Katharine Graham, the tough-minded media giant who led the Washington Post through the publishing minefields of the Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers and ultimately became the most powerful woman in American newspapers, died Tuesday in Boise, Idaho. She was 84.
Graham sustained head injuries in a fall Saturday while on a business trip to Sun Valley, Idaho. She underwent surgery but never regained consciousness.
For many years, as the Post group’s chief executive, she commanded the largest Fortune 500 company ever run by a woman. Under her leadership, the Post grew from a small, family-owned local paper to one with international influence and stature.
“She set a newspaper on a course that took it to the very top ranks of American journalism in principle and excellence and fairness. That’s a fantastic legacy,” said Ben Bradlee, a vice president and former editor of the Post who commented on her life and legacy at a staff meeting at the paper Tuesday. “I just say, ‘Well done, fantastic job.’ ”
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, chairman emeritus of the New York Times Co., said Tuesday that he was deeply saddened by her passing.
“Throughout the last half of the 20th century, she used her intelligence, her courage and her wit to transform the landscape of American journalism, and everyone who cares about a free and impartial press will greatly miss her,” Sulzberger said in a statement.
Another contemporary, former Los Angeles Times Publisher Otis Chandler, said it was difficult to do justice “to her contributions to this nation, to freedom of the press, to journalism and quality writing, to her role in bringing the Washington Post to preeminence as one of the world’s great newspapers, and to the role of women in business.”
Graham was chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Post Co., whose holdings include the Washington Post newspaper, Newsweek magazine and various television and cable broadcast systems, along with interests in the International Herald Tribune and the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.
Graham’s courageous decision in a 1st Amendment battle with the government over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and her later role in backing the investigation of Watergate, established her as one of the great newspaper publishers of the 20th century.
In his book “A Good Life,” Bradlee put Graham’s leadership in perspective when he described the moment she gave the go-ahead to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971: “What I didn’t understand, as Katharine’s ‘OK . . . let’s go. Let’s publish’ rang in my ears, was how permanently the ethos of the paper changed, and how it crystallized for editors and reporters everywhere how independent and determined and confident of its purpose the new Washington Post had become.”
Not long afterward, the Post burnished its reputation when it led the nation’s media in uncovering the Watergate scandal. The Post was alone in its trailblazing investigative reports of dirty dealings in the White House, which led to the indictment of 40 administration officials and to the 1974 resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, who had sworn to ruin Graham if her reporters persisted.
In a Post story on Graham’s death prepared for today’s paper, Bob Woodward, one of the lead reporters in the Post’s Watergate probe, recalled that at the height of the scandal, then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger “was always telling her, ‘You’re wrong; this can’t be.’ Here’s this formidable voice pounding at her, and she didn’t give.
“She was the ultimate brave person, in her personal life and her professional life,” said Woodward, now an assistant managing editor at the Post.
Best-Selling Author at 80
In 1997, at age 80, Graham became a first-time, best-selling author. Her autobiography, “Personal History,” won a 1998 Pulitzer Prize. The sweeping saga chronicles, in Dickensian detail, seven decades in the making of a great newspaper and her rise to prominence as one of the nation’s first great female executives.
Her story is set against a backdrop of political turmoil, personal tragedy and a segment of society in which women were considered no more than necessary accessories for powerful men.
Graham was a late and reluctant bloomer. Her career began at 46, in 1963, when she took over as president of the Post after her husband, Philip, committed suicide.
In the next decade, she transformed the paper from a mediocre and undistinguished journal into one that was read daily by power brokers around the world.
During about the same time span, Graham also reversed the company’s corporate chaos, firing and hiring key personnel, restructuring it to become a financially stable and profitable media giant. She was the paper’s publisher from 1969 to 1979, and the corporate chief executive from 1973 to 1991.
These would have been notable achievements for any man, even one with considerable experience and preparation. But Graham was female, a gender essentially excluded from Washington’s halls of political power and from big-city journalism at the time--not to mention corporate boardrooms. What’s more, she had little preparation or background to run a publishing empire, despite her closeness to the two men who had led it before her--her father and her husband.
“She was a heroic figure, large on the landscape,” said author David Halberstam, who wrote about the transformation of the Post in his 1979 bestseller, “The Powers That Be.” “She assumed control of the paper at a moment of great personal tragedy. The paper she thought was very good turned out to be not very good. Her husband turned out not to be the brilliant publisher she thought he was. So she set out to make the paper better. The bigger the call, the better she made it.”
Katharine Meyer was born in New York City on June 16, 1917, the fourth of five children of Agnes Ernst and Eugene Meyer. Her mother, brilliant and self-absorbed, had a penchant for sarcasm that approached verbal cruelty. Her father, a multimillionaire before he married, became even wealthier. He did everything he could to keep his adored wife happy, which often meant lengthy adventures away from their children.
In her book, Graham recalls a childhood of emotional poverty in the midst of financial privilege. When she and her siblings were toddlers in the family’s New York mansion, for example, their parents left them in the care of nannies for four years while the couple sampled life in Washington.
Even after the children were moved to Washington, the parents were often absent and remote. At one point, young Katharine suggested that she make formal appointments in order to spend time with her busy mother. The mother laughingly repeated the request to friends because it was so “quaint.”
Life was not much better in the teen years. Feeling unattractive and out of place at the exclusive Madeira boarding school, she believed she had only a few friends despite being elected president of her senior class. And though her father knew of her interest in journalism (she was on the school paper at Madeira), he didn’t bother to tell her when he purchased the Washington Post at auction in 1933, for $875,000. She found out by overhearing a conversation about the purchase.
But from that moment on, the Post became the most powerful presence in Katharine Graham’s life. Early on, it provided the only bond she shared with her father. Later, it became the glue in her fragile marriage. And throughout her adulthood, it was a source of power, fame, friends and fortune for her and her husband, Philip.
And finally--after her husband had an affair with a young reporter, descended into mental illness and shot himself to death, it was her work at the Post that lifted her to extraordinary and unexpected heights.
After Madeira, Graham attended Vassar College for a year, transferred to the more intellectually rigorous University of Chicago, and graduated in 1938. She worked briefly as a cub reporter at a San Francisco paper--a job her father arranged--and then went home to the Post in 1939 where, as daughter of the publisher, she was allowed to help with the letters to the editor page and to write “light” editorials. In those days, well-bred women did not do “serious” work. They took dilettante jobs to keep themselves busy until their real lives--marriage and motherhood--kicked in.
The dashing Philip Graham soon appeared on the scene. A Floridian just out of Harvard Law School, he was a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and had all the right credentials (though family money was lacking). After a brief courtship, the self-deprecating Katharine was, in her own words, “charmed and dazzled. And incredulous that this brilliant, charismatic, fascinating man loved me!”
They married in 1940; she quit work, and the first of their four children, Elizabeth, was born in 1943. Philip started at the top, joining his father-in-law at the Post as associate publisher. Katharine’s parents adored the witty, handsome and sophisticated man their daughter had married, and became closer to him, in many ways, than they were to her.
Life of Luxury and Glamour
Graham’s life as wife and daughter of two of Washington’s wealthiest and most socially prominent tycoons was filled with luxury, glamour and no little amount of pain. Glittering dinners and parties at her home were filled with the world’s great intellects, politicians and power brokers. And in 1948, Eugene Meyer retired, turning over his voting stock to the Grahams for $1.
But the relationship between Katharine and Philip was becoming tense and abusive. Increasingly, Philip belittled her in private and public. He took to calling her “Porky” when she gained weight after bearing four children. And Philip held his most significant conversations on politics and world affairs not with Katharine, but with her mother. Once, when Katharine came upon the two of them in deep discussion, her mother shooed her away dismissively: “Pardon us dear. We’re having an intellectual conversation.”
Graham wrote: “Gradually, I became the drudge, and accepted my role as a kind of second-class citizen . . . a role that deepened as time went on, and I became more and more unsure of myself.”
What later became clear is that Graham, although excluded from active participation in her husband’s world, unknowingly absorbed much of what she witnessed as she tagged along in the role of dutiful wife.
Her husband, meanwhile, saw the Post as a vehicle to enhance his own behind-the-scenes power and social clout in Washington. While running the Post and Newsweek, he also wrote speeches and helped formulate policy for such politicos as the Kennedy brothers and Lyndon Johnson. It was Philip Graham, in fact, who helped maneuver Johnson onto the 1960 Democratic ticket with John F. Kennedy. Katharine watched from the sidelines in a convention hotel room; she was the one who ordered coffee and sandwiches.
She later reflected that although her husband was well-intentioned and brilliant, the Post lacked greatness because he used it to further his own agendas. He would put stories in or keep them out in order to achieve his desired goals, she wrote. Under Philip, the Post remained parochial, a local paper with no national impact.
Of the Camelot years, she wrote that her husband and the Kennedy men were male chauvinists. “They liked other bright men and they liked girls. But they didn’t really know how to relate to middle-aged women, in whom they didn’t have a whole lot of interest.” She felt “terror” when with them, because she believed that they considered her boring.
Through the years, Philip Graham had increasing bouts of depression. He became verbally abusive and frequently drank too much. But not enough for Katharine to suspect something was seriously wrong. Only later would his condition be diagnosed as manic depression.
On Christmas Eve, 1962, Katharine picked up a ringing telephone after her husband had already answered it in another room. She eard a snippet of lovers’ talk between him and another woman. When confronted, he said he was in love with a young Newsweek employee, Robin Webb. Then he walked out of their home and their marriage, and started life with his new girlfriend, who accompanied him everywhere. He pursued a divorce so he could marry Webb. He also tried to wrest all remaining shares in the Post from Katharine.
But Katharine was not about to lose both her husband and her paper. She said there would be no divorce unless he gave all his shares to her. She planned to find someone to run the paper until her sons were old enough to take over. It never occurred to her that she could do it herself.
Meanwhile, Philip Graham was being treated for his bouts of depression, which were getting worse and had required hospitalization. But the Grahams’ relationship seemed to be improving. On Aug. 3, 1963, they had lunch on the porch of their country house. Then Philip Graham went to a first-floor bathroom and killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head. Katharine Graham’s first life had suddenly ended.
Running the Post Gave Her a New Life
Her second life started a few weeks later, when she became president of the Washington Post Co., expecting to sit on the sidelines while she learned the job. She quickly saw that would not work. It was a male bastion. And the men who had run it for her husband were condescending and patronizing to his widow, even though it was she who now signed their paychecks. Using old and trusted friends as advisors, she quietly began to take the initiative.
“I quickly learned my first lesson,” she said in a speech years later. “Nothing stands still.”
She, meanwhile, was condescending and patronizing to all the “little people” on her staff who helped to put the paper out, and whose importance she could not quite fathom. She was an insufferable snob with an imperious attitude while feeling totally inadequate herself--an irony she admitted with great candor in her book. “I was used to living among dramatically important people,” she wrote.
But slowly, she began to take to her work, to make the tough daily decisions necessary to run a newspaper. She hired Bradlee, then Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, as managing editor of the Post in 1965. He ushered the paper through its greatest period of journalistic growth. And she sought the counsel of other good friends, such as billionaire investor Warren Buffet, in her efforts to restructure the corporate and financial side. She became a hands-on executive who no longer traveled as the tycoon’s wife, but as the tycoon herself.
In 1965, she and her senior editors took the first of many globe-trotting, news-gathering trips where she conducted interviews with world leaders. Such visits from Graham inspired terror among her far-flung correspondents, who were always mobilized before she arrived to make suitable hotel, coiffeur and entertainment plans.
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, was a junior reporter in the Moscow bureau in 1988, when Graham announced her arrival to interview the head of the Communist Party. Remnick was asked to find a hairdresser for her, and to show her some local color. “The cost of failure was incalculable,” he later wrote. He had heard horror stories of those who had failed: “There was a certain Africa-based correspondent who carved his own career coffin by arranging a balloon safari” over the savanna above grazing giraffes at dawn. Graham is said to have turned to the employee in mid-flight and announced: “You know I didn’t travel all the way here to be a . . . tourist.’ ” The man reportedly ended up as a recipe checker in the Post’s food section.
Remnick survived and went on to write that in spite of Graham’s imperiousness--and her “lockjaw voice that sounded, to us, like money"--there was one infinitely reassuring fact about Katharine Graham upon which all her employees agreed. “At the most important moments of her professional life, she did the right thing.”
In her biography of Katharine Graham, author Carol Felsenthal contends that it was Graham who counted most.
“She allowed her reporters and editors to pursue Watergate even when the Post appeared to be alone in its conviction that Watergate was more than a third-rate burglary,” Felsenthal wrote. “As she [Graham] recalled later, ‘We thought, if this is such a hell of a story, where is the New York Times? Hell, usually if you have a great scoop, everyone else is over it like a wet blanket the next day. And here we are with this . . . cow mess walking down the street and nobody came near it. It was awful.’ ”
In truth, even many Post employees never knew the extent of the risks Graham took in an attempt to do the right journalistic thing and to make her paper great.
In 1971, as Graham was about to take the Post public on the stock exchange, the paper received copies of top-secret reports on Vietnam known as the Pentagon Papers. The government tried to block publication of the papers, and Post lawyers warned that a criminal indictment could jeopardize not only the stock sale but also the survival of the paper itself. Graham gave the go-ahead to publish.
During Watergate, Nixon was so enraged at the Post that he blocked all of the newspaper’s reporters from access to news conferences and attempted to block renewal of the Post’s TV licenses. Graham received advice that her life was in jeopardy and that she should travel nowhere alone. At one point, Nixon formed a plan for a conservative millionaire to buy the paper, with a proposed stockholder’s lawsuit against Graham if she refused to sell. Through it all, Graham never backed down, although the Post’s stock price plummeted from $38 to $17, temporarily cutting the company’s value by half.
It bounced back, as did Graham herself, increasingly more outgoing and able to enjoy life. She became a leader in Washington society, hosting presidents and foreign dignitaries at her Georgetown home. Truman Capote hosted his famous Black and White Ball in her honor. She toured on the yachts of Europe’s great industrialists. A reporter who visited her home wrote that seeing photos of her with seven successive presidents, “one gets the impression that it is they who are being granted an audience with Graham, rather than the other way around.”
Graham stepped down as publisher in 1979, ceding the job to her son Donald. In 1991, she retired as the Post’s chief executive, and two years later as chairman of the board, posts also now held by Donald. She then began writing her memoirs, in longhand on yellow legal pads. “I just wanted to tell the bare facts of what happened in my life,” she told The Times in 1997. “I just wanted to tell it like it was.”
Besides her positions at the Post, Graham also served on the board of the Associated Press and was president of the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. She was a director of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau Inc. and a trustee of the University of Chicago, George Washington University and the Urban Institute.
Her son Stephen said Tuesday that he thought his mother “would want to be remembered as a professional, as a path-breaking woman in business and as a force in journalism. In addition, she had wonderful friends, and her private life was as rich as her public life.”
She is also survived by another son, William; and her daughter, Elizabeth “Lally” Weymouth; 10 grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and her sister, Ruth M. Epstein of Bronxville, N.Y.
Funeral services will be held Monday at the National Cathedral in Washington.