Katharine Graham Grew into Boldness as Washington Post PublisherHistorians in the News
tags: museums, Washington Post, newspapers, journalism, public history, womens history, Katharine Graham
Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham was known for her bold and history-making moves.
Graham published the Pentagon Papers, encouraged the Watergate investigation and revealed government lies about the Vietnam War. But according to Jeanne Gutierrez, curator of the Katharine Graham exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, the CEO's fearlessness was part of an important personal evolution.
Warren Buffett once said Graham saved the country in her role as publisher. But when a waitperson serving the women leaders of the Historical Society asked who Graham was, the group realized the story of the woman once called the most powerful in America was being lost.
As a young woman, Graham was shy and insecure, Gutierrez explained at a recent event at WBUR’s CitySpace in Boston.
“She was raised as a privileged young woman of her time would be,” Gutierrez says, “to be an ornament to society, to marry well, to have beautiful children, to engage in genteel good works.”
Graham’s mother was a rare female journalist, and her father, a wealthy banker and consultant to presidents, bought The Washington Post in 1933. Journalism brought Graham and her father, Eugene Meyer, closer together for the first time, Gutierrez says.
After Graham graduated college, she went to San Francisco to cover labor unrest. Then, her father got her a job at the Post as a copy boy and messenger in the women’s pages, which she ultimately changed to the style section as publisher.
Meyer famously said of his own daughter’s new job that “if it doesn’t work, we’ll get rid of her.”
Months after she started the job, Gutierrez says the young reporter met a “brilliant but rather volatile” lawyer named Phillip Graham. The two married, and though he wasn’t interested in journalism, Phillip Graham ended up taking control of The Washington Post when her parents stepped back in 1948.
“[Philip Graham] had roughly three times the number of shares that she had, courtesy of her parents,” Gutierrez says. “It was really a gift from them to him because, as Eugene Meyer said and Katharine Graham wrote, that she agreed at the time that no man should be put in the position of working for his wife.”
Graham dropped her journalism aspirations to become a devoted wife and self-described doormat. In 1963, Phillip Graham killed himself and his wife took over as publisher — something the public viewed with skepticism.