leading to an eventual judicial appointment. But Eugene Meyer immediately fastened on Kay's new beau as an ideal choice to guide the Post, telling friends that Phil Graham was a "winner by nature." On her marriage to Phil in an elaborate ceremony at the Meyer estate in Mount Kisco on June 5, 1940, Kay abandoned any hopes she might have had for a career in journalism and settled down to married life while her husband worked toward his law degree. After a stillbirth and two miscarriages, Kay gave birth to a daughter in 1944, to be followed by three sons between 1945 and 1953. Her only involvement with the Post was during her husband's absence for war duty. "I was pregnant and Philip was away and I was just looking for a mindless job to make the time go faster," she later said. Eugene, meanwhile, worried about his son-in-law's plans to practice law in Florida in preparation for a political career. "I've got to know what will happen to this paper when I'm no longer around," he confided to friends.

Eugene's arguments must have been persuasive, for Phil Graham agreed to become an associate publisher of the Post on his return from the war in 1946. Two years later, Eugene sold a controlling interest in the business to his daughter and son-in-law, Phil receiving the larger share because, as Eugene explained to Katharine, it wasn't proper for a man to be in the position of working for his wife. "Curiously, I not only concurred but was in complete accord with this idea," Katharine later remembered. "I was the kind of wife that women liberationists talk about," she went on. "I was a second-class citizen and my role was to keep Phil happy, peaceful, calm, and functioning."

This proved to be more difficult as the years passed. Phil, as Kay eventually found out, had a history of depression, his struggles with the disease becoming increasingly desperate. The elusive solace of alcohol only led to abusive public arguments with Kay that became the talk of the Washington social circuit. Said one friend at the time, Graham seemed an "unbelievable, mouse-like woman who didn't move a muscle, who followed behind Phil." Even worse was Phil's years-long affair with Australian journalist Robin Webb , with whom Phil would disappear for long stretches. His infatuation was strong enough that, Kay later claimed, he threatened to buy her out of the Post and give her share to his mistress. "This was the bottom moment for me," she later said. "Not only had I lost my husband but I was about to lose the Post."

The loss would have been disastrous for more than emotional reasons, for by the early 1960s Phil Graham had turned a respected but financially unrewarding newspaper into a multimedia empire. The Post Companies now owned, besides the Post itself, radio and television stations and, most important, Newsweek magazine, which Phil Graham had bought in 1961 for $15 million. Competition from the old Hearst-owned Times Herald had been eliminated years earlier by Phil's purchase in 1954 of the rival publication for $10 million, using money supplied by Eugene, by then retired and suffering from the cancer that brought his death in 1959. The Post, published in a brand new building on state-of-the-art presses, had actually begun turning a profit by the time Phil's illness became so severe that he was forced to run the company through trusted aides. Finally admitting the severity of his disorder, Phil Graham voluntarily committed himself on two separate occasions to a sanitarium outside Washington in 1963.

During these dark years, Kay was much admired for her dedication to her husband, although she herself later admitted that alternatives never occurred to her. "The truth was that I adored him and saw only the positive side of what he was doing for me. I simply didn't connect my lack of self-confidence to his behavior toward me," she said. "I felt as though he had created me and that I was totally dependent on him." Her patience seemed to be rewarded when Phil finally left Robin Webb and convinced his doctors that he was well enough to leave the sanitarium for a weekend with his wife and children at Glen Welby, their Virginia farm, in August of 1963. During lunch after his arrival, he spoke enthusiastically with his sons about a shooting expedition planned for the next day, bird hunting

being one of his chief passions. After the meal, Phil went to his bedroom, loaded one of the 28-gauge shotguns he used for hunting, propped it against a bathtub and shot himself in the head. In her memoirs written more than 30 years later, Kay still found it difficult to describe what she saw when she ran into the bathroom that day or to understand why she had not anticipated her husband's suicide. "It had never occurred to me that he must have planned the whole day at Glen Welby to get to his guns as a way of freeing himself forever from the watchful eyes of his doctors," she wrote. "I believe that Phil came to the sad conclusion that he would never again lead a normal life."

Added to the shock and grief was the inevitable speculation about the future of the Post. No one even considered the possibility that Kay would choose to run the company herself. "You're not going to work, are you?" asked one friend after Phil's death. "You mustn't. You're young and attractive, and you'll get remarried." But little more than a week after her husband's suicide, Kay told a meeting of the Post Corporation's executive board that she had no intention of selling the Post and intended to look after the business herself until her eldest son, Donald, was old enough to manage the company. She described her role as being that of a "family coordinating hand," a sort of interim silent partner to the exclusively male executive leadership of the firm. "I naively thought the whole business would just go on as it had while I learned by listening," she once recalled. "I didn't realize that nothing stands still—issues arise every day, big and small, and they start coming at you." Her decision was greeted with a great deal of skepticism, for at the time no woman held a leadership position in any business, let alone the rough and tumble world of newspaper publishing. The board room gossip gained more fuel when, as one of her first executive decisions, Kay chose a Friday for a major meeting in New York with the editorial board of Newsweek—the day each issue of the magazine closed and the very worst day she could have selected. Then there was the Washington meeting of newspaper publishers at which Kay was the only woman at the table and at which she was stoutly ignored by the meeting's chair when a voice vote was called on the issue under discussion. What few supporters she had were sorely tried when Kay herself told an interviewer from Women's Wear Daily in early 1964 that any man could do a better job than she could.

But as her self-styled role of caretaker began to appear hopelessly simplistic and as the realities of the business world settled on her, she began to listen to the advice of such family friends as Robert McNamara, a former chief executive for Ford Motors who had become secretary of defense under Lyndon Johnson, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and economist John Kenneth Galbraith—all liberal Democrats whom she had met because of her husband's involvement with the party during the 1960 campaign that brought John Kennedy to the White House. (Phil Graham had always claimed that it was his advocacy of Lyndon Johnson as Kennedy's running mate that brought Kennedy the crucial support of southern Democrats.) These advisers and others close to Kay began to notice a strengthening of her self-confidence as 1964 wore on. They noticed that Kay no longer signed herself "Mrs. Phil Graham" but, more boldly, as "Katharine Graham," and that she no longer voiced her usual fervent prayer that her son Donny would finish college soon and come to the rescue. By late 1964, when publisher S.I. Newhouse offered to buy the Post from her, Graham firmly told him the paper was not for sale to anyone, at any price.

As the turbulent 1960s swept across a nation divided over the Vietnam War, the editorial pages of the Post remained firmly behind the Johnson Administration's pursuit of the conflict, especially after Kay toured Vietnam in 1965; but she scrupulously maintained a hands-off policy when it came to the paper's reporting and did not interfere, for example, with a series of articles revealing the Administration's undercover attempts at overthrowing various South American governments in the late 1960s. When Lyndon Johnson announced his decision not to seek reelection in 1968, Graham threw the paper's support behind Richard Nixon, an editorial decision that would prove troublesome in the near future.

By 1970, she had replaced all of the executives hired by her husband and had named Ben Bradlee, a brash Bostonian who had begun as a reporter for the Post, as the paper's executive editor, despite the fact that Bradlee had once ventured the opinion that there was nothing wrong with Phil Graham that a good divorce would not cure. Most significantly, she took the Post Corporation public in 1971 in a shrewd strategy that offered only non-voting shares to the public while she and her children retained the voting shares. The Corporation's balance sheet was thus vastly improved by a stock offering that still left her in firm control. Her prayer of earlier years was answered when her eldest son Donald began working at the paper after a two-year tour of duty as a Washington police officer, which he considered the best way to learn the city his family's paper served.

In 1971, as Kay hosted a cocktail party at her Washington home, an urgent conference call came through from Ben Bradlee and the Post's legal advisers. The Nixon Administration, Bradlee said, had just obtained a restraining order preventing The New York Times from further publication of what had come to be called the Pentagon Papers—a collection of classified, leaked documents that laid bare the government's deliberate attempts over the years to cover up its disastrous strategy and appalling losses in Vietnam. Now, Bradlee said over the phone, the Post had obtained another 4,000 pages which, if published, could expose the paper to the same legal challenges the Times was facing. The decision was hers. "Let's go," Graham was heard to say, even though her paper had editorially supported the war policies of both Johnson and Nixon. "Let's publish." The expected restraining order was soon overturned by higher courts.

Little more than a year later, Kay was told that the June 17, 1973, issue of the Post would carry a front-page story about an attempted burglary at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate hotel, reporting that the burglars were intent on installing wire-tapping devices. The New York Times, the Boston Globe, and other nationally prominent papers paid less attention to the story, but Graham supported Bradlee's opinion that there was more to the burglary than met the eye—an opinion that seemed justified when lawyers for the burglars attempted to subpoena her reporters' notes. Kay vowed she would rather go to jail than allow such a thing to happen and prevailed when the court order was overturned. Still, throughout most of 1973, no other paper seemed interested in the story. "Hell, usually if you have a great scoop everyone else is all over it like a wet blanket the next day," Graham later said. "And here we were alone with this… cow mess walking down the street and nobody came near it. It was awful. There was always the nagging possibility that we were wrong, being set up, being misled." But the Nixon Administration's reaction to the Post's pursuit of the story only seemed to justify the paper's stubborn investigative reporting by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. There were polite, but firm, requests to drop the story from Henry Kissinger, the Administration's secretary of state who was still on friendly terms with her. Then came stronger warnings that the licenses for her company's radio and television stations would not be renewed if she persisted. Graham and her editorial board refused to back down. Finally, to Kay's great relief, CBS News began to support the paper's claims of the White House's covert attempts to illegally obtain and use information about its political enemies. The Post was vindicated when two former Nixon Administration aides, James McCord and John Dean, agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. The paper's coverage won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. The following year, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace.

By now the first newspaper publisher since William Randolph Hearst to have become a household name, Kay Graham was named the chair and chief executive officer of the Post Companies in 1973. She expanded the firm's interests by buying more broadcasting properties and regional newspapers, and guided the paper through a divisive strike by the pressman's union so effectively that she was charged by labor leaders with deliberately attempting to destroy it. Graham defended herself by pointing out that it had been the union's decision to ransack the press room and destroy thousands of dollars worth of equipment. "Certainly I and everyone else in the building who was interested in putting out an on-time, quality paper were fed up with the tyranny the pressmen's union had imposed on us over the years, but I never dreamed it was possible to replace the pressmen, nor did I feel it was desirable. I never wanted a strike." In the wake of the strike and the weakening of the union, the Post Companies' profits rose substantially, tripling to $30 million in the five years between 1975 and 1980. With the future of her father's company now assured, Graham chose to hand control over to her son, who was named publisher in 1979. "Today, as in the rest of my life," Donald Graham said at the ceremony, "my mother has given me everything but an easy act to follow."

Her paper's prominence brought the inevitable broadsides. Graham was horrified, for example, at an unauthorized biography, Katharine the Great, that was scheduled for publication in 1976. Author Deborah Davis claimed among other things that the Post had been used by the CIA to bring down Richard Nixon, whom it considered a threat to national security, and that its operative at the paper was none other than Ben Bradlee. Bradlee, Davis claimed, had worked for the CIA in the 1950s. Graham and Bradlee reacted swiftly to the book, detailing a number of factual errors in its text so egregious that the publisher was eventually obliged to cancel its publication. The incident started Graham thinking seriously for the first time about writing her memoir, a suggestion from friends and family that she had always dismissed. But by 1991, the year she retired and turned the Post Company over to her son, she was ready to begin the writing project that took her five years to complete. She was 79 when Personal History finally appeared.

By the time of her retirement, Kay Graham was one of the world's wealthiest women, said to be worth over $500 million, and was one of only two women in the nation leading a Fortune 500 company. More important, she had transformed a newspaper that had once been called "a political hack paper" into one of the world's most respected sources of information, known for its carefully considered editorial opinion. But, Graham admitted at the end of her book, she was glad to have it all behind her. "It's dangerous when you are older to start living in the past," she wrote. "I intend to live in the present, looking forward to the future." Eugene Meyer had kept an eye on the future, too. "Watch my Kay," he had once told a friend. "She's the one." Katharine Graham died on July 17, 2001.


Felsenthal, Carol. Power, Privilege and the Post: The Katharine Graham Story. NY: Putnam, 1993.

Graham, Katharine. Personal History. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York

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Graham, Katharine (1917–2001)

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