Power of the Press

On that day in 1963 when she walked into the boardroom of The Washington Post to take over the company, Katharine Graham hardly knew what was in store for her. She assumed she would hover discreetly in the background while the business, including the newspaper and Newsweek magazine, more or less ran itself. The reality turned out to be far more complicated—and rewarding. “I didn’t understand the immensity of what lay before me, how frightened I would be by much of it, how tough it was going to be,” she wrote in her memoirs. “Nor did I realize how much I was eventually going to enjoy it all.”

From that inauspicious beginning, Graham, 84, would build one of the most remarkable and lasting careers in American journalism. But on July 14, while attending a business conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, this powerful woman took a spill on a walkway, hitting her head and losing consciousness. She died of the resulting injuries three days later. Saddened friends hailed her for making the Post a premier newspaper. “She came out of the shadows and overcame her own fears to become one of the great publishers and businesswomen of our time,” says longtime friend Barbara Walters, who helped celebrate Graham’s birthday earlier this month in the Hamptons.

Indeed, for all her achievements, Graham hardly led a charmed life. She was born Katharine Meyer in New York City, where her father, Eugene, was a successful banker and her mother, Agnes, a writer. Graham described her childhood as “pretty lonely,” as she and her four siblings were attended to by a dozen servants while their parents were often out of town. In 1933, while Graham was enrolled in the exclusive Madeira School in Virginia, her father purchased the debt-ridden Post at auction for $825,000. After attending Vassar and graduating from the University of Chicago, young Kay took a job as a waterfront reporter for the now-defunct San Francisco News, but soon returned to Washington and the Post.

Within a year she fell in love with an ambitious young Harvard Law School graduate named Phil Graham. The couple married in 1940, and after World War II Phil accepted an offer from his father-in-law to become an executive with the Post. In 1948 Meyer gave outright control of the paper to Graham, on the theory that no man should have to work for his wife—a notion that Kay accepted without complaint. At home the Grahams struggled with a host of family troubles. They suffered through the death of a newborn son in 1942 before having four more children—Lally, now 58, a journalist; Donald, 56, who took over as chairman of the Post in 1993; William, 53, an investor; and Stephen, 49, a producer and philanthropist.

By the late 1950s the marriage was unraveling because of Phil’s severe depression and unfaithfulness. It ended tragically in 1963 when Phil, on a brief leave from a psychiatric institution, shot himself to death in the family home, leaving Kay to find the body.

Though by her own description “painfully shy,” Graham would grow to enjoy the social cachet that her new role entailed. In 1966 her close friend Truman Capote threw his now legendary Black and White Ball in her honor. But her greatest triumph was the stamp she put on the Post, especially during the Pentagon Papers episode in 1971 and the Post’s groundbreaking Watergate investigation a couple of years later. Despite enormous pressure from the White House in both cases, Graham never knuckled under, spurring her staff to pursue both stories vigorously. Even so, she never forgot her social graces. “She’d call and say, ‘How about a movie?’ ” recalls Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Richard Nixon.

Though she had long ago ceded control of the Post to son Donald, Graham, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1997 memoirs Personal History, had remained passionate about the issues facing American journalism. Which surprised no one who ever encountered her. “People who grow up without any hardships,” she told PEOPLE in a 1997 interview, “are the ones who go on to lead pretty unproductive lives.”

Tom Waldron in Washington, D.C.

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