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Part 2: Katharine Graham: Privilege and Power

April 12, 2017

Washington D.C. at Christmas. Personal photo.

Part 2: Katharine Graham: Privilege and Power

Note: (Part 2 in a 3-part series on Katharine’s Graham’s memoir, Personal History. Find Part I here. If you plan to read the book, be warned that in this blog post, I start to reveal some spoilers. Also, the page numbers refer to the Vintage Books paperback edition of 1998, not the original hardcover from Knopf.)

Katharine Graham led an extremely privileged life—both the family into which she was born, and the marriage she made with her husband Phil. Together they not only met and were invited to White House dinners with presidents and their wives, but frolicked with them on ranches (Lyndon Johnson), yachts (the Kennedys of course), and got front row seats or backstage passes to the national political conventions of both major parties every four years.

The Grahams exerted the kind of political power that most of us only dream about—both financially (yes they personally supported their favorite candidates, i.e. Kennedy, p. 269) and influence-wise: Phil had a great deal to do with Lyndon Johnson becoming vice president with Kennedy (p. 270). The Kennedy/Nixon contest in 1960 was the closest election since 1916; as I was reading this book through the throes of the fall 2016 election, I was reminded that our nation had been through this type of drama so many times.

Two underlying themes run through this book: family and work. The second half definitely focuses more on Kay Graham’s increasing role at the newspaper, which came about through a tragic death.

Kay portrays her husband Phil Graham in her book lovingly—he apparently was brilliant, funny, dashing, and ambitious to the point of sometimes working all night or days on end. Later they would find out he was no doubt bipolar—so classic with his characteristics. He self-medicated with alcohol which was usually kept under control but in his later years, drinking was increasingly a source of great worry for Kay. Through hospitalizations, she was his confidant, caregiver and enabler.

Phil also had an affair which rocked the foundations of Kay’s love and devotion to her husband. At one point he planned to marry Robin Webb, a younger woman who worked as a correspondent for Newsweek from Paris. (The Washington Post Company purchased Newsweek in 1961).

Close friends noted Phil’s increasingly erratic behavior. Kay’s world finally blew apart when Phil went by himself to their country estate, took his hunting rifle, and ended his life. The suicide was as devastating as any. As Kay slowly began to piece her life and family back together, she was thrust into figuring out who and how leadership would evolve (who would be publisher of the Post, or chair of the board for the Washington Post Company? Her children would not be old enough for those positions for years.) She had been a wife and a mother and a socialite. Even though she had worked right out of college as a reporter and walked closely alongside Phil as he ran the day to day operations of the business, she did not go to the office every day or take the worries home.

It was a huge change. She became an employed, working mother, even though financially, she would not have needed to work. But there was a family company to keep running. She was horribly green in the actual management of a huge multi-faceted organization and felt it at every turn. She was also not the first widow to step into such a role, but she often found herself the only woman in a room of managers or board members or in meetings with executives from other companies. Culturally North America was also going through its first waves of the feminist movement; Kay lived the change rather than led in that regard, and was around men who generally considered women too air-headed to be real partners in anything more than a sexual, social, or family relationship. One of her stories on the topic is too telling not to use almost verbatim:

President Kennedy’s charm was powerful. His intense concentration and gently teasing humor, and his habit of vacuum-cleaning your brain to see what you knew and thought, were irresistible. The Kennedy men were also unabashed chauvinists, as were the great majority of men at the time, including Phil. They liked other bright men, and they liked girls, but they didn’t really know how to relate to middle-aged women, in whom they didn’t have a whole lot of interest. … One notable exception to the chauvinist tradition was Adlai Stevenson. Women enjoyed Adlai. In the end, my mother, my daughter, and I all had close friendships with him. … The president [John Kennedy] told Clayton Fritchey [deputy for Adlai as ambassador to the United Nations] he didn’t understand the hold Adlai had over women, commenting on how much Jackie liked and admired him and confessing that he himself didn’t have the ease with women that Adlai had.

Adlai Stevenson, Wikimedia Commons, free media repository

Kennedy went on about Adlai’s being half bald, having a paunch, and not being a very sharp dresser. “What’s he got that I haven’t got?” Kennedy asked Clayton with real curiosity.

Clayton responded saying, “While you both love women, Adlai also likes them, and women know the difference.”

Bingo, Mr. Fritchey. I’ve never heard of you before but I like you too.

Katharine Graham was fortunate to marry the love of her life and she stuck with him through extraordinarily difficult times for one so affluent and acclaimed. Her most complicated tests were still to come.

I’ll finish up this review in Part 3, next week.


What can we learn from a life like Katharine Graham’s, who lived on such a pendulum? What is your takeaway at this point?

  1. My takeaway: Even the rich and powerful are not immune from life’s trials. You entice us to follow you into Part 3 with a hint that Katharine’s life was to become even come complicated.

  2. Yes, complicated. And in the end, rewarding. Perhaps an apt description for many. Glad to have you along for this series, Marian.

  3. Athanasia permalink

    1. You can have money but not be happy. 2. You can be friends with all these famous people but can you really be yourself? 3. Being in these business/corporate situations can you really trust those around you? How do you know they are not looking at you as just a step up for them on their rise to more power, more money.

  4. These are all great takeaways, Athanasia. I think Katharine would have agreed with you on all of these as she struggled with these issues. Thanks for weighing in!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Part 3: Katharine Graham and the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the Pressmen’s Strike | findingharmonyblog

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