WASHINGTON Post executive Katharine Graham dies
Tuesday, July 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Katharine Graham, who deftly steered The Washington Post through the tumult of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate and built it into a leading force in American journalism, died Tuesday. She was 84.
Mrs. Graham had been unconscious and in critical condition since she suffered a head injury Saturday afternoon after tumbling on a concrete walkway outside a condominium in Sun Valley, Idaho.
She underwent surgery Saturday at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, never regained consciousness and died at 11:56 a.m. EDT with her immediate family by her bedside, the hospital announced.
As chairman of the Washington Post Co. for two decades, Mrs. Graham built the paper her father had purchased at bankruptcy auction into a media empire that ranked 271st on the Fortune 500 list by the time she turned it over to her son in 1991. Along the way, she became a force both respected and feared.
``Kay Graham was a hero _ for the way she met the challenge of taking over the Washington Post Co., for what she did with it, for what she stood for in journalism, and for the inspiration she provided to other women,'' said Louis D. Boccardi, president and chief executive of The Associated Press. ``All of us who knew her were enriched, and the AP was enriched by her service on our board.''
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, chairman emeritus of the New York Times Co., said: ``Throughout the last half of the 20th century, she used her intellligence, her courage and her wit to transform the landscape of American journalism, and everyone who cares about a free and impartial press will greatly miss her. We Certainly will.''
Mrs. Graham had been working on a book about the history of Washington. She also kept a hand in the news business, serving as chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Post Co. since 1993.
Mrs. Graham took over the Post company in 1963 and built it into a profitable conglomerate of newspaper, magazine, broadcast and cable properties, including Newsweek.
Mike Wallace of CBS News called her ``one of the giants of journalism.''
Mrs. Graham often said her life story read like a soap opera. Instead, she chronicled it in a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir that traced her path from self-described ``doormat wife'' into one of the world's most powerful women.
Her ``first life,'' Mrs. Graham said, ended in 1963 when her husband, Philip, who suffered from manic depression, committed suicide at their country home in Virginia while she was upstairs napping.
Philip Graham had been publisher of the Post, then a mediocre newspaper, and his wife had occupied herself with their four children and the life of a Georgetown matron. Suddenly widowed at 46, she stepped into her husband's shoes to take over the Post, at first with timidity but later with sure-footed authority.
In the beginning, she saw herself as little more than a placeholder to keep the paper within the family.
``What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the ledge,'' she wrote in ``Personal History,'' published in 1997. ``The surprise was that I landed on my feet.'' Mrs. Graham's self-doubt and deference to the men at the Post gradually gave way to a new sense of self and a confident manner.
The steadfastness with which she turned the Post into a powerhouse newspaper was most visible during the turbulent 1970s, in the showdown over the Pentagon Papers, a secret study of the Vietnam War, and in the Post's dogged pursuit of the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon.
At the critical moment in 1971 when she made the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, in defiance of government protests and against legal advice _ but after The New York Times had already broken the story _ a frightened Mrs. Graham gulped and said, ``Let's go. Let's publish.''
More certain of her decision in retrospect, she wrote, ``Publishing the Pentagon Papers made future decisions easier, even possible. Most of all it prepared us _ and I suspect, unfortunately, Nixon as well _ for Watergate.''
Watergate. Far ahead of other news organizations on a momentous political scandal, the Post felt the brunt of presidential wrath and drew criticism from readers who felt the paper was out to get Nixon. ``It was a particularly lonely moment for us at the paper,'' Mrs. Graham recalled. ''... I sometimes privately thought: If this is such a hell of a story, then where is everybody else?''
Journalism aside, Mrs. Graham's career was equally notable for the business sense with which she built the Washington Post Co. into a profitable conglomerate of newspaper, magazine, broadcast and cable properties.
``If you just measure her as the manager of a business and forget the soap opera stuff, her record is terrific,'' son Donald said in 1991 as he prepared to take over from his mother.
Katharine Meyer was born June 16, 1917, in New York City, the fourth of five children. Her parents, banker Eugene Meyer and author Agnes Meyer, offered their children more wealth than affection. As Mrs. Meyer herself wrote, ``I became a conscientious but scarcely a loving mother.''
Kay, as she was known, grew up in a world of governesses, French lessons and exclusive schools, but recalled that ``I had more or less to bring myself up emotionally and figure out how to deal with whatever situations confronted me.''
She was president of her class at the exclusive Madeira School in suburban Virginia and spent two years at Vassar College before transferring to the University of Chicago in 1936. After graduation, she worked as a reporter for the San Francisco News before returning to Washington at age 21 to work on the editorial page of the newspaper that her father had bought in 1933 for $825,000. Time magazine ran a brief item on her hiring and quoted her father as saying, ``If it doesn't work, we'll get rid of her.''
The publisher's daughter wrote ``light'' editorials, with titles like ``On Being a Horse,'' and ``Mixed Drinks,'' and before long met and married Philip Graham, a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed. Eugene Meyer brought his son-in-law into the family business as associate publisher in 1945 and five months later made him publisher.
While Philip Graham threw himself into turning around a money-losing paper, his wife set aside her own career to focus on their growing family, a division that gradually widened into a gulf and left her feeling like a ``second-class citizen'' and ``drudge.''
``I increasingly saw my role as the tail to his kite _ and the more I felt overshadowed, the more it became a reality,'' she wrote, recalling her husband's domineering manner and tendency to look at her in a way that suggested ``I was going on too long and boring people.''
Their home life unraveled as Philip Graham's mental illness worsened. A downward spiral of erratic behavior, heavy drinking and marital infidelity eventually ended in his suicide at Glen Welby farm. Stunned as she was by her husband's death, Mrs. Graham was determined to keep the paper in the family. Going to work ``seemed to be the only sensible step,'' she wrote.
``I didn't understand the immensity of what lay before me, how frightened I would be by much of it, how tough it was going to be, and how many anxious hours and days I would spend for a long, long time,'' she wrote. ``Nor did I realize how much I was eventually going to enjoy it all.''
From such a tentative beginning, Mrs. Graham rose to the challenge.
``She committed the paper to whatever its excellence is,'' said Ben Bradlee, whose hiring as Post executive editor was one of Mrs. Graham's best moves. ``She was the heart and soul of the place.''
``Lady Pub,'' as she came to be known in the newsroom, could be ruthless in hiring and firing staff, coarse in her language and immovable when pushed too far, as when she broke a violent strike by Post pressmen in 1975 and replaced them with nonunion workers.
``You can't like someone who did what I did,'' she once said with a shrug, referring to management changes.
By 1980, she was No. 1 on the World Almanac's list of the nation's 25 most influential women.
Even longtime antagonist Richard Nixon said of her: ``In Washington, there are many who read the Post and like it and many who read the Post and don't like it. But almost everyone reads the Post, which is a tribute to Kay Graham's skill as publisher.''
As her stature in journalism grew, Mrs. Graham loomed large on the social scene as well. Truman Capote's 1966 ``black and white ball,'' thrown in honor of Mrs. Graham, served as her coming-out party of sorts. Halston was designing her clothes and New York hairdresser Kenneth was styling her hair.
Invitations to her elegant Georgetown home or her Martha's Vineyard retreat became as coveted as those to the White House. Cabinet members and White House figures were her tennis partners. President Reagan attended her 70th birthday party and toasted her as a ``sensitive, thoughtful and very kindly person.'' Princess Diana walked the Vineyard beaches with her, confiding her aspirations for her sons. And, earlier this year she hosted a dinner party for the new president, George W. Bush, to introduce him to the Washington power elite.
Along the way, Mrs. Graham also became a powerful role model for women. In 1974, she was the first woman elected to The Associated Press board of directors, serving the maximum nine years. She also was chairman of the American Newspaper Publishers Association from 1980-82. That group is now called the Newspaper Association of America.
She had come a long way from the day in 1961 when she told an interviewer that ``men are more able than women at executive work ... I think a man would be better at this job I'm in than a woman.''
When she handed control of the Post over to son Donald in 1991, fulfilling her early desire to keep the paper in the family, she said it was time to bring in ``new ideas and new challenges and new energy.'' It also gave her time, she said, to write her memoirs and focus on her family. Her other children are Elizabeth ``Lally'' Weymouth, an author; William Welsh Graham, managing general partner of Graham Partners, a Los Angeles-based investment partnership; and Stephen Meyer Graham, co-founder of the nonprofit New York Theatre Workshop.
``There are positive aspects to being old,'' she wrote. ``Worry, if not gone altogether, no longer haunts you in the middle of the night. And you are free _ or freer _ to turn down the things that bore you and spend time on matters and with people you enjoy.''
In recent years, Mrs. Graham served as a co-chairman of the International Herald Tribune, vice chairman of the board of the Urban Institute and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.