Katharine the great

Kay Graham's unintentional rise to glory inspired the Washington Post to a greatness the paper has never again achieved since she stepped away from it.

Published July 18, 2001 11:51AM (EDT)

The beauty of Kay Graham was that she didn't want to be the mighty Katharine Graham, one of the most influential publishers of the 20th century, or Kay Graham the hostess, whose invitations to her Georgetown manse were almost as coveted as ones to the White House. I always got the impression -- from observing her and interviewing her and reading her autobiography -- that she would have been perfectly happy to have led the simple life of a woman born to wealth whose days are complicated only by the demands of family and the occasional dinner party. She was a shy, ugly duckling who gradually grew into the leader she was forced to become, and when she arrived, she realized she could be herself, effortlessly.

Kay Graham would have appreciated her sudden exit, at age 84. Attending a meeting of executives in Sun Valley, Idaho, she tripped and banged her head Sunday, fell into a coma and died Tuesday, without languishing and putting anyone through a long period of keening or handwringing. It was a quick, uncomplicated parting.

Forgive me for contributing to the inevitable hagiography, but this is one person who deserves it. Katharine Graham was the accidental publisher, the unintentional feminist, the unexpected journalist. She always surprised people. She had ineffable qualities that can't be learned or taught or bought: gumption, guts, instinct, heart, passion for truth. Raised in privilege, she was able to connect with hundreds of thousands of regular folks, not because they saw her face on TV or in the tabloids, because Kay never appeared there, but because of how she comported herself in moments of tragedy and how she shared them in a dignified way in her book, "Personal History," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Growing up in Washington in the 1920s, Graham was not a pretty or petite girl, which her mother, Agnes Meyer, reminded her of often. Back then that may have been tolerated; now it might be termed abusive. Her father, Eugene Meyer, came from a Jewish investment banking family and made millions organizing the Allied Chemical Co. He doted on "Kate." Her mother was Lutheran, and she was brought up by a governess, was educated at a proper prep school and finished with classes in French and tennis and posture. She came away from her childhood feeling unloved and unappreciated, and without much ambition.

In 1933 Eugene Meyer bought the Washington Post in a bankruptcy auction for $825,000. Four years later, when Katharine Meyer was a senior at the University of Chicago, she realized her father wanted her to learn the newspaper business and perhaps join him at the Post. In a letter to her older sister, she said she might want to be a reporter, but she despised the business side. "I doubt my ability to carry a load like the Washington Post," she wrote, "and I damn well think it would be a first-class dog's life."

At age 22, Kate Meyer married the dashing Philip Graham. Her father made him publisher of the Post; they had four children; they cavorted with Kennedys and Lippmans and Alsops. Kay Graham packed her husband's bags and took care of the kids. Phil bought Newsweek, oversaw the expansion of the paper and became a usual suspect in the parties and intrigues of the capital city in the 1950s. It was a high life, but Phil also brought Kay low by having an affair with a Newsweek reporter. Then he began to suffer manic-depressive mood swings. She stayed by his side during his stays at mental hospitals, even when he rejected her. Then, one day in August 1963, at their Virginia estate outside Washington, she heard a shotgun blast, rushed to Phil's room and found him dead on the bathroom floor.

Three days later, at 46, Katharine Graham was driven to the Washington Post to address its board of directors. She was petrified of speaking in public. She rehearsed her lines in the car with her daughter, Lally. She told the roomful of men that nothing would change, that she was now in charge and that they should get back to work. She then took a cruise before taking the reins of the paper.

When I interviewed Graham in 1997, before the publication of "Personal History," she made it sound simple. "I began by just wading in and learning from experience," she said. "Whatever strength I had was enhanced by dealing with Phil's illness. Trying to take care of him undoubtedly gave me some strength."

She needed that strength in June 1971, when the Post was confronted with whether to publish the Pentagon Papers in the face of threats from the Nixon administration. She was hosting a party at the family's Virginia estate when Post editor Ben Bradlee and others reached her by phone. Bradlee was saying yes; the business side wanted to wait. "Go ahead," she said. "Let's publish."

I asked her why.

"Viscera," she said. "A decision like that couldn't be very well rehearsed. It had to be instinctive."

Then two pipsqueak reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, started writing stories about a break-in at the Watergate Hotel and a coverup by President Nixon. Attorney General John Mitchell said Graham would get her "titty caught in a wringer" if she kept publishing the stories. She did, and the Post reached its pinnacle, enshrined as the courageous newspaper that uncovered a scandal and brought down a president.

Woodward and Bernstein got the glory, but Graham and Bradlee were the duo who gave the reporters the freedom to write. Graham endured Mitchell's crude threats -- and real ones -- to her company's television licenses. She lived in fear during the Watergate years.

Perhaps taking down Nixon toughened her up for staring down the newspaper unions in a 1975 strike, which she broke by going down to the paper and literally carrying stacks of newspapers herself. In college, she was enamored of labor unions and wanted to report on the labor movement. As a publisher, she wanted to deal with the unions, but when they struck, she was bent on crushing them, and they never recovered.

The next 15 years were the Post's golden era. Living off the Watergate afterglow, the paper attracted the best reporters, stacked up prizes and increased circulation. Bradlee strutted around the newsroom and pushed his reporters to break "Holy shit!" stories. The paper's new Style section tweaked the powerful guests who were dining at Kay Graham's table on Saturday and getting skewered by Sally Quinn on Sunday. One day Graham fielded a call from a red-faced Henry Kissinger, who screamed so loud she had to hold the phone a foot from her ear. She called Bradlee. He told her to calm down, and she did.

You get the sense that at some point in the late 1970s, after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate and the printers strike, Kay Graham threw off the yoke of her mother's glowering judgment, put her husband's demise behind and started to enjoy life. She traveled, threw great parties, brought the worlds of Hollywood, Washington and New York together at her R Street digs. "There are two invitations you don't turn down," movie lobbyist Jack Valenti once said, "the White House and Katharine Graham."

Every president from JFK on except Nixon came to her home. Five months ago she introduced President Bush to Washington's social scene with a party with regular folk like Bill Gates, Alan Greenspan, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Barbara Walters, George Will, Howell Raines and other friends of hers.

On the business side, Graham grew the Washington Post Co. in the calm of the 1980s into a media conglomerate. Warren Buffett joined the board and helped the company expand into broadcasting, cable television, car phones and education and training. The rival Washington Star folded after Time Inc. ran it into the ground, which must have been satisfying on a number of levels. It left the Post with a monopoly. It killed the paper that had run a story depicting Graham as a gossipy, vindictive, cavalier socialite. (It hurt, she told friends.) She withdrew, became more private and dedicated herself to publishing.

As the Post became the newspaper with the best penetration of any major U.S. daily, Graham gradually passed the power and the publishing to her son Don. Gradually, Kay Graham's people, who had made the Post great, left the scene. Bradlee retired. Meg Greenfield, the editorial page editor, died. And the passion that Bradlee and Kay brought to the newsroom seemed to slip away.

Don Graham is no Kay. Where she was comfortable within herself, and had a natural love of life and travel and people and playfulness, her 55-year-old son gives off a sense of extreme unease. She was born to money and privilege and wore them naturally; he was born to money and seems almost ashamed, as if he has to live like a proletarian to prove himself. If Bradlee was in Kay's mold, his successor, Leonard Downie Jr., is a good match for Don. Downie is more of a bureaucrat, reticent to rally the troops and more interested in protecting the franchise. The paper is more of a commercial venture now, catering to suburban readers, where the advertisers want to be.

Don Graham gave up the title of publisher to concentrate on the Washington Post Co.'s other ventures, especially the Internet. The Post has plowed half a billion dollars into its Web site, far more than any other newspaper, and it has yet to recoup any of the investment. Wall Street is waiting to see a return, especially since the company's net income sank by 40 percent last year.

With Kay Graham's death, matters of succession obviously become more pressing. There have been rumors that the entire company might be sold, but nothing will take place without Don Graham's blessing. Thanks to Kay Graham, control of the company's stock is securely in the hands of the family. At this point, no other members of the family have emerged as natural leaders. Don is extremely protective of his children; the eldest is still in college. Lally Weymouth's daughter, Katharine Scully, is an attorney who worked in the newspaper's general counsel's office before moving over to the Internet venture.

In a 1997 interview, I asked Kay why Don hadn't moved into her role in the social scene.

"He's very concentrated on business," she said. "He's terribly civic, speaking and attending meetings, reaching out in different ways. I enjoy people and mixing around. Don does it his way. He shouldn't try to be me -- even if I wanted him to be."

Up in New York, the Sulzbergers have proceeded a bit differently. The only other newspaper publishing family left in control of a major paper, the Sulzbergers have given the paper to a new generation and focused on turning it into a daily national magazine. Under Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the paper has gotten better, much better, in style and tone and quality of reporting, and in its sense of its readership and how to connect with those readers. Sulzberger appointed as editor the firebrand Howell Raines, who has the temperament and passion of Ben Bradlee. Meanwhile, the Post seems to have lost its way. It's still a great paper, still breaking news and investigating wrongdoing, but it's missing that connection with readers, the passion that was there in the Kay and Ben days.

In 1991 Katharine Graham started working on her life story. She conducted interviews and collected material for two years. Then she sat down in the mornings and wrote out her story on yellow pads. Published in 1997, "Personal History" is a brave, sometimes brutally honest self-portrait, and at 80, the author went on a book tour. She continued to speak and travel and write over the past few years. The only thing that stopped her was a fall, three days ago. Her funeral next Monday at the National Cathedral will be attended by former presidents (perhaps even the current one), the powerful, the rich and the people who admired Kay because she never would have dreamed, after she attended her husband's memorial service at the same cathedral in 1963, that her own death would be noticed by more than her family.

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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