Katharine Graham

The renown publisher Katharine Meyer Graham (born 1917) took over management of The Washington Post after the death of her husband. She guided it to national prominence and acclaim while expanding her publishing empire.

Katharine Meyer Graham was born in New York City on June 16, 1917, the fourth of five children born to Eugene Meyer, a banker, and Agnes Elizabeth (Ernst) Meyer, an author and philanthropist. In 1933, when Katharine was still a student at the Madeira School in Greenway, Virginia, her father bought the moribund Washington Post for $875,000. Already retired, Meyer purchased the paper because he had grown restless and wanted a voice in the nation's affairs. His hobby became the capital's most influential paper.

From an early age Katharine Meyer showed an interest in publishing. At the Madeira School she worked on the student newspaper. In 1935 she entered Vassar College, but the following year transferred to the University of Chicago, which she regarded as a more stimulating campus. During her summer vacations she worked on The Washington Post. After her graduation with a B.A. degree in 1938 she went to California to take a job as a waterfront reporter for the San Francisco News. She returned to Washington a year later and joined the editorial staff of the Post, where she also worked in the circulation department.

On June 5, 1940, she married Philip L. Graham, a Harvard Law School graduate and clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Her husband entered the Army in World War II, and she gave up reporting to move with him from base to base. When he was sent overseas to the Pacific Theater, Katharine returned to her job at the Post. After his discharge in 1945, Eugene Meyer persuaded Philip Graham to join The Washington Post as associate publisher. Meyer, who had a warm relationship with his son-in-law, eventually turned the business over to him, selling all the voting stock in the company to the Grahams for $1 in 1948. Philip Graham helped his father-in-law to build the business, acquiring the Post's competitor, the Washington Times Herald, in 1954 and in 1961 purchasing Newsweek magazine for a sum estimated to be between eight and 15 million dollars. He also expanded the radio and television operations of the company and in 1962 helped to establish an international news service.

In 1963 Philip Graham shot himself to death. Katharine Graham took over the presidency of the company. A prominent Washington matron who had devoted her time to the raising of her daughter and three sons, she had never lost her interest in the affairs of the family business. She studied the operations, asked questions, consulted with such old friends as James Reston and Walter Lippmann, and made the key decisions which helped to bring in skilled journalists to improve the quality of the paper. She selected Benjamin C. Bradlee, the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek, as managing editor in 1965.

Graham gave Bradlee, who later became executive editor, a free hand and backed him during the 1970s when the Post began making news as well as reporting it. In June of 1971 the Post, along with the New York Times, became embroiled with the government over their right to publish excerpts from a classified Pentagon study of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam compiled during President Lyndon Johnson's administration. A court order to restrain the publication of the documents led to an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and, in a decision judged a major victory for freedom of the press, the Court upheld the papers' right to publish the "Pentagon Papers."

Further controversy erupted when the investigative reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein began to probe the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate apartment complex in June of 1972. Woodward's and Bernstein's articles in the Post linked the break-in to the larger pattern of illegal activities that ultimately led to the indictment of over 40 members of the Nixon administration and to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August of 1974.

Graham, generally conceded to be the most powerful woman in publishing, held the title of publisher at The Washington Post starting in 1969. As chairman and principal owner of the Washington Post Company, she controlled the fifth largest publishing empire in the nation. In the period 1975 to 1985 profits grew better than 20 percent annually.

In 1979 Graham turned the title of publisher over to her son Donald (born 1945). But she remained active in all areas of the business, from advising on editorial policy to devising strategies for diversifying the company's holdings, which included, in addition to the Post and Newsweek, the Trenton Times, four television stations, and 49 percent interest in a paper company. In Washington she was a formidible presence. Heads of state, politicians, and leaders in journalism and the arts gathered at her Georgetown home and weekends at her farm in northern Virginia.

Under Graham's leadership, The Washington Post grew in influence and stature until by common consent it was judged one of the two best newspapers in the country. It was read and consulted by presidents and prime ministers in this country and abroad and exerted a powerful influence on political life. At the same time, the Post, which boasts a circulation of 725,000, served as a hometown paper for a general audience who enjoyed the features, cartoons, and advice columns.

Katharine Graham was described as a "working publisher." Determined to preserve the family character of the business, she took up the reins after the death of her husband and worked hard not only to build but to improve her publishing empire. A forceful and courageous publisher, she knew when to rely on the expertise of professionals and allowed her editors maximum responsibility, at the same time strengthening her publications by her willingness to spend to attract top talent in journalism and management.


Further Reading on Katharine Meyer Graham

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s article in Vogue (January 1, 1967) provides interesting insights into Katharine Meyer Graham's background and career. Martin Mayer in "Lady as Publisher," Harper's (December 1968), interviewed Graham. For articles dealing with her business empire, see Time (February 7, 1977) and Forbes (April 19, 1984). She was listed in Who's Who in America (43rd edition, 1984-1985) and The World Who's Who of Women (4th edition). Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in All the President's Men (1974) deal with The Washington Post's investigation of Watergate. For an unauthorized biography, see Deborah Davis, Katharine the Great: Katharine Graham and the Washington Post (1979) or Carol Felsenthal, Power, Privilege, and the Post: The Katherine Graham Story (1993). In 1997, Katherine Meyer Graham published her memoirs Personal History