Katharine Graham

IN THE LIBRARY OF KATHARINE Graham’s home on R Street, an air of luxe serenity prevails: Only a cozy crackling from the fireplace breaks the stillness of a winter afternoon. Opposite a wall of worn classics looms a portrait of Graham. Over one deep sofa are watercolor sketches; near another is a photo of Diana, Princess of Wales: “Dearest Kay, Fondest Love, Diana.”

As it happens, The Washington Post’s publisher emeritus is uneasy today. Behind her are seven years of work on Personal History, in which she revisits her privileged childhood, her husband’s suicide and, of course, Watergate. Ahead of her: a book tour and questions about subjects she’d hoped to put to rest. “I’ve spent my life trying to stay out of things,” she is saying, “and now I feel as if I’ve opened a door and I’m standing naked.”

Sitting erect, a telephone with intercom extensions marked Staff Dining Room and Pressing Room beside her, Graham (in a sweater and trousers) does seem slightly vulnerable. She speaks in a soft, patrician alto; when her hands flutter to the pearls at her throat, the elbows stay close to her body. At her side is a cane—a reminder of her hip-replacement surgery in October.

Still, this is a woman whose name is synonymous with power and who is loath to relinquish its perks. Stationed in an armchair is Chip Knight, the Post’s VP for corporate communications. Though she stipulates that “he’s not here to police me or to police you,” she makes it clear that without him the interview is off.

At 79, Graham is a curious admixture of elegance and steel, self-doubt and dogged determination. Though “truly quite shy,” in the words of close friend Nancy Reagan, she has attracted admirers from Lyndon Johnson to Adlai Stevenson to entrepreneur Warren Buffett. The Kennedys were close friends, and so was Truman Capote; in 1966 he honored her with the legendary Black and White Ball at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel. Glamor aside, it was as a tough-minded manager that she came into her own. An heiress who made the transition to president of the Washington Post Company, she is regarded by many as a pioneer. “It took a long time for her to stop being a doormat of the people she employed,” says Gloria Steinem, a friend since 1971. “She is a woman of great wisdom, authority and beauty who never thought of herself as such.”

Though Personal History is free of self-pity, Graham doesn’t deny that her belief in herself is hard-won. Forty-one when Graham was born, Eugene Meyer was a “strong, brilliant, able, witty” man, she writes, who was “rather difficult” as a parent. The son of a financier, Meyer had made a fortune on Wall Street before meeting Agnes Ernst, a Barnard graduate who worked as a reporter on the New York Sun. Their marriage was often strained: “Completely self-absorbed,” by Graham’s description, her mother frequently headed off to Europe—feeding on friendships with artists, including photographer Edward Steichen.

In 1917, the year Graham was born, her parents moved from Manhattan to Washington. For the next four years, she and her four siblings remained in a Fifth Avenue apartment with a nanny and a governess. Even after they brought their brood to Washington, the Meyers kept their emotional distance. Though she admits she was “pretty lonely” as a child, Graham adds quickly: “that’s not going to kill you. I think that people who grow up without any hardships are the ones who go on to lead pretty unproductive lives.”

Failing to be productive, in fact, was forbidden in the Meyer household. Brother Bill became a psychiatrist; sister Elizabeth studied the violin. Younger sister Ruth chose nursing, while sister Florence was a dancer. For her part, Graham discovered journalism when she joined the magazine staff at the Madeira School in Virginia. In the 1934 yearbook her prophecy read, “Kay’s a Big Shot in the newspaper racket.”

As it happened, Meyer had retired in 1933 and bought the bankrupt Washington Post. To Graham—a copy-girl in the summer of 1934—the news business became a heady link to her elusive father. At 21, after college and a stint at the San Francisco News, she joined the Post. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll get rid of her,” Eugene told TIME, which mentioned her move.

Within a year her perspective changed forever: Phil Graham—a man whom she still describes as “unbelievably charming, funny and bright”—swaggered into the picture. Two years her elder, he had scrambled from rural Florida to Harvard Law School to the Supreme Court, where he was a law clerk. Members of a clique of ambitious Washingtonians, the two fell in love over a casual dinner early in 1940; by spring they were engaged.

For more than two decades the Grahams’ lives were entwined professionally as well as psychologically. In 1943, after a miscarriage and the death of a newborn, Graham bore Elizabeth (known as Lally). Sons Don, Bill and Steve followed. She left the Post reins to Phil, who received the lion’s share of the stock when Meyer gave the paper to the Grahams in 1948. (“No man,” explained Meyer, “should have to work for his wife.”) But while Graham adored her husband, she also found herself in deep shadow. Fearful that age had sapped her allure, she retreated—”becoming more inarticulate,” as she puts it, as her high-profile spouse began lobbing cruel jokes at her.

Although he was often ill and sometimes drank heavily, she was astonished when, in 1957, Phil spun out of control. “It was classic depression, but I didn’t know what was the matter,” she says. Referred to a psychiatrist who shunned drugs, Phil rallied but never recovered. For years, she says, the Grahams “tried to hide his illness from the world…[When he sank] you could say he was worn out…And [he didn’t become destructive] until the very end.”

The final slide began late in 1962: On Christmas Eve, Graham answered the phone at their house in Georgetown; before she could speak, she heard Phil talking with Robin Webb, a Newsweek reporter who, as she would discover, was his mistress. Confronted by a shattered Graham, he promised to sever the relationship. Still, Webb was at his side when he attended a meeting in Phoenix the following month. Clearly unwell, he began speaking gibberish when he took the podium to make a speech. Finally subdued and flown to Washington in a plane sent by JFK, Phil entered a private mental hospital. Weeks later he asked for a divorce, saying he planned to marry Webb. But the end came before the marriage could be dissolved; together for a weekend when Phil was granted a brief leave, the Grahams went to their house in Virginia on Aug. 3. While Graham was napping, he took a gun downstairs and pulled the trigger.

Today, Graham admits that she is still haunted by the hypotheticals: “How could the hospital have let him out? Why did I not…?” she pauses. “Why did we have guns around the house? The place was just an armory.”

In a fog of shock, Graham found herself president of the Washington Post Company (which, by the time she retired as chairwoman in 1993, had acquired Newsweek and several TV stations). Determined to preserve the business, she began by “going through the motions,” she says. Though plagued with guilt about returning to work, she discovered that “I loved my job [and] I loved the paper.” Still, her confidence blossomed slowly. “It was a tremendous transition to go from being an excellent mother to being an excellent tycoon,” says daughter Lally Weymouth, a journalist.

Over time, Graham learned to focus on the Post instead of her own fear. She also became a quiet radical. “One of her executives told her that girls could not be newsboys,” says Steinem. “She got so angry that she threw an ashtray. And she changed the policy.”

Though the Post prospered, it would not find its place in history until 1972. On June 18 it reported that there had been a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee. As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein filed follow-ups, the threats began: Richard Nixon promised to block the renewal of licenses for two Post TV stations, and Attorney General John Mitchell warned, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer.”

In 1973 the Post won a Pulitzer; the next summer, Nixon stepped down—an event that seemed “anticlimactic,” in the words of former Post writer Sally Quinn. When Nixon resigned, says Quinn, she and Ben Bradlee (then the Post’s executive editor) grabbed Graham and wandered into a Georgetown restaurant where they “sat there and stared at each other in disbelief.”

Since then, Graham (who handed the publisher’s job to son Don in 1979) has maintained the aura of a woman who fears nothing. “She is an imposing presence,” concedes Bradlee. “The ownership of this paper gives you a power awesome to other people.”

For all that, friends say she has never lost touch with the world beyond R Street. Says columnist Art Buchwald: “For a woman who has been through as much as she has, she’s a very warm-hearted lady.”

These days, when she isn’t contemplating the slightly unnerving fact that she has turned her life into fodder for other journalists, Graham is rediscovering genteel pleasures like bridge and cultivating friendships with younger folk. Tennis is out for the moment, but at Martha’s Vineyard, where she keeps a house, “she’s very social,” reports Quinn. “She knows everybody, so she gets invited everywhere.”

Retirement or no, Graham has never lost her love for newspapers. “Every day is compelling,” she says. “I love news—if somebody writes a great story, it excites me still.” To this day, she calls Post editors to suggest stories. The latest of which is?

She pauses. “I can’t tell you,” she says finally. A girlish smile blooms briefly, then fades. She says nothing, but it’s clear that someone at the Post can expect a call.

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