Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Katharine Graham & The Washington Post

Several months ago, I read an article about Katharine Graham in Issue 30 of Flow magazine. I honestly didn't know anything about her, but this piece sparked my interest and led me to do more research.

Katharine Graham's father purchased The Washington Post at an auction in 1933. Several years after her marriage to Philip Graham, her father turned the paper over to Philip, who ran it until his death by suicide in 1963. At that time, Katharine herself took over as president of The Washington Post Company and eventually became one of the most successful and influential women in the United States.

The article mentioned the 2017 movie The Post, which Robbie and I watched together. The movie depicts the events that took place in 1971 and Katharine Graham's decision to publish parts of The Pentagon Papers, secret reports about the United States' involvement in Vietnam. I now had a better understanding of why the magazine article touted Graham as a heroine of free speech.

Robbie then told me about another movie portraying the events surrounding The Washington Post's reporting on the Watergate Scandal that led to President Nixon's resignation. This movie, All The President's Men (featuring a young Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford), does a wonderful job of showing what investigative reporting required (before the internet), how publishing decisions were made, and the extent of political corruption during that time.

Finally, I purchased a copy of Katharine Graham's 640+ page autobiography aptly titled Personal History. This book was written in 1997 when Mrs. Graham was almost 80-years-old and it covers a vast amount of the history of our country, particularly the Washington DC area, during the 1900s. The personal story of her life is intertwined with so much history! It is well-written and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

The book begins with her parents, who were a prominent and wealthy family. She grew up in Washington DC and Mont Kisco, New York. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1936 and married Philip Graham in 1940. Then at the age of 46, she began what she called her "second life" as she took over the reins of The Washington Post Company.

Throughout her life she rubbed shoulders with many prominent players in our nation's history (she dined at the White House, was good friends with Warren Buffet and Truman Capote, etc) and had an influential part in the history of printed newspapers (publishing the Pentagon Papers, breaking the Watergate story, surviving the pressman union strike, etc).


I have to admit that after all this extremely interesting research, I decided I like Katharine Graham ... and I don't like her. While she had many advantages and eventually became an influential player in crucial events in our country, she suffered from low self-esteem and a lack of confidence in her abilities for many years. Her political and personal viewpoints were quite liberal. However, she lived through some tragic times (a controlling yet absentee mother, her husband's mental illness and eventual suicide) and was very forthcoming and introspective about her shortcomings and regrets as well as her successes. She made a point of recognizing and giving credit to the people who helped her, especially as she learned the newspaper business and began to grow The Washington Post Company through acquisition of TV stations and magazines. Yet, it was pretty evident which administrations and individuals she did not rate highly.

Overall, this was a wonderful learning experience, and I'm so glad I ran across the article that sparked this journey. I'm curious, did you know who Katharine Graham was before reading this post?


  1. I always admire how you follow up an initial interest with such enthusiasm and determination. I knew some of this, but not all of it. On the strength of your recommendation, I have just popped over to our library online catalogue and placed a copy on hold. I am curious as to what it is that you don't like about her, as I couldn't quite get that from the sentences which followed ... But thank-you for bringing her to our notice!

  2. I did know of Katharine Graham, but can't remember how I know of her. The film The Post is very good, we saw it a year or so ago.

  3. Nope - but I'm intrigued now. I did a similar set of investigations this year on Eleanor Roosevelt who I knew about vaguely but had always wanted to learn more about.

    Thanks for the movie recommendations.

  4. Having known little about her, until I watched The Post (twice) and from that I decided I admired her. I worked at a newspaper for 8 years and I know what a male bastion it was. The movie did not go heavily into her political views (or at least I didn't pick up on it) and maybe there is more on that in her book.

    I am interested in reading more about her, but personally I would not pick up a 640 page autobiography on anyone. (My Bible is only 1200 pages!) It makes me think she had eventually may have had too much self-esteem to write such a long tome, or she needed to hire one of the newspaper editors to help her out. Was she trying to match the volume of the Pentagon Papers or what? (hee hee)

    Since it won the Pulitzer I may see is there is an abridged audiobook available. I am more curious about how she coped with her husband's suicide than the political machinations affecting the newspaper business.

  5. Thanks for your comments ladies! As I mentioned, after all this research I have mixed feelings about Mrs. Graham. I admire & like her (for her willingness to take over the company & make tough decisions & survive some tragic events), yet I disliked her (for her political views & seemingly forced humility & her naivete at times). I'm not sure if that explains it other than I think there are always things we like and dislike about others. Overall I admire her but we probably wouldn't have been good friends. :)

    Also, she mentions in the forward that she wrote the book herself despite having lots of writers and editors at her disposal. (She just might have been inspired by the length of the Pentagon Papers! LOL)

    She shares a good bit about coping with the suicide; at that point in their life they had already whethered some tough times due to his mental illness and an affair that she found out about. They were spending the weekend together & she heard the shot in another part of the house & found his body.So sad!

  6. I've been pretty well acquainted with Katharine Graham for a long time. It's probably because I am a lot older than you and remember her from her days heading the Washington Post, especially during Watergate. A hardback copy of Personal History is on my shelves, although I have never completed it. It always manages to escape my book purges, though, because I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy it once I get to it.

  7. I hadn't heard of her, but now I'm definitely curious! Not sure what rock I've been living under...


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