The Real-Life Woman Behind The Post: Katharine Graham's Journey from Tragedy to Triumph

"She was not the confident Katharine Graham that people came to know as the first female hand of a Fortune 500 company," Meryl Streep, who plays Graham in The Post, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.

Meryl Streep brings Katharine Graham to life in The Post, Steven Spielberg‘s new movie about the Washington Post‘s first female publisher famous for choosing to print the Pentagon Papers. The real-life Katherine — who spent most of her adult life as a society wife, raising four children and hosting famous friends like the Kennedys at her D.C. home — stepped into the role in 1963 after her husband Phillip committed suicide.

“She was not the confident Katharine Graham that people came to know as the first female hand of a Fortune 500 company,” Streep, Golden Globe nominated for her turn as Katherine, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “She was someone very unsure of herself. And not born to manage a major company. She was the product of her time. Where women weren’t expected to do much outside the realm of good works, good child raising and household keeping.”

Katherine was born in 1917 to Agnes and Eugene Meyer in their Fifth Avenue apartment and spent summers in Mount Kisco, N.Y. Just months after her birth, Katherine’s parents moved to Washington, D.C. to support Eugene’s growing political career, leaving Katherine and her three siblings to be raised by two governesses before they all moved to the Capitol when she was four. Using the money from his successful business investments, Eugene bought the Post at auction in 1933 while Katherine was away at boarding school. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1938, she entered the journalism business herself with a gig her dad landed at the San Francisco News. She made $21 a week.

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When the California paper landed on tumultuous times the next year, Katherine moved back home to work for the Post, and quickly met Phillip Graham, a law clerk at the time, during her escapades on D.C.’s social scene. On their second date in February 1940, Phil suggested the two wed.

“I agreed that it sounded like quite a good idea, but perhaps a bit rash, and that we should put the idea of marriage on hold for a month or so while we deliberated,” Katharine wrote in her memoir, Personal History. She married Phil wearing a made-to-order dress designed by Bergdorf Goodman on June 5, 1940 in Mount Kisco. “My father was fabulous,” says Lally Weymouth, the couple’s only daughter and a journalist herself (Alison Brie in the movie). “And she was wildly in love with him.”

For more about Katherine Graham and The Post, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.

Katharine lost two babies before giving birth to Lally in 1943, followed by Don, William and Stephen. She raised them between their D.C. home and the family’s Virginia farm, Glen Welby. “She was really a regular mother,” Lally gushes. “She took us to school stuff, we went to our farm on the weekends, she took me to riding meetings; It was so ordinary.”

After Phil served in the Army, Eugene passed the job of the Post‘s publisher to his son-in-law. As the Grahams’ news empire grew to include two local papers, Newsweek, and radio stations across the country, so did Phil’s depression. He cheated on Katharine with a France-based Newsweek reporter and ran off with her before returning to his wife in 1963. Just months following their reunion, Phil shot and killed himself at their farm, leaving a question of who would run the Post. (In a sad parallel, their son Bill also died of apparent suicide in December.) “There were rumors all over Washington that we would sell the paper,” Lally recalls. “But she knew she was not going to do that. She knew she wanted to run it but she had no experience as a working woman.”

Katharine, intending to keep the paper in the family, committed to learning the business side of a male-dominated industry. “That part was a mystery to her,” Don says. “She felt she didn’t know enough. She would sometimes go a week and not be in a business meeting where there was another woman.”

RELATED VIDEO: Ben Bradlee, Former Washington Post Editor, Dies At 93

Adds Streep, “There were very few women in business, very few women in law, there was no one on the Supreme Court. Women were still a little bit invisible at that point in time. And the focus of history came to rest on this particular woman’s shoulders.”

So Katharine took cues from experienced Post staffers, traveled with reporters on worldwide assignments and enrolled in a management course through IBM. “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, and how many anxious hours and days I would spend for a long, long time,” she writes.

In 1965, Katharine made one of her key hires in Ben Bradlee, which she refers to in her autobiography as “one of the most cherished professional and personal relationships of my life.”

Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks in The Post, relied on her to make a conclusion that could’ve landed them both in jail and ended the paper. “They had no idea that history was going to shift so profoundly by this,” Streep says. “They were just trying to get their deadlines, to solve a mystery. They were just trying to get their deadlines, to solve a mystery. To negotiate where this could fall out personally, how this could personally jeopardize careers. All those little decisions that go into anybody making the right civic decision. The right decision as a citizen. To stand up for something true.”

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Niko Tavernise

Katharine ultimately gave the go-ahead because of how the Post‘s chairman Fritz Beebe, also the Grahams’ estate lawyer and one of her closest confidantes, responded to the predicament. “Fritz said, ‘Kay, on the whole, I would not,’ ” recalls Don. “She said that seemed to me like an open door.”

Her choice to publish the Pentagon Papers solidified the Post as a nationally respected news source and paved the way for the paper to launch the Watergate investigation that lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. She served as the Post’s publisher until 1979, going on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 1998 memoir and earning a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, one year after her death at age 84.

But it’s her actions during what Don names the “most dramatic single day of her business life” that have renewed interest in her legacy.

“Katharine Graham was taking a stance at a time when it was very difficult for her to do that,” Streep declares. “Because she was not only doubted by her adversaries, but also by her friends. And it’s a particularly lonely thing to do, to try to stand up under those circumstances. And that more than anything is how ordinary people can really move the needle in history.”

The Post is in theaters now.

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