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As Publisher Of The Washington Post, Katharine Graham Was Bold. But She Wasn't Always That Way

Portrait of American newspaper publisher Katharine Graham (1917 - 2001) of The Washington Post, on June 6, 1980. (Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)
Portrait of American newspaper publisher Katharine Graham (1917 - 2001) of The Washington Post, on June 6, 1980. (Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)

Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham was known for her bold and history-making moves.

Graham published the Pentagon Papers, encouraged the Watergate investigation and revealed government lies about the Vietnam War. But according to Jeanne Gutierrez, curator of the Katharine Graham exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, the CEO’s fearlessness was part of an important personal evolution.

Warren Buffett once said Graham saved the country in her role as publisher. But when a waitperson serving the women leaders of the Historical Society asked who Graham was, the group realized the story of the woman once called the most powerful in America was being lost.

As a young woman, Graham was shy and insecure, Gutierrez explained at a recent event at WBUR’s CitySpace in Boston.

“She was raised as a privileged young woman of her time would be,” Gutierrez says, “to be an ornament to society, to marry well, to have beautiful children, to engage in genteel good works.”

Graham’s mother was a rare female journalist, and her father, a wealthy banker and consultant to presidents, bought The Washington Post in 1933. Journalism brought Graham and her father, Eugene Meyer, closer together for the first time, Gutierrez says.

After Graham graduated college, she went to San Francisco to cover labor unrest. Then, her father got her a job at the Post as a copy boy and messenger in the women’s pages, which she ultimately changed to the style section as publisher.

Meyer famously said of his own daughter’s new job that “if it doesn’t work, we’ll get rid of her.”

Months after she started the job, Gutierrez says the young reporter met a “brilliant but rather volatile” lawyer named Phillip Graham. The two married, and though he wasn’t interested in journalism, Phillip Graham ended up taking control of The Washington Post when her parents stepped back in 1948.

“[Philip Graham] had roughly three times the number of shares that she had, courtesy of her parents,” Gutierrez says. “It was really a gift from them to him because, as Eugene Meyer said and Katharine Graham wrote, that she agreed at the time that no man should be put in the position of working for his wife.”

Graham dropped her journalism aspirations to become a devoted wife and self-described doormat. In 1963, Phillip Graham killed himself and his wife took over as publisher — something the public viewed with skepticism.

In the first few years of her leadership, Graham dealt with the election of 1964, where Lyndon B. Johnson hoped giving her access to his campaign would lead to an endorsement from the Post, Gutierrez says. Graham later wrote that at that time, she hadn’t started rethinking the policies she inherited at the paper yet.

“Firing people and hiring people remained highly gendered and very difficult for her throughout her career,” Gutierrez says, “because she was always portrayed as this very difficult, tyrannical, whimsical woman. And whoever lost their job was the victim of her feminine whims.”

Three years into Graham’s leadership in 1966, author Truman Capote called Graham to say he believed she was depressed and wanted to throw a party to cheer her up, Gutierrez says. The Black and White Ball — where Graham wore a dazzling mask and gown on the arm of a tuxedoed Capote — went down in history as the party of the century.

Gloria Steinem wrote in Vogue about how the party gave Graham an opportunity to “emerge on the national stage” with people in Hollywood, fashion, literature, academia and high society, Gutierrez says.

“This party was hyped for months, but then she also is able to take that principle behind the Black and White Ball and make it her own,” Gutierrez says. “And so her parties afterward became very legendary for bringing together all these very different but very interesting people.”

Former Secretary of State George Shultz said Graham’s ability to bring different, fascinating people together at parties helped her influence in Washington, D.C., grow, Gutierrez says.

The exhibit included many of Graham’s dresses because the Center for Women’s History sets out to tell “an unexpected story,” Gutierrez says.

“Part of the story with women’s power is a lot of the avenues that women use to access power are discounted because they’re not necessarily the same ones that men use,” she says, “the power of sociability, the power of bringing people together, the power of hospitality, the power of fashion.

After the Black and White Ball, the fashion press regularly featured Graham.

“That’s not the kind of power that you think of when you think of a newspaper owner or someone who [has] really got their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in American politics and business and journalism,” Gutierrez says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

After the New York Times published some of the damning Pentagon Papers, the Nixon administration sued and the case went to the Supreme Court. Then, Graham ordered The Washington Post to print all of the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon administration issued an injunction.

Graham also greenlit the expose reported by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about the administration’s involvement in a break in at the Democratic National Committe office.

The court ultimately ruled against the injunction and Nixon later stepped down. But for 15 days in America, a free press was told it couldn’t be free — and Graham defied that.

The move posed a massive financial risk for the paper, Gutierrez says. The Washington Post was growing from a small family paper into a large media corporation that included radio and TV stations. In 1971, The Washington Post was preparing for its first public stock offering and anyone at the paper facing criminal charge could put that in jeopardy.

“You can’t hold a radio license or a television license if you have a felony conviction. Those very lucrative properties would be stripped from The Washington Post,” Gutierrez says. “And that was a threat that the Nixon administration dangled when then-Attorney General John [Mitchell] made his infamous threat that ‘Katie Graham’s going to get her tit caught in a big fat wringer.’ ”

Correction: In the radio version of this story, the guest missattributes a quote said by former Secretary of State John Mitchell to former Secretary of State John Ashlock. And the host mischaracterizes The Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate scandal. We regret the errors.

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Robin Young and Peter O’DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.