When Katharine Graham’s husband, Philip Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, ended his life, Katharine went to work. Thinking she would just keep the Post in the family until her children could take over, little did the shy housewife know she would face off with the government and bring the Post into a new era of investigative journalism by doing what she thought was right—printing the truth.
At 80 years old, Katharine’s truth also earned her a Pulitzer Prize for her best-selling 1997 autobiography, Personal History. Katharine said, “I don’t suppose that I meant to tell everything to everybody. But once I sat down to write my story, I tended to be frank and open. I wanted to be very truthful. I wrote it the way I saw it, and the way the research [went].”i The book was praised for her honesty about her husband’s struggles with mental health, her changing views on a women’s role in society, and major news events that affected the direction of the paper.
Katharine Meyer Graham was born in New York on June 16, 1917, and moved to Washington, D.C. soon after. Katharine’s father, Eugene Meyer, made big money on Wall Street and bought the struggling Washington Post in 1933 when Katharine was 16. Katharine went off to Vassar College, transferring two years later to the University of Chicago. In 1939, she went to work at the Post editing letters to the editor. She met Philip Graham, a lawyer and a clerk at the Supreme Court, through mutual friends. The two married on June 5, 1940. They suffered immediate tragedy with the loss of their first baby (due to a hospital accident), but went on to have four more children.
Although the Post had made strides in circulation and advertising under her father, it was still losing money every year. Wanting a successor to the paper, Katharine’s father offered it to Philip, who was 30 at the time. After some thought, Philip accepted the work. Soon thereafter, Katharine’s father left the paper for a position as president of the World Bank. Philip was named publisher at age 31, and from 1947, he, too, struggled to make the paper profitable.
In the meantime, Katharine took full charge of home matters, handling everything so Philip could concentrate on the high demands of the paper. In addition to the stress of the business, Philip also battled undiagnosed manic depression before proper drugs were available or advised for it. Although he admitted himself into a psychiatric hospital, on a weekend out in August 1963, he killed himself with a rifle at their Virginia home.
Katharine was widowed at 46 with four children, the oldest 20. The family’s political connections were such that the funeral took place in the Washington National Cathedral with President Kennedy in attendance. Kennedy sent her a note telling her how helpful Philip had been to him since his arrival in Washington. Jackie Kennedy wrote Katharine an eight page letter – “one of the most understanding and comforting of any I received.” ii
Of her new widowhood, Katharine wrote in her memoir, “Left alone, no matter at what age or under what circumstances, you have to remake your life…Always in my mind was the climax of the years of secret struggle with Phil’s illness, the shock of the suicide, the loss, and the eternal questions about why and what next.” iii
A month after his suicide, Katharine went to work. She was elected President of The Washington Post Company on September 20, 1963, and set about learning the business. In her mind, she would just observe, remaining a “silent partner” until her children could take over. “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. Nor did I realize how much I was going to enjoy it all.” iv
Though Philip and her father had discussed their work at the paper with Katharine, she felt overwhelmed without Phil’s guidance. “Though I had learned a great deal from him, I still felt insecure making my own decisions.” v But one thing Katharine did know—she had inner strength gained during her last demanding year with Philip when forced to bear all the burdens of home.
Katharine finally realized she just couldn’t lead the Post the way Philip or her father had done. She could only do the job in her own way—whatever that way turned out to be. In addition to her outstanding staff, she knew she had another, very important asset—her passion for the business. “I cared a great deal about the company…It’d been part of my whole life…” vi
Katharine wrote in her memoir: “What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the edge.” vii
Some of her simplest new duties terrified her—having to speak before groups. “I was asked to go down and say “Merry Christmas” at the company lunch…I practiced making this speech saying “Merry Christmas” in front of the children, because I’d never said anything in public.” viii
Katharine was named publisher of the paper in 1969. In the early 70s, Katharine would have to do a lot more than say, “Merry Christmas.” In 1971, while the federal government fought against The New York Times to prevent publication of the “Pentagon Papers,” which contained secrets about its handling of Vietnam, it was up to Katharine as publisher to decide if The Washington Post would publish these papers—something her editors urged her to do, citing it was their duty to inform the public of the truth. The government felt publishing them was contrary to the “national welfare.” Her lawyers, fearing retribution against the company, urged her not to publish them. Katharine stated in her memoir: “Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish.’” ix
Soon afterwards, The Washington Post reporters relentlessly covered the Watergate break-in, despite the threats made against the paper and Katharine herself. “I made a lot of speeches defending us during Watergate…I was trying to explain that we were reporting a story, that we weren’t after the administration, and that it wasn’t our intention to do them in. We were following the footsteps of the story...” x
Revelations forced the resignation of President Nixon. On Friday, August 6, 1974, The Washington Post reported: “Richard Milhous Nixon announced last night that he will resign as the 37th President of the United States at noon today… After two years of bitter public debate over the Watergate scandals, President Nixon bowed to pressures from the public and leaders of his party to become the first President in American history to resign.” xi
Katharine was becoming known as one of the most powerful women in the country. She felt privileged to have such a unique connection to Washington’s history, but knew it came with heavy duties. Her father had always taught her “that with privilege comes responsibilities…” xii
When she spoke years later at C-SPAN on February 16, 1997, about her life, she summarized her role at The Washington Post: “…the Post has the power to inform people…I never see stories before they get in the papers. I have the power to pick an editor or publisher that will do the job well, and that is my general mode of thought. But after that, they have autonomy…I have more responsibility than power.” xiii
She said, “[Today,] you have to influence events by giving people information by which they can make decisions…” xiv
At the age of 83, Katharine, who never wanted to stop work entirely despite retiring from The Washington Post Company nearly a decade earlier, decided to compile articles and memoirs by others into the book, Katharine Graham’s Washington, where she stated: “I have been connected—either indirectly through my parents, or directly—with more than a third of all the presidents who have served the United States…I have ‘known’ sixteen of them. Even I was awed when faced with the facts.” xv
Katharine died at the age of 84 as the result of injuries sustained in a fall on her way to a bridge game. On July 17, 2001, The New York Times reported: “Katharine Graham, who transformed The Washington Post from a mediocre newspaper into an American institution and, in the process, transformed herself from a lonely widow into a publishing legend, died today...” xvi
Katharine now lies with her husband, Philip Graham, at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
This article is an excerpt from the new book by Lisa Saunders, After the Loss of a Spouse, Henry VIII to Julia Child. Available on Amazon.com.
BERGER, M. (2001, July 17). Katharine Graham, Former Publisher of Washington Post, Dies at 84. Retrieved from New York Times:
Biography.com Editors . (2016, March 8). Katharine Graham Biography . Retrieved from The Biography.com website :
Graham, K. (1997). Personal History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Graham, K. (1999). Katharine Graham. In B. Lamb, BOOKNOTES: Life Stories (p. 238). New York: Three Rivers Press, Crown Publishing Group, National Cable Satellite Corporation.
Graham, K. (2002). Katharine Graham's Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Katharine Graham: A Life Remembered . (2001, July 17). Retrieved from NPR: http://www.npr.org/news/specials/kgraham/010717.kgraham.html
Katherine Graham 1917-2001. (2001, July 17). Retrieved from The Washington Post : http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/20/AR2006032000789.html
Kilpatrick, C. (1974, August 6). Nixon Resigns. Retrieved from The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/articles/080974-3.htm
[i] (Graham, Katherine Graham, 1999, p. 333)
[ii] (Graham, Personal History, 1997, p. 337)
[iii] (Graham, Personal History, 1997, p. 339)
[iv] (Graham, Personal History, 1997, p. 340)
[v] (Graham, Personal History, 1997, p. 340)
[vi] (Graham, Katherine Graham, 1999, p. 337)
[vii] (Graham, Personal History, 1997, p. 341)
[viii] (Graham, Katherine Graham, 1999, pp. 337,338)
[ix] (Graham, Personal History, 1997, p. 450)
[x] (Graham, Katherine Graham, 1999, p. 337)
[xi] (Kilpatrick, 1974)
[xii] (Graham, Katherine Graham's Washington, 2002, p. 4)
[xiii] (Graham, Katherine Graham, 1999, p. 338)
[xiv] (Graham, Katherine Graham, 1999, p. 336)
[xv] (Graham, Katherine Graham's Washington, 2002, p. 5)
[xvi] (BERGER, 2001)