Image: Sam Woolley (GMG), Photo: Getty, Shutterstock

This was first published as “Pillar of the Post” in the May 20, 1976 issue of The National Observer. It appears here with the author’s permission.


I came from this incredibly high-powered family. My mother was sort of a Viking. Very bright, and utterly contemptuous of everyone else. When I told her I had read The Three Musketeers, she said, “undoubtedly a waste of time, my dear, unless you read it in the original French.”

Advertisement

I swear the first compliment she ever paid me was when I was giving a party for my 18-year-old daughter. As we were doing the preparations, my mother said, “Darling, you’re so good at lists!”

Actually, she was a good mother in that she told us: “You can’t just sit around the house and be rich. You must do something.” But of course she never made me feel I could do anything at all.


It might be reasonably argued that at 58, Katharine Meyer Graham has indeed “done something” other than sit around her various houses being rich. Perhaps the most celebrated something is puckishly alluded to in the office of Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee—in the form of a cartoon. Gerald Ford is standing at a lectern explaining, “I got my job through the Washington Post.”

Advertisement

Deposing one American President, causing at least two others to phone her in fury, not to mention recently turning out the Post’s entire press-men’s union on its heels, are among some of the “things” Katharine Graham has done. She also holds the dubious distinction of being dressed down, so to speak, in Lyndon Johnson’s bedroom.

Displeased by the lead article in an early edition of the next day’s Post, Johnson summoned Graham—who was at the White House for a party—and former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas into his bedroom. There LBJ began ranting at Graham while he mindlessly undressed for bed. “My God,” Graham kept thinking, “this can’t really be happening.” Finally, down to his underwear, Johnson realized his predicament. He swiftly solved it. “Turn around!” He thundered, and continued berating Graham.

Being berated by top Government officials, as well as social heavies who smolder at what the Post has said about them, is an almost daily occurrence in Graham’s life. Yet she may well be dining with the same people that same night, hosting a party for Britain’s Prime minister, or going to the movies with Henry Kissinger. Predictably, the words “most powerful woman in America” fall from many admirers’ lips—to Graham’s dismay. “It makes me sound like a female weight lifter,” she says.

Advertisement

Still, Graham’s power cannot be so breezily dismissed. She is publisher of the capitol’s most influential newspaper and board chairman and chief stockholder of a communications empire that also includes Newsweek, six broadcast stations, the Trenton Times, part of the International Herald Tribune, half (with the Los Angeles Times) of a national news service, and most of a newsprint company. Though it may be argued that The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times wield more clout nationally, the fact is that Graham runs the one paper read before 9:00 a.m. by the President, Congress, and the rest of the Federal bureaucracy—who collectively wield more power than any single group in the country. Not only that, but Washington-based reporters for other papers and media read the Post, too, and their follow-ups ripple out across the country. If Betty Ford is not then most influential woman in America, Graham surely is.

Says former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford: “An invitation to Kay Graham’s house is second only to one to the White House.” In fact, Graham is one of few private citizens whose parties Presidents themselves attend. After retiring to his ranch in Texas, Lyndon Johnson phoned Graham to say he was planning a trip to Washington. “Can I have lunch for you, or a dinner?” inquired Graham. Replied LBJ: “Both.”


I phoned the latter not long ago to inform (suggest to?) her that I was doing a story on her. Actually, I informed Graham’s personal secretary, who informed me that Graham would call back. Two hours later she did. “What are you doing?” she moaned in a voice that has been described by some as Long Island lock-jaw, by others as authentic Auntie Mame. Or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Gatsby’s Daisy, “Her voice is full of money.” But it tinkled warmly.

Advertisement

I explained.

“But, my God,” she said in alarm, “so much has been written. What else is there to say?”

She was right, in a way. Her ascension to power has been well-publicized. The fourth of five children born to Eugene Meyer, a wealthy investment banker who purchased the Post for $825,000 in a bankruptcy sale in 1933, and a brilliant energetic mother who translated Thomas Mann and studied Chinese art, Graham had gone first to Vassar, later to the University of Chicago.

Advertisement

After spending a year reporting for the old San Francisco News (labor disputes on the waterfront, ironic), she returned to Washington. Here she met Philip Graham, yet another brilliant, high-energy achiever, who had been president of the Harvard Law Review and a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. He was also handsome, winsome, and devastatingly charming. Kay Graham, it seems, spent most of her life hovering in other people’s dazzling afterglows.

Graham leaving a courthouse with Ben Bradlee in 1971
Photo: AP

Which made it all the more wrenching when, on a summer afternoon in 1963, after a years-long mental illness, Phil Graham committed suicide. The Post company had been passed on to the Grahams years before, so the self-doubting society matron and mother of four was jarringly transformed to corporate executive. Indeed, so swift was the change-over that she found herself facing the Post’s board of directors even before Graham’s funeral. Her first words, as one Newsweek executive recalls, were, “I know that you’ve been through a pretty rough time this last year, and I want to thank you for bearing up” during Graham’s illness.

Advertisement

Since then Kay Graham has converted a loosely structured, family owned business into a professionally run, publicly held corporation whose revenues jumped from $85.5 million in 1963 to $309.3 million in 1975. That puts Graham’s empire on Fortune magazine’s list of the 500 largest U.S. companies—albeit in slot No. 498.

Says publisher Allen Neuharth of the Gannett newspapers: “She has forced herself to learn a hell of a lot more about publishing than she cares to know. I could not be more impressed with the transformation she has made and the effective way she has taken over the leadership of that company.” Not all publishers are so admiring, but Clay Felker says: “Many of them are jealous. At first, she was Little Kay Graham, the only woman in the room. Now she has done the unforgivable: The little woman who didn’t know anything has made her paper equal of The New York Times in the national prestige and expanded the company in other areas as well.”


The transformation of Graham has been ever more striking. The woman who once barely spoke at her own parties was recently described by a union participant in the recent labor negotiations as a “tough bitch, a very calculating, rather cold, egotistical woman.” Watergate reporter Bob Woodward confides, “I know I shouldn’t say this, but I find her very sensual.” In the next breath, and with the same degree of awe, Woodward adds, “You get the feeling that if she loses faith in you, she’ll cut your balls off, or your ovaries, or whatever.”

Advertisement

I wanted to know about her, I explained into the telephone. She sighed resignedly. “I do abhor these things,” she said, “But if I’m going to do them, I’d rather do more than less.”

Doing more than less is a Graham trademark, as I, and several hundred others, learned two nights later. Sigma Delta Chi, the professional journalism society, was honoring Post columnist David Broder, and Graham had been asked to introduce him. I, in turn, had been invited to meet her at her house beforehand.

Compliantly, I entered the wrought-iron gate fronting her Georgetown house and crunched up a circular driveway that spanned a spacious lawn. A uniformed housekeeper led me into a room big enough to lose the four couches scattered inside it. Ceiling-high bookshelves, expensive art, and pictures of Graham’s three grandchildren were among the appointments.

Advertisement

Propped up on the mantel was a reproduction of an advertisement showing an old-fashioned woman slaving over a paper-folding machine. In one corner, someone had written: “To Mrs. Graham. From Muscles. How long, oh Lord?” this apparently referred to the then-current Post strike, during which Graham took classified ads and worked Saturday nights in the mailroom, wrapping Sunday airmail editions—sometimes aided by her chauffeur, secretary, daughter, and a grandchild.

Eventually, Graham entered the room, wearing a long purple knit dress—a Halston?—and carrying a mink jacket. She is tall and slender, with perfectly coiffed gray hair and large, warm, brown eyes. She is at once both elegant and youthfully gawky. With her groaning that she’d much rather spend the evening reading in bed, “but I so adore David,” we entered her dark-green Mercedes 450 SEL and went purring off to the banquet.

Graham is nervous and visibly discomfited public speaker. She fretted over her remarks through most of dinner, and at last rose to deliver them. Included was someone’s ditty about Broder, written to the tune of “Rock of Ages.” Graham had intended only to speak the words, but suddenly—to everyone’s astonishment, including hers—she was singing. A startled Broder thanked her “for inviting us, Katharine, to your debut as a nightclub singer.” Graham later confided: “I don’t know what came over me. It just happened. I was horrified.”

Advertisement

Nightclub singer or not, the woman whom former Attorney General John Mitchell immortalized with his famous putdown, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer,” is hardly the “bitch bringing down presidents” that she fears people think. Though Bradlee describes her as “no shrinking violet” and Newsweek Editor Edward Kosner hails her as “a Joan of Arc in a pants suit,” Graham gives the impression of being a basically shy woman who must constantly steel herself for the ordeal at hand. As such, she seems to wield her power tentatively—almost reluctantly—and appears always to agonize over the results.


As one man, who pleads anonymity but could be described as having no love lost for Graham, recalls: “On a day the Post broke a very incriminating story about Watergate, she was at an Associated Press annual meeting. And she remarked to several of us, ‘My, God, what have we done? Are we actually going to be responsible for bringing down the Government?’”

Advertisement

Yet once properly steeled, Graham stands committed, as those who work for her found out—some the hard way.

Graham immediately faced two demanding problems when she took over the Post. One: earning the business from the top. And two: drastically altering her view of herself. 

Advertisement

Says she: “I really felt I was put on earth to take care of Phil Graham. He was so glamorous that I was perfectly happy just to clean up after him. I did all the scutwork: paid the bills, ran the houses, drove the children. I was always the butt of family jokes. You know, good old mom, plodding along. And I accepted it. That’s the way I viewed myself.”

So much did she live in her husband’s shadow that in 1961, while he was negotiating to buy Newsweek, she withheld the news that she had tuberculosis. Only after the celebration did she mention it. Then she promptly went to bed for two months.

Post Managing Editor Howard Simons recalls of Graham, “She was like a new doe in the forest getting up on wobbly legs.” Sometimes literally. Donald Graham, 30, assistant general manager and heir apparent to the Post empire, remembers the first time his mother had to address the paper’s staff. “It was at the office Christmas part,” he says, “and the whole talk couldn’t have been more than two minutes long, most of it written by Art Buchwald. But a half-hour beforehand, there she was standing in front of a mirror with the four children, worrying over each word and asking our advice.” (Speech lessons haven’t quelled Graham’s dread of public speaking, so she generally reads her material.)

Advertisement


At the time, Graham not only “didn’t know quite where to look on the balance sheet for that important figure,” but wasn’t even sure how to give orders to a secretary. Moreover, she didn’t know how to give orders to men. Says she: “I had deferred to men for ages. They knew better.”

Worse, Graham’s own attitude was, “I figured everything was going all right—why upset them? Knowing she was unwanted in some offices, she went only to those where she was welcome. But gradually her confidence grew. As it did, some of those doubting men found themselves unemployed. Says one friend: “They were shocked. They couldn’t believe she had fired them. They were businessmen and they should have seen her as a businesswoman. But they didn’t.”

Advertisement

Actually, it wasn’t until Graham took the company public in 1971 that she plunged full force into the business side. When she did, heads rolled. In three years, she replaced two heads of the newspaper division. Other top-level changes were made—and remade–to the point where in 1974 and 1975 the Post had difficulty finding a new vice president to oversee all production departments. According to a Post article on Graham and the recent strike, the Post approached executives at more than half a dozen newspapers, but those the Post wanted most turned down the job—even when extremely high salaries were mentioned. The Post article quotes one former executive as saying, “The Washington Post is Jaws to the general-management and production personnel around the country.”

Graham takes full responsibility for the top-level firings. “I always thought,” she says, “if you worked hard enough and tried hard enough, things would work out. I was wrong.” She adds: “It haunted me. I wanted to get the problems straightened out.”

To a large extent, she has. Says securities analyst Lee Dirks: “Until the company went public it wasn’t run even to a normal degree with an eye on profitability. There weren’t the top executives saying, ‘We have to pay more attention to the bottom line.’ But today I have to give her credit—not that she knows all the financial ins and outs—but for amassing a group of executives that does.”

Advertisement

In one week recently, Graham spoke at the exclusive Economic Club of Chicago and at the Harvard business school. And that’s when this peculiar thing happened.

Graham poses with Truman Capote in 1966
Photo: AP

Permitted to accompany her to Chicago, I booked on the same flight and phoned her secretary to find out where Graham would be staying. The Ritz-Carlton, I was told. Without giving it a thought, I called the Ritz to reserve a room. No sooner had I hung up than the phone rang. Graham.

Advertisement

She was upset to the point of stammering. She would not have me staying at the same hotel, she told me furiously. It was an invasion of her privacy. Yes, she had agreed to cooperate, but this was simply too much. If I insisted on staying at the Ritz, she would change hotels!

I was taken aback. The Ritz is a large hotel. Did she think I might come banging on her door at all hours? Skulk through the lobby spying on her, or—what?

Indignantly, I agreed to change hotels. My indignation grew to distemper when, two days. Later, I arrived at the Post and her secretary told me over the house phone that Graham would leave for the airport in half an hour—would I please wait in the lobby?

Advertisement

The lobby is not a waiting room. Since the strike, it has been more like an armed camp, with legions of security guards everywhere. Worse, there is really nowhere to sit. Couldn’t I come up and wait in Graham’s outer office? I inquired. No, I was told, this would be more convenient. Duly shunned, I lugged my suitcase to a guard’s chair to wait.

Twenty minutes later I was summoned to the third floor, where I was told Graham would be waiting. Expecting a frosty greeting and a stormy flight to Chicago, I went up. Sure enough, there was Graham, wearing what looked like a short version of the purple Halston and a mink coat. My hand was immediately clasped and warmly pumped and I was offered the sunniest smiles. And from that point on—with never a mention of the brouhaha over the hotel—I had Graham’s fullest cooperation.

On the plane, Graham is visibly tired but insists on spending the entire flight answering questions. None is shunned; each is answered fully and thoughtfully. As she talks, she constantly watches you with those large brown eye, which seem to measure as much as to seek approval. Slowly she relaxes, and the “interview” becomes a conversation between confidantes. Do I find it difficult, as she does, to talk to wives? “It’s as if,” she remarks, “after being cooped up all day they can’t put to coherent sentences together.”

Advertisement

She also admits that she has abandoned her company plane because: “That’s the ultimate luxury of the rich and I don’t want to be that far removed from the people who work for me. I even feel guilty using chauffeured cars, but I sometimes do because, well, it’s just more convenient.”

Though there are lines around her mouth and eyes, she can throw back her head and howl with laughter and look 20 years younger. And laughing is something Graham likes to do as much as possible, displaying an endearing ability to poke fun and herself.

Recently Robert Redford visited Graham and explained why there is no mention of her—except for John Mitchell’s line about her and the wringer—in the movie version of Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book, All The President’s Men. Bradlee says Graham later told him, “Christ, the only thing of mine in the whole movie are my tits.”

Advertisement

She also likes to poke fun at others. “Do you know,” She says impishly, “that this is only the second time in its history that the Economic Club is inviting wives? The other time was when Jack Kennedy spoke. Isn’t that too much? And don’t you think it’s dreadful the way they make a big deal out of inviting wives? It’s like, ‘Well, girls, we’re going to give you a real night on the town.’”

Sure enough, Graham turns her needle on the tuxedoed club members, opening her remarks with: “I am delighted to be here. And I am especially glad the rules have been bent for tonight, allowing so many of you to bring along your … husbands. I think it’s quite nice for them to get out once in a while and see how the other half lives.”

Graham’s speech goes over surprisingly well, considering the Post’s recent attacks on the bank-regulatory agencies. “I came here not expecting to like what she said,” admits Richard L. Thomas, president of the First Chicago Corp., owner of the First National Bank of Chicago, “But I must say she gave a hell of a speech. She puts things well. I like her.”

Advertisement

She more or less disarms the Harvard business school students too. They hiss when told she is on the advisory board at the Stanford business school, and she retorts, “I thought the Eastern liberal press had the corner on elitism but I guess it doesn’t.”

Thus, in 1970, when some 50 women employees threatened to file a discrimination suit against Newsweek, they found Graham singularly unhelpful. Recalls one Newsweek woman: “She always refused to come to the negotiations. But one day we heard she was in the building and asked her to join us. She seemed very defensive.”

Advertisement

Graham came around quickly after that. In a subsequent round of negotiations, the women got most everything they asked for—the suspicion being the Graham pressure was on. When Newsweek’s then-president, Gibson McCabe, told her, “You’re just asking for trouble” after she had suggested women be taken to ad-sales meetings, Graham threw an ashtray at him. Women were soon attending the meetings. “I didn’t know what she’d throw next,” says McCabe.

Moreover, Graham has been known to throw Washington society into a tizzy by refusing to observe the barbaric segregation of sexes after dinner. If that happens, she simply goes home. “I don’t do it as a demonstration,” she insists, “but I don’t want to sit around powdering my nose for an hour either.”

Though she herself entertains rarely—“She’s not a hostess,” declares columnist Joseph Alsop. “Nobody you’d want to dine with is”—Graham is not averse to picking up a news tip during someone else’s dinner and rushing to the phone. Says Bradlee: “Maybe once a month she’ll call and say, “This is Brenda Starr.”

Advertisement


Graham’s determination to do what has to be done has won the admiration—almost mawkish—of those who work for her. She has been described as bright, funny totally unfoolable, willing to listen to all sides, artfully profane, and having the tongue of a longshoreman. Some see her as a mother figure—indeed, there was a time when she was known as “Mama”—and then concede that no, that’s not right either. Says Meg Greenfield, the Post’s deputy editorial-page editor: “She’s tough, but she still manages to retain her femininity. It’s a gift or a talent that few female executives have.”

When former Managing Editor Eugene Patterson left the Post, he stopped by Graham’s office to say goodbye. “She broke into tears,” recalls Patterson, “and wasn’t at all ashamed about it. It flattered me deeply.”

Advertisement

Graham has also been known to write personal notes of thanks to staffers, and to send gifts when babies are born or spouses hospitalized. But according to columnist Nicholas von Hoffman, “most of us really know her as the public voice of management, not as a person.” Even so, she seems to be respected enough so that there is little, if any, talk behind her back. Says one reporter: “When contract time comes, you might expect the usual grousing about Mrs. G. and all her millions. But there isn’t; everybody else in the room would get mad. You just can’t talk about her like that.”

Even competitors, or those whom she has fired, will not bad-mouth her. Mostly they spend 20 minutes declining to comment and the next 20 in grudging admiration.

Graham’s style as boss is indelible. That she is boss is clear, yet most top editors feel a deep kinship with her. While both teasing and teasable, she is not considered “one of the boys.” While the flow of communications is easy, editors call her only on urgent matters. Says Managing editor Simons, “She’s created an atmosphere of just being Katharine.”

Advertisement

“Just being Katharine” means hiring key people she trusts and extending a long leash. Editorial-page Editor Phil Geyelin says he rarely hears a dissenting word from Graham over opinions carried on his page—even when the Post was running anti-Vietnam War editorials and Graham’s son Don was serving in Vietnam. And if one of her personal friends is stung by something written in the Post, the most Graham will do is check to see that the reporter had the facts straight. “If they want to be hurt, that’s their problem,” she says.

Occasionally this policy of leniency backfires. Seven years ago, when Bradlee was scrapping the traditional women’s page for the Style section, Graham was catching flak from her friends, and she told Bradlee so. “Get your finger out of my eye,” he says he told her. And she did.

Similarly, she opened the paper one morning to find columnist Nicholas von Hoffman criticizing the Post’s management over the strike. And having hired Charles Seib as internal ombudsman to evaluate the media in general, she often finds him criticizing the Post. Says the editor of a national publication: “I find this remarkable—in a way, even more remarkable than her power. Here’s a woman who’s aware of her own power, her empire’s power, and who has successfully found a way to keep it in check.”

Advertisement

Much of the admiration stems from tough decisions Graham has made, notably the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. The New York Times, which broke the story on June 13, 1971, had been enjoined by a Federal court by the time the Post got the documents on June 17. Word came from the Justice Department that the Post might be in serious danger of criminal prosecution if it published the papers. Moreover, if convicted, the Post could have lost its broadcasting licenses because convicted felons may not hold a broadcast license.

The night of the 17th, Graham was hoisting a champagne glass to toast a retiring employee when she was summoned to the phone. A group of editors and lawyers was debating the issue at Bradlee’s house, and opinion was split. The editors said publish; the lawyers said no. Worse, the Post company was in the process of going public. After hearing form, each editor and lawyer, and betting her company on her own judgement, Graham said, “Oh God, yes.”

Graham’s decision to publish the Post in the face of the recent four-and-a-half-month strike (Oct. 1, 1975, to Feb. 16,1976) by eight craft unions, and her ultimate replacement of pressmen with non-union workers, has also won considerable respect from many employees. She seemed to have their sympathy from the moment she was called at home at 5:00 a.m. on Oct. 1 and told that pressmen had damaged all of the paper’s nine presses. Not wanting to wake her chauffeur, she drove alone to the Post building, put down her head, and marched through the angry picket line, telling herself: “They’re not going to hurt me. I’m sure they’re not.”

Advertisement

She made almost-daily rounds of the plant to boost morale and learn first-hand who was doing double duty by taking on union tasks. Says one reporter, “Although it was a little obscene that she wore those $300 or $400 dresses to work in the mailroom, I think she was sincere.”

Graham also received sympathy when the leader of one striking union hoisted a placard in a picket line that read, “Phil Shot the Wrong Graham.”

But mainly the sympathy rose because of the pressroom damage and the bodily injury and threats to employees who crossed the picket line.

Advertisement

Decreased circulation and ad linage during the strike contributed to an $800,000 drop in net income for the final quarter in 1975, but some of Graham’s other tough stances have cost the company much more. The Post spent $1 million defending four of its broadcast licenses after Watergate, and possibly another $1 million in legal fees connected with Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and other stories.

During Watergate, she told a group of skeptical Newsweek ad-sales people: “All I know is that 24 months from now, one of us [Graham or Richard Nixon] is going to be in jail.” If President Ford hadn’t pardoned Nixon, Graham might well have been proved right.

One can’t help wonder why Graham does any of it at all. She doesn’t need the money, and certainly not the grief. To hear her tell it, what gives her most pleasure are her three grandchildren. I recall Clark Clifford’s words: “She got into the meanest, toughest fight I’ve ever seen in this town with the Nixon Administration. It’s not her nature to quarrel or fight. She had to force herself to develop that quality.”

Advertisement

And I recall a story from Bob Woodward: “We were at a party and Mrs. Graham and my wife and I were the last to leave. At one point, I looked over and she had fallen asleep. I suggested we go, and I drove her home. There weren’t any lights on in that big house, and I suddenly sensed how lonely she must be.”

If there are any men in Graham’s life, it is the most closely guarded secret in a town that doesn’t keep secrets. Says one friend: “I hope she doesn’t live the life of a celibate. But I don’t know, either, why she never remarried. Maybe those last years with Phil Graham were so bitter she doesn’t want to try it again.”

Still, why does she do it? Graham says she does it because she feels compelled to keep the business in the family. Some suggest she’s just hanging on until Don Graham can take over. Well, maybe.

“Donnie will take over when he’s ready,” Says Graham. Then, grinning, she adds, “And when I’m ready.”

Advertisement


The Stacks is Deadspin’s living archive of great journalism, curated by Bronx Banter’s Alex Belth, who also runs Esquire Classic. Email us at thestacks@deadspin.com.