Katharine Graham, who once described herself as a doormat wife, became one of the most powerful figures in America as publisher of The Washington Post. The New York Times called her a "publishing legend." William Buckley, the conservative columnist, said she was a "mythogenic figure" and "a natural star." Television host Larry King described her as a woman who "made editorial decisions that changed American history." Daniel Alef's biographical profile tells Katharine Graham's fascinating story. [2,983-word Titans of Fortune biographical profile with a timeline, bibliography and video links]
Katharine Graham, who once described herself as a doormat wife, became one of the most powerful figures, man or woman, in America.The New York Times called her a “publishing legend.” William Buckley, the conservative columnist, said she was a “mythogenic figure,” and “a natural star.” Television host Larry King described her as a “media powerhouse,” a woman who “made editorial decisions that changed American history.” Katharine’s metamorphosis from a doormat to a phenom, a life she called a “fairy tale,” is a great story for anyone seeking inspiration. As a roll model, however, she sets a very high bar.
Katharine Meyer was born in New York City on June 16, 1917, with a silver spoon in her mouth, but with little parental warmth. Her mother, an activist in the Republican Party and journalist, was more involved with the arts and her social standing than with her children, rubbing shoulders with Albert Einstein, Madam Curie and August Rodin. Katharine’s father, Eugene, was a busy Wall Street financier who made his fortune in gold, copper, automobiles and chemical industries. He served as governor of the Federal Reserve Bank and helped President Hoover start the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to make loans to troubled banks. He served briefly with the Fed under Franklin D. Roosevelt, but resigned because he did not like Roosevelt’s monetary policies. Although Eugene was Jewish, and Katharine’s mother Luthern, they attended the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington where they had their own pew.
It was a life of luxury in various homes, including a castle-like mansion at Mount Kisco, surrounded by nannies, governesses and tutors. Katharine attended the Madeira School for Girls in Virginia and spent two years at Vassar before graduating from the University of Chicago in 1938, an event most notable for her parents' absence.
In 1933, while Katharine was at Madeira, her father bid $850,000 at a public auction for the bankrupt Washington Post, a paper with a circulation of only 50,000—the fifth of five Washington papers. When she learned about the new family enterprise, Katharine decided to go into journalism. After graduation she went to San Francisco with her father, fell in love with the city and, with her father’s help, got a job with the San Francisco News. In 1939 her father offered her a job at the Post with one injunction to the editor: “If it doesn’t work, well, get rid of her.” Katharine held the lowest position in editorial, handling letters to the editor and writing a few meaningless editorials.
That year Katharine met Philip Graham, a brilliant but shy and insecure lawyer, a Harvard Law School graduate who had clerked for two Supreme Court justices. She was stunned when he asked for her hand in marriage, but only if she agreed to two conditions: move to Florida and never take anything from her father; and that they would live on what Philip would make. Katharine’s parents approved even though they were staunch Republicans and Philip was a New Deal liberal. Philip and Katharine were married June 4, 1940.
Strangely, it was Philip who first broke his own stipulations by accepting the position of associate publisher at the Post, and assuming the publisher’s office in 1946 when President Truman offered Eugene the presidency of the World Bank. In yet another example of Eugene’s fondness for his daughter, he sold the Grahams stock in the Post, more to Philip than to Katharine. “No man should be in the position of working for his wife,” he told Katharine.
Although Philip was already in debt to Eugene, he continued to purchase more stock, and put his entire effort into building the Post into a major newspaper. He was also politically active with Lyndon Johnson and the desegregation movement, using the Post to influence the news. Katharine adored Philip, the man she called the “fizz” of her life; Philip returned the compliments by emotionally abusing Katharine, demeaning her work, raging out of control, evidently suffering from manic depression, a serious emotional problem that Katharine and others attributed simply to the pressure of work. In her autobiography, Katharine says, “I ignored the fact that [Philip] was frequently using [his] wit at my expense. [He] was often critical or cutting in his remarks when things weren't just right--either about the house or my clothes, for example, which left lots of room for disparaging remarks.”