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Part I: A woman I’ve admired: Katharine Graham

April 6, 2017

Personal History

Three part review of Katharine Graham’s 1998 memoir: Personal History

Part I: A woman I’ve admired: Katharine Graham

Last fall I picked up a copy of Katharine Graham’s Pulitzer Prize winning memoir in a nearby “Little Library” for free.

Somehow if she were alive, I think she would love the international free network of “take one give one” sharing libraries that have sprung up over the last dozen years.

I was anxious to read the book because as a minor journalist and editor, I had long admired Katharine Graham’s seat at the center of so much history in the 60s through 80s. Then in the early 2000s, I got to see the board room of The Washington Post where Katharine Graham had sat many many times. I was thrilled to be in the renowned newspaper’s offices immortalized in both the book and movie, All the President’s Men. My daughter had worked a number of years directly under Graham’s granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth, who was vice president of advertising for the Post at that time. Renowned and astute editor Ben Bradlee used to say hi and chat with Michelle in the elevator, halls or cafeteria the same as he greeted any staff person.

The entrance to the old and historic Washington Post building, with my daughters and mother touring at Christmastime, 2007.

Ever since my own college days living just two hours away from Washington D.C., I have enjoyed superb writing in the Post, especially my favorite part, it’s weekly Sunday magazine, The Washington Post Magazine. There long long articles that take months to develop are allowed to run for the number of pages it takes to tell the stories.

Speaking of long, the book is so long (625 very crammed pages with fairly small type) that when I began it, I promised myself I didn’t have to finish it if it bogged down. And while some parts were more interesting to me personally than others, I was soon caught up in the characters. When I got whiff of her husband Phil’s problems with mental illness and alcoholism, and from other sources saw spoilers alerting me to the fact that their romance and remarkable partnership owning the Post from a young age (Phil was 31) was not going to end well, I was gradually hooked on the story line. In fact, the plot could have been a novel (one of those novels that if her life had been fictionalized, we would have critiqued the writer for not being very realistic). This was a hallmark I noted too in a biography of one of the most well known Mennonites in the 20th century, Orie O. Miller, which I blogged about here. Once again, some things are too good to make up.

So I was not quite prepared for the sweep of history her life and work covers; Katharine was born the same year as my father but in a world so foreign they might as well have been on different planets. Mrs. Graham (and indeed she would have gone by that title for a number of years) was friends with and hung out with presidents and their wives: John and Jacqueline Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald and Nancy Reagan (some are surprised by that, coming from the liberal Post, but both Grahams, like Katharine’s father before her, endeavored to keep the paper from endorsing specific candidates). She knew and dined with folks like Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Adlai Stevenson, Princess Diana, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and many more notables. The book doesn’t say this, but dinner invitations to her home were truly the hottest ticket in the spiffy section of Washington D.C. known as Georgetown.

Her parents were also jet setters in a time before jets, and she spends a great deal of the first part of her memoir sharing and exploring how intimidated and put down she was by her mother. Not a “Mommie Dearest” kind of relationship, but neither would her mother ever have qualified for a “Mother of the Year” award.  Graham’s mother, Agnes Ernst Meyer, is portrayed as distant, “strikingly beautiful,” and often critical. She was a connoisseur of European life and finery, and had friendships with the artist Rodin, scientists Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and many more. But Katharine was blessed to have a much-loved governess. Neither of her parents even attended her graduation from Vassar in 1938. The times were different then, but STILL! Her father’s fortune came from Wall Street.

As I waded further into Katharine’s autobiography, I encountered the first photo section, where I finally better realized what circles Kay (what most people called her) moved in even as a child. The photos show grand mansions her family owned not just in Washington, but their getaway estate in Mt. Kisco, New York (now owned, interestingly, by President Trump).

Even as a college student, Katharine learned what cachet having the name of the U.S. capital “Washington” in its name lent the paper. At one point in California, simply saying she was from a newspaper in Washington (her father’s paper, very small and not so known then) got her inside a plant undergoing labor problems, and served as an introduction to labor unions and relations, an issue that would bedevil her as she was head of The Washington Post many years later. (Just look at who Trump called when his recent proposed health care bill failed to come to a vote in the House. He personally called reporter Robert Costa’s cell phone at the Post, like he called him every day. Robert said he almost didn’t answer it because the number appeared as a blocked number!)

After cutting her teeth as a reporter on labor stories in California, Katharine began to be assigned what she called “sob sister stories,” a new term for me, but the tear-jerking stories of tragedy or mishap—such as a little girl’s Christmas tree burning.

She writes of the 1940s when black citizens and black crime were not considered news—not worthy of coverage. The night city editor had a map of D.C. in his head and if something bad happened in an area where many blacks lived, no one was sent to cover it (p. 148). You might think that is the opposite of what happens today in news coverage yet quite often if a black drug dealer kills a junkie—there’s no chance of that being covered except in a two liner somewhere.

In the Dewey-Truman election of 1948 (p. 197), the Post held to its policy of not endorsing specific candidates, a policy which began with Kay’s father. They did comment and criticize certain positions or statements by both major candidates, but if you recall your history, Truman was predicted to lose that election in the final polls. People were as shocked as in the recent Clinton-Trump election the next morning. I loved this passage because of Phil Graham’s post-election stunt which Kay described thus:

When it became clear that Truman had indeed fooled the pundits and pulled off a political miracle, Phil [Kay’s husband] sent off a tongue-in-cheek telegram to the president, which Phil printed on page one of the morning-after paper:

You are hereby invited to attend a “crow banquet” to which this newspaper proposes to invite newspaper editorial writers, political reporters and editors, including our own, along with pollsters ….The main course will consist of breast of tough old crow. (You will eat turkey.)

Truman responded with a telegram written in a similar vein but turning down the invitation and sweetly reminding Mr. Graham he had no desire to see anyone eating crow and suggesting they all “get together now and make a country in which everybody can eat turkey whenever he pleases.”

Today, such messages might have been delivered via Twitter, but not with such elegance or good sportsmanship.


What can we learn from history, even recent history such as this? To disagree with good humor and style?

Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3.


Who is a woman you’ve admired and why? (not your mother or grandmother). 


  1. I too have admired Katharine Graham, a woman I think would do well as a politician, a sensible one in this era. Until I read this piece, I thought I had read her personal history, but given the number of pages, perhaps it was just a memory from the New Yorker review.

    Who I admire? Ruth Bell Graham for her understated work with the downtrodden, and for her hard work holding a family today in spite of an often absent husband/father. Recently I read Patricia Cornwell’s biography, Ruth: A Portrait. A writer of 14+ books, she was also a painter and remained Presbyterian in spite of Billy’s Baptist leanings. Ha!

    More recently, I have admired German leader, Angela Merkel, a woman of integrity, and the backbone of the European Union. She does not seem easily swayed by political winds – or windbags.
    When I think of others, I’ll post on Parts 2 or 3. Mother Theresa? Hillary Clinton?

  2. Yes, the New Yorker had a very long review and helpful summary, actually, for a quicker read. I don’t think I knew that about Ruth Graham that she remained Presbyterian–I can see your affinity for her especially in light of your painter spouse! I have heard others discussing Angela Merkel. I like your word choices of winds or windbags. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  3. Athanasia permalink

    My choices would be Rosalyn Carter, Princess Diana and Michelle Obama. I think their outreach of caring and concern and love for the people are examples of what we should try to do, too.

    • You make good picks here as well, Athanasia. It’s hard to know what all Princess Diana would have accomplished in outreach, care & concern if she had lived more years. Thanks for chiming in here, again. 🙂

  4. Lovvely blog you have here

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Part 2: Katharine Graham: Privilege and Power | findingharmonyblog
  2. Part 3: Katharine Graham and the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the Pressmen’s Strike | findingharmonyblog
  3. When History is Us | findingharmonyblog

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