America’s Top Model

By Katharine Graham
Knopf, 642 pp.

Funny thing about upbringing. It makes all the difference, but not necessarily in the ways one expects. Consider the life of Katharine Graham, who became one of the most prominent figures of her generation, the woman at the helm of the Washington Post during the Pentagon Papers episode and the Watergate scandal.

Though she was born into privilege, almost nothing prepared her for the role into which she was thrust. She was raised in an age when even privileged women were groomed to be society wives and mothers and not much else. By all rights, her formative years should have been a handicap.

In fact, it was the people closest to her, those to whom she was taught to be subordinate – her father, her husband, her strong-willed and intimidating mother – who helped to instill the very qualities of character that were key to her success. Her autobiography is as much an account of her debt to her family as it is the story of her remarkable life.

Born in 1917, she is almost 80 now. Without a trace of hubris, her Personal History exemplifies why she was so good at what became her job and so right for what the job demanded. The book is rich, honest and wise throughout. It is straightforwardly, splendidly written. But more than that, it’s a page-turner. Even in retirement, Katharine Graham is a newspaperwoman who knows how to tell a story.

The story itself is bittersweet, as laced with triumph and tragedy as that of her friends, Jack and Jackie Kennedy. At the heart of both sagas, there is a gunshot that changes everything.

Her father was Eugene Meyer, a self-made millionaire who, in his 40s, turned to public service, working in the governments of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. In 1933, he purchased the bankrupt Washington Post, then only a floundering rival to the Washington Times and the Washington Herald.

Though it would be almost a decade before the Post would turn a profit, it was Meyer who set the paper on the course to becoming the institution it is today. He bought it, not to grind political axes, but to serve the public interest, and he ran it in that spirit, hiring the most conscientious staff he could find. Of all his children, Katharine, the fourth of five, caught the newspaper bug early. After Vassar and the University of Chicago, she spent two months working as a reporter at the San Francisco News, literally covering the waterfront during a longshoreman lockout. By 1939, she was back in Washington, working for her father’s paper.

She fell in with a bright, young, ambitious crowd, including a 25-year-old Harvard Law graduate named Phil Graham who was clerking for a Supreme Court justice. By all accounts, Phil Graham was fiercely intelligent, wickedly funny, handsome and seemingly charmed. The couple were married in 1940.

Katharine was very much in love and so all the more gratified when her husband formed extremely close bonds with her level-headed father and her tempestuous mother. When Phil returned to civilian life after the war, Eugene Meyer invited him to join the management of the Post. The idea was to keep the newspaper β€œin the family.”’ Meyer’s sole male heir, Katharine’s brother Bill, was a physician who had no interest in the business of journalism, and in the ’40s and ’50s it was still all but unthinkable that a woman could run an enterprise like the Post.

So when Eugene Meyer was tapped to become the first president of the World Bank in 1946, it was Phil Graham who vaulted into the publisher’s office. If his father-in-law had established the Post as a solid, reputable title, Phil Graham built it into the influential hub of a much larger media company. While Katharine raised their children, tended their homes and stood by Phil’ s side, her husband purchased Newsweek, television stations and emerged as a Washington power broker, writing speeches for Lyndon Baines Johnson and advising Jack Kennedy.

For all that Phil Graham seemed graced, it developed that he was actually suffering from severe manic depression, although this wasn’t diagnosed at the time. He began to behave erratically. His celebrated wit turned foul and was often directed at his wife. To her horror, Katharine discovered that he was having an affair; that there had been many affairs.

Eventually, in 1963, at an Associated Press dinner, he ranted obscenities from the lectern and had to be dragged off after he began removing his clothes.

He was hospitalized, discharged, hospitalized again. Then, on Aug. 3, after having wangled a release from hospital, he shot himself to death at his country home. From that moment of tragedy, Katharine Graham’s life began anew. She became the head of the Washington Post company. Much of the rest is known, although Personal History fills in all the gossipy details. The company went from strength to strength, although not without extremely rocky moments. It was under her stewardship that the Post defied the Nixon White House and published the Pentagon Papers when the New York Times had been prevented from doing so by court order. When two young reporters from the Post went after the story of the Watergate break-in, the bylines read Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, but the buck stopped at her desk. When the production unions struck the Post for more than four months in 1975-76, the paper missed only one day of publication, the first day of the strike.

She was a success as a corporate officer because she wasn’t an egomaniac, nor did she live to exert power. She was no Margaret Thatcher. She confesses that half the time she was certain she was out of her league. Disputes with colleagues or underlings were likely to prompt her to weep. She was likely a transition figure in the feminist struggle: a pioneer in the corporate boardroom who kept bursting into tears when the going got rough.

Her own misgivings notwithstanding, there’s no doubt she excelled at a pivotal moment in her country’s history. Imagine how things might have gone differently had she been craven in the early days of Watergate, when the Post alone was chasing the story and all the powers of the executive branch were arrayed against it. But she stood firm. Despite her lack of formal preparation, it turned out she had all she needed to do the job that was required. She had moral

  • Montreal Gazette March 29, 1997