Remembering Katharine Graham (1917-2001)
Wednesday, July 18, 2001 - Katharine Graham, 84, who led The Washington Post Co. to prominence in the worlds of journalism and business and became one of the most influential and admired women of her generation, died yesterday morning at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho.
Mrs. Graham, former chairman and chief executive officer of The Post Co. and former publisher of The Washington Post, died at 11:56 a.m. of head injuries suffered when she fell on a sidewalk Saturday in Sun Valley, Idaho, where she was attending an annual conference of media business leaders. Her son, Donald, The Post Co.'s current chairman and CEO, also was attending the conference. He and many other members of the family were at the hospital in Boise when she died.
"The nation's capital and our entire nation today mourn the loss of the beloved first lady of Washington and American journalism, Katharine Graham," President Bush said in a statement yesterday. "Mrs. Graham became a legend in her own lifetime because she was a true leader and a true lady, steely yet shy, powerful yet humble, known for her integrity and always gracious and generous to others."
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who ordered that flags be flown at half staff at all District government facilities, said that "Mrs. Graham has been a part of this city not only as a preeminent publisher, but as a businesswoman and an active civic leader."
Mrs. Graham guided The Washington Post through two of the most celebrated episodes in American journalism, the publication in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the war in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal, which led to Richard M. Nixon's resignation from the presidency in 1974 under the threat of impeachment. She and Benjamin C. Bradlee, the editor she chose to run The Post's newsroom during her years at the helm, transformed The Post and its reputation.
"She set the newspaper on a course that took it to the very top ranks of American journalism in principle and excellence and fairness," said Bradlee, now a Post vice president. "That's a fantastic legacy."
The Post Co. also grew enormously as a business during her three decades of leadership. Revenue grew nearly twentyfold, the company acquired numerous new businesses, and it became a public corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Mrs. Graham took over the company in 1963 after the suicide of her husband, Philip L. Graham, who had run the company since 1946. The family enterprise, then relatively small, included the newspaper, which her father had purchased at a bankruptcy sale in 1933; Newsweek magazine, which her husband had bought in 1961; and two television stations.
By the time Mrs. Graham stepped down as chief executive in 1991 and as chairman in 1993, The Post Co. had become a diversified media corporation with newspaper, magazine, television, cable and educational services businesses. After Donald E. Graham succeeded her as CEO and chairman, Mrs. Graham remained active in the company as chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors.
She was the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company and the first to serve as a director of the Associated Press, the news service owned by member newspapers, and of the American Newspaper Publishers Association. She also served as chairman of the newspaper publishers group.
In 1997, she published her memoir, "Personal History," which received critical acclaim, became a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. The book, written in longhand on legal pads, fully reveals a life marked by personal struggle and tragedy as well as public triumph.
Characteristically modest about her accomplishment, Mrs. Graham, then 80, was amazed that she had won a Pulitzer Prize. At a newsroom celebration of the awarding of the prize, the late Meg Greenfield, then The Post's editorial page editor and a close friend of Mrs. Graham's, turned to her and said: "Now do you believe you wrote a good book?"
Her candid account of her journey from shy homemaker to a pioneering female leader in male-dominated journalism and business resonated with countless women among her book's hundreds of thousands of readers. Many men also said it helped them better understand what it meant for women to move out of traditional roles and into positions of power.
A leading figure in international political, business and social circles, Mrs. Graham was a personal friend of many of the most prominent leaders of her time, including American Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan; Presidents Valery Giscard d'Estaing of France, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia; Chancellor Willy Brandt of West Germany; and Prime Minister Edward Heath of Britain. In the 1990s, her younger friends included Bill Gates, the co-founder and head of Microsoft Corp., and Diana, Princess of Wales.
In the late 1970s, she served as one of the 16 members of the Brandt Commission -- along with Brandt, Heath, Pierre Mendez-France of France, Olaf Palme of Sweden and Eduardo Frei of Chile -- that recommended increased economic cooperation between industrialized nations of the Northern Hemisphere and developing nations of the Southern Hemisphere. She also was active in groups seeking to improve public education in Washington.
Mrs. Graham traveled widely, often joining Post and Newsweek editors and reporters in meetings with foreign leaders. And she frequently hosted local, national and international political, business and civic leaders at the newspaper and in her Georgetown home. She gave two dinners for Reagan and hosted introductory dinners for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush after their elections as president.
Purposefully, she made friends on both sides of Washington's political divide. Former president Jimmy Carter emphasized yesterday that "she was dedicated to the principles of fairness and accuracy." Former secretary of state George P. Shultz, a particularly close friend, said in an interview that "her friendship was not something that passed with the changing of one's Washington role." Former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement that "Washington, D.C., will not be the same without her."
Mrs. Graham was often described as the most powerful woman in the world, a notion she dismissed out of hand. Even when speaking about her role at The Post, she insisted that no single person could shape the persona of a newspaper. "You inherit something and you do what you can," she said. "And so the person who succeeds you inherits something different, and you add to it or you subtract from it or you do whatever you do. But you never totally control it."
As the head of the company, Mrs. Graham wrote in her autobiography, she was guided by the principle that "journalistic excellence and profitability go hand in hand. I had to try to assure Wall Street that I wasn't some madwoman, interested only in risks and editorial issues, but that I was concerned with how we ran our business."
Warren Buffett, the legendary stock investor and the company's largest shareholder outside the Graham family, became a close friend and business mentor to Mrs. Graham after he began buying large amounts of Post stock soon after it was first offered publicly in the l970s. "The paper, really the company, always has been the most important thing in her whole life," he said. "This was not a step in the long dance of life; it was the whole show."
By Mrs. Graham's own account, the most difficult part of her business career was a bitter, 139-day strike by the pressmen's union at The Post in 1975 and 1976 that began when strikers set fire to part of the pressroom. It ended with replacement workers being hired.
When Mrs. Graham took over The Post in 1963, she had only modest experience in journalism and no training in business. Shy and vulnerable, she was terrified of asking dumb questions and making mistakes as she entered the mostly male world of publishing, she said later. She was so ill at ease before attending the company Christmas party five months after her husband's death that she spent some time rehearsing how to say "Merry Christmas." She was 46 years old.
Within a decade, she was making momentous decisions about the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. In both instances, she withstood enormous pressure from the White House and other government agencies not to publish, including the possibility of criminal charges for violating espionage laws and challenges to licenses for the company's broadcasting properties. Vindicated by events, she gained a reputation for courage and devotion to principle that carried around the world.
A beloved figure throughout The Post Co., she devoted considerable time to its other holdings, especially Newsweek, for which she traveled widely to assist in its advertising sales and publishing arrangements around the world. She played a major role in The Post's shared ownership and direction, with the New York Times, of the International Herald Tribune.
Through the years, her manner remained the same. A striking figure who stood 5 feet 9 inches tall, she was serious, attentive, well-mannered and generally soft-spoken. She could also be extremely forceful, and she could match Ben Bradlee's well-known facility for colorful language. Although she eventually lost her early diffidence, it was widely remarked that she projected an aura of vulnerability long after she had become a respected figure on the world stage.
In Touch With the Newsroom
Mrs. Graham loved being involved with the news, calling or dropping by the offices of her editors for updates on what the newspaper was covering. She particularly delighted in being the first to give them tips for promising stories that she picked up around town or from her travels around the world.
When she worked in her office at the newspaper on Saturdays, she gathered up small groups of editors and reporters from the newsroom for informal lunches at a nearby coffee shop. And she eagerly accepted invitations to after-hours newsroom parties, accommodating eager young reporters with stories about her career and interviewing them about their lives.
As a manager, her strengths were intelligence, toughness, a willingness to listen and learn, and an ability to judge character. She gave her executives great autonomy, but it was always clear that she was in charge. Bradlee said she "had the guts of a burglar."
Mrs. Graham also insisted that she never be surprised by what she read in the paper, although she believed in leaving most journalistic decisions to her editors.
"People literally do think that I run downstairs and tell them what to print and what not to print. I mean it's so crazy it's hard to answer," she said. "It isn't right for a publisher to tell an editor what to do or not to do. But it is certainly the publisher's responsibility to see that the paper is complete, accurate, fair and as excellent as possible."
Style, the groundbreaking section on culture and lifestyles created by Bradlee in 1969 to replace the traditional women's pages in The Post, was the subject of many of what Mrs. Graham called "continuing conversations" with her editor. She denounced various stories as "bitchy," "tasteless," "snide" or "grisly." She once complained to Bradlee that "clothes, fashion, interiors and the frothy side are all taking a hosing and I am quite fed up with the really heedless eggheadedness of Style."
Bradlee remained determined to pursue his vision for Style and answered another of her suggestions for it by saying, "I can't edit this section unless you get your finger out of my eye."
Stories in The Post about Mrs. Graham's many friends were handled in the same way as stories about anyone else. In an early example in 1968, a book on national security by Robert S. McNamara, a close friend of Mrs. Graham's and former secretary of defense who served on the board of directors of The Post Co., received a scathing and dismissive review in The Post by Ward Just because it scarcely mentioned the conflict in Vietnam.
Mrs. Graham had a more direct involvement with the editorial page of The Post, which was, and is now, run separately from the rest of the newsroom in what is known internally as the "church-state" separation of news-gathering and editorial opinion. In this role, her conversations with editorial page editors sometimes led to major new opinion policies. Such was the case with the editorial stand on the conflict in Vietnam. When the war began, The Post supported it. By 1969, the newspaper had become a major critic of U.S. policy.
A key figure in this evolution was Philip Geyelin, who joined the paper in 1967 and served as editor of the editorial page from 1968 to 1979. Mrs. Graham trusted his insights in foreign affairs. She visited Vietnam in the early 1960s, and she continued to inform herself. Originally, she supported the U.S. effort, but this gave way to doubt as success seemed further and further away and the protest movement gathered force at home. In the end she changed, she said, because "things just happened. We supported the war too long."
Former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who was often strongly criticized by The Post's editorial page, praised Mrs. Graham yesterday as a publisher "who worked hard to try to get the editorial policies and newsroom of The Post to reflect Washington itself and its people." He said in an interview that she "used The Post editorial board as a bully pulpit for self-determination . . . and she tried to do all she could to bring about healing among the races."
Katharine Meyer was born in New York City on June 16, 1917, the fourth of the five children of Eugene Meyer and Agnes Ernst Meyer. They gave their children the advantages of great wealth but also led busy lives of their own.
Eugene Meyer, the son of a prosperous Alsatian Jewish immigrant, was born in Los Angeles. He was a spectacularly successful investment banker and pioneer in investment analysis. J. Pierpont Morgan once said, "Watch out for this fellow Meyer because if you don't he'll end up having all the money on Wall Street." Meyer founded Allied Chemical Co. He was chairman of the Federal Reserve Board under President Herbert Hoover and the first president of the World Bank under President Harry S. Truman.
"You watch my little Kate. She'll surprise you."
Katharine Graham's father, Eugene Meyer, to Alice Roosevelt Longworth
To Mrs. Graham, her father was "very shy and remote on one level, witty but very distant and unable to be intimate." Eugene Meyer once said to legendary Washington social figure Alice Roosevelt Longworth, "You watch my little Kate. She'll surprise you."
Her mother, Agnes Meyer, was born in New York and was an active patron of the arts and supporter of education. As a young woman living in Paris, she knew many luminaries of the art world. She wrote on a wide range of subjects in The Post and other journals and published three books. Throughout her life, she was attracted to great men she knew, from Auguste Rodin, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Claudel and Thomas Mann to Adlai Stevenson and Earl Warren.
Of Agnes Meyer, who once described herself as "a conscientious but scarcely loving mother," Mrs. Graham said, "She came on so strong you wilted. Ma did hold up almost impossible standards, and I thought everyone was living up to them. I thought I was the peasant walking around among brilliant people."
Mrs. Graham grew up as Katharine Meyer in New York and Washington, where the family had a mansion on Crescent Place just off 16th Street NW. Summers and holidays were spent at the family estate in Mount Kisco, N.Y., or at her father's ranch near Jackson Hole, Wyo., or on trips to Europe. After graduating from the Madeira School, she went to Vassar.
She arrived at college an unquestioning Republican, like her parents. By the end of her freshman year, she was a left-wing Democrat and supporter of the New Deal. After two years, she transferred to the University of Chicago and joined the liberal wing of the American Student Union.
Of the five Meyer children, she was the closest to her parents, and she was the only one to show an interest in journalism. After graduating from college in 1938, she got a job on the San Francisco News for $24 a week. Soon she was covering labor news and the waterfront. One of her sources was Harry Bridges, the head of the longshoremen's union.
In the spring of 1939, at her father's behest, she returned to Washington to edit the letters to the editor at The Post.
Eugene Meyer had bought the newspaper on June 1, 1933, for $825,000 from the estate of Edward B. "Ned" McLean, who had squandered a fortune and was confined to a psychiatric hospital. The sale was conducted under the supervision of a bankruptcy court on the steps of the old Post building on E Street NW near the Willard Hotel. Meyer acted through an intermediary and kept his identity secret until the sale became final. On June 13, 1933, a box on Page 1 announced that Meyer was the new owner.
The Post, founded in 1877, had fallen on hard times. Four other papers in the city were competing for advertising and circulation, and all were in better shape.
Meyer concentrated on advertising, circulation and the editorial page, which soon gained stature as a forum for discussion of public affairs. The business picture improved only slowly. The first profit was not recorded until World War II, and the paper slipped back into the red when peace was declared. In all, Meyer put about $20 million into the enterprise.
Such was the newspaper that Katharine Meyer joined in 1939. Other young staff members introduced her to a group of young men who shared a house, first a row house on S Street NW, then a large house and grounds in Arlington called Hockley Hall. Among them was a recent graduate of Harvard Law School, Philip Leslie Graham. He had been born in the mining town of Terry, S.D., and raised in Florida, where his father made a career in farming, real estate and politics. In Washington, Philip Graham served as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed in 1939 and for Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had been one of his professors at Harvard, in 1940.
After getting to know each other at the Hockley group's social gatherings and continuing discussions of life and politics, Katharine Meyer and Philip Graham fell in love. They were married on June 5, 1940, settling down in a two-story row house on 37th Street NW that was just wide enough for a door and one window.
Her Husband and the Paper
Philip Graham planned to follow in his father's footsteps in the Florida legislature and perhaps one day run for the U.S. Senate. (His half brother, Bob Graham, became governor of Florida and a senator). Eugene Meyer had another idea. His only son, Eugene III, who was called "Bill," had become a physician, and Meyer didn't think the role of publisher was suitable for a woman. So he offered it to his son-in-law, and after talking it over with his wife, Philip Graham agreed.
"I really felt I was put on earth to take care of Phil Graham."
Katharine Graham of her husband
Katharine Graham couldn't have been happier. "Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me," she wrote in her autobiography. "In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper."
During World War II, Philip Graham enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 and rose to the rank of major. Katharine followed him on military assignments to Sioux Falls, S.D., and Harrisburg, Pa. When her husband went to the Pacific as an intelligence officer, she returned to her work at The Post.
Their first baby died at birth. Elizabeth Morris Graham, now Lally Weymouth, was born in 1943. Donald Edward Graham was born two years later. William Welsh Graham arrived in 1948 and Stephen Meyer Graham in 1952.
In 1946, Mrs. Graham bought the house on R Street NW in Georgetown that was to be her principal residence for the rest of her life. By that time, Philip Graham had started to work at The Post. On Jan. 1, 1946, he became associate publisher. Six months later, when Meyer joined the World Bank, he became publisher. And in 1948, he and his wife became the controlling owners of the company.
Meyer sold 3,500 of the 5,000 Class A shares of voting stock to his son-in-law and 1,500 shares to his daughter. The reason for giving Katharine only a minority interest in the voting stock, Meyer said, was that "you never want a man working for his wife." Mrs. Graham recalled that "curiously I not only concurred but was in complete accord with the idea."
"I really felt I was put on earth to take care of Phil Graham," she said many years later. "He was so glamorous that I was perfectly happy just to clean up after him. I did all the scut work: paid the bills, ran the house, drove the children. I was always the butt of family jokes. You know, good old Mom, plodding along. And I accepted it. That's the way I viewed myself."
In 1954, Philip Graham and Eugene Meyer, who was a close adviser to his son-in-law until his death in 1959, bought the competing morning newspaper, the Times-Herald, for $8.5 million. The Post kept most of the Times-Herald's advertising, features, columnists and comics -- and most of its readers. It immediately jumped ahead of the Evening Star in circulation, and in 1959, it passed the Star in advertising linage. Philip Graham also bought the company's first two television stations.
While running the newspaper, he played a backstage role in politics. President Lyndon Johnson gave him credit for the outlines of the Great Society program. In 1960, he helped persuade John F. Kennedy, another close friend, to take Johnson on his ticket as the vice presidential candidate.
By then, Philip Graham already was in the grip of the illness that would plague him until his death. In 1957, he suffered a nervous breakdown and retired to the couple's farm in Marshall, Va., to recuperate. The diagnosis was manic depression. When he returned to work, periods in which he functioned brilliantly alternated with periods in which he was morose and erratic and drank heavily. The medications that are now used successfully to treat the illness were not then available.
He was twice committed to Chestnut Lodge, a psychiatric hospital in Rockville. Early in 1963, he left his wife for a researcher from Newsweek's Paris office with whom he had started an affair. There were many public embarrassments. On June 20, 1963, after breaking off the affair and returning home, he entered Chestnut Lodge for the second time.
On Aug. 3, "quite noticeably much better," according to his wife, Philip Graham was permitted to go to their farmhouse for the weekend. There, at age 48, he killed himself with a shotgun. Mrs. Graham found him in a downstairs bathroom.
Within days after her husband's death, Mrs. Graham told the board of directors that The Post Co. would stay in the family. On Sept. 20, 1963, after a month's cruise in the Aegean with her mother and daughter and some friends, she assumed the presidency of the company.
"What I essentially did," she said, "was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes and step off the ledge. The surprise was that I landed on my feet."