Late Bloomers

Katharine Graham, Katharine Graham washington post, Katharine Graham newspaper, katherine graham, Katharine Graham 1964
Associated Press

Katharine Graham, “Lady Pub,” Former President and Publisher of The Washington Post

January 26, 2010
by Shannon Firth
At 46, the world watched Katharine Graham transition from a nervous widow to chairman and chief executive officer of The Post Co. She saw this evolution much differently, however: “What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes and step off the ledge.”

Katharine Graham’s Early Days

Katharine Meyer was born on June 16, 1917, in New York City to Agnes and Eugene Meyer. Her father, a well-to-do New York banker, bought the then-failing Washington Post at an auction when she was 16 years old, according to PBS.

Although her childhood in Washington’s suburbs is consistently described as “privileged,” it was also lonely. Her mother, Agnes Ernst Meyer, was a journalist, activist and leader in educational reform, and once said about childrearing: “A good nurse can handle them when they are little, but when they face adult problems they need their mother's friendship,” Barnard College News Center noted. In her mother’s place, Katharine formed a close bond with her governess, The New York Times reported.

After graduating from Vassar in 1938, Katharine spent a year as a reporter in San Francisco before returning to Washington to work at The Post.

In 1940, she married Philip Graham, a handsome lawyer and Supreme Court clerk. Though Philip suffered from manic depression, Katharine’s father made him publisher of The Post at the age of 31, according to PBS. Years later, Katharine learned her husband was having an affair and planned to divorce her and take over her family’s company, she told Charlie Rose in a 1997 interview. In the summer of 1963, Philip committed suicide and Katharine took over as president of The Post.

Graham’s Notable Accomplishments

In 1971, Graham backed Ben Bradlee, her editor, and published the Pentagon Papers—documents concerning American military decisions in Vietnam. Both The Post and The New York Times were brought before the Supreme Court on charges of endangering national security. Winning the trial was significant for journalists and for the stature of the company.

“One of our unspoken goals was to get the world to refer to The Post and New York Times in the same breath, which they previously hadn’t done,” Bradlee said, according to The New York Times. “After the Pentagon Papers, they did.”

The following year, Graham backed reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they investigated the Watergate scandal.

“I have often been credited with courage for backing our editors in Watergate,” Graham wrote in “Personal History,” her autobiography. “The truth is that I never felt there was much choice. …By the time the story had grown to the point where the size of it dawned on us, we had already waded deeply into its stream. Once I found myself in the deepest water in the middle of the current, there was no going back.”

In 1973, Graham was named chairman of the board and CEO of The Post. During her 30 years of management, revenues increased almost twentyfold, the company acquired several other businesses and it went public and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, The Washington Post Company reports.

The Rest of the Story

In addition to making the newspaper more profitable, Graham also worked to make the newsroom more diverse, employing more African-American and women reporters. According to Time magazine, “When she handed over the reins of the Post to son Donald in 1979, she had transformed it from a traditional broadsheet flirting with dinosaur status into a vibrant, modern newspaper with a national readership.”

Her son, Donald, succeeded her as CEO in 1991, but she remained on The Post’s board. In 1998, she earned a Pulitzer Prize at the age of 80 for “Personal History.” And in later years, she worked to support the National Campaign to Reduce Teenage Pregnancy and The Early Childhood Collaborative, BookPage noted.

Graham died at age 84 on July 17, 2001, days after falling and hitting her head on a sidewalk in Sun Valley, Idaho. PBS NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss recalled her conviviality and spirit. “She did not like to be alone,” he said. “That's one way she really kept on learning ... always meeting new people.” She is survived by her daughter, Elizabeth Weymouth, and three sons, Donald, William and Stephen, according to The Times.

For more photos and stories from several of her colleagues and staff, visit The Washington Post’s special collection page, “Katharine Graham Remembered (1917-2001).”

Most Recent Features