Personal History

Personal HistoryWhen the announcement was made that Katharine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History, had won the Pulitzer Prize, her friend and colleague Meg Greenfield—one of the people who had urged Graham to write the book—turned to her and demanded, “Now do you believe you wrote a good book?” Graham couldn’t argue; in the front matter of her book, she had acknowledged her longtime reliance on Meg’s professional advice, saying that “Meg’s mind and mine work in similar ways, as do our judgments about people and situations, about what is funny and what is intolerable.”

I would use nearly those exact words to describe my relationship with Diana Frazier, the highly-accomplished woman from whom I learned of this autobiography of another highly-accomplished woman. I was impressed when Diana said this book was one of the notable influences on her professional goals and methods, so I borrowed her copy and discovered that, as often occurs between us, I was of the same mind.

Author Katharine Graham is the former publisher and president of The Washington Post Company. Apparently capable at everything she set her hand to, her memoir is articulate; extensive, yet infused with humility; and—happily for the reader—interesting! Though saturated with specifics of who said what to whom and when, it is far from mundane. The simple title is apt: her account is both “personal,” as she narrates the private and public details of her life and quotes family correspondence and diaries, and “history,” as those details of her life are inextricably entwined with a great many of the significant people and events of the last century.

She begins, unconventionally, with two chapters on her parents’ ancestries, how they met, and their early family life. If parental accomplishments are any indicator of a child’s potential, Katharine was destined to rise to the top. Her father, Eugene Meyer, was a Jewish boy from San Francisco. In 1894, at age 19, he graduated from Yale and set out for a banking internship. By the time of his daughter’s birth in 1917, he had amassed a huge fortune in the stock market with an initial $600 investment his father had given him for not smoking before age 21. Katharine’s mother Agnes, a Barnard grad, took fencing lessons in the same Paris class as Marie Curie, studied the Chinese language at Columbia, and became a collecting partner of Charles Lang Freer (in fact, Agnes and Eugene were two of five trustees Freer designated upon his death to oversee his gallery in Washington, now part of the Smithsonian). Katharine was never close to her brilliant and self-absorbed mother but had enormous respect for her; she deeply loved her father.

Relatively few pages describe Katharine’s early years, spent mostly and apparently pleasantly in the company of her sister Ruthie at the family’s estates in New York and Washington. But she devotes an entire chapter to the circumstances of her father’s purchase of The Washington Post. It was 1933 and she was in high school. Various businessmen including her father had been trying for years to obtain the Post from its playboy owner. Like everyone else, she had heard that summer about the anonymous buyer who had outbid the owner’s ex-wife (who wore the Hope Diamond to the auction!), but she had no idea that buyer was her father until her parents casually mentioned it during tea. It would be decades before Katharine fully realized the life-changing significance of that purchase.

In the meantime, she graduated from the University of Chicago and worked as an investigative reporter and letters page editor. In the fall of 1939, back in Washington, a second life-changing event occurred: at a party, she leaned out an upper window and knocked the screen down onto the head of a young Phil Graham, then clerk for a Supreme Court Justice. They married the following summer.

During the first few years of their marriage, Phil served in the Air Force and Katharine gave birth to four children. After the conclusion of World War II, Katharine’s father made Phil his second-in-command at the paper, and after only five months, stepped down and announced Phil’s succession as publisher.

In part because of her family background, but also in part because of their own intellectual energy and Phil’s political connections in Washington, Katharine and Phil moved in the highest social circles. Phil was deeply involved in Jack Kennedy’s presidential bid; Phil and Katharine celebrated with the Kennedys the night Jack won the election. Katharine attended Bobby Kennedy’s funeral and burial at Arlington. She was close friends with Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, and Henry Kissinger. In later years, she would be the guest of honor at Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball.

Katharine and Phil’s relationship was as complex as they were as individuals. She was devoted to him and threw herself unquestioningly into the role of supportive wife. She admired him deeply—to the point of feeling so influenced by his intellect and his tastes that she used to say she had been “made” by him. He lavished her with attention, and cared compassionately for her through two miscarriages. They built an impressive life together. But the pressures on Phil were great, and he had a dark side. She recalls an occasion when Phil received an invitation specifying that “the ladies should be invited to share the head table with their husbands”; Phil sent word to his secretary to RSVP “and say Kay will be delighted and then tell Kay how delighted she is.” Katharine explains that “this peremptory message from Phil says something both about his mood and about our relationship; it also says something about the role of women in those days. It was assumed that I would go where Phil wanted me, and if fact I assumed it, too” (295). Her friends pulled her aside and wondered aloud why she seemed to be the butt of Phil’s public jokes, but she brushed the behavior aside as a quirk. Yet she noticed herself “growing shyer and less confident as I got older….I was afraid of being boring, and went on believing that people related to us entirely because of Phil” (230). At one point her women friends threw a party they called “Salute to Katharine Graham”; she considered it excessive, but they thought she could use some public encouragement.

Hindsight showed they were more perceptive on this issue than she. Phil began to drink more. He threw himself into weeks of non-stop, frenzied work at the paper, followed by days in bed. On a business trip overseas, he started an affair and told Katharine he was divorcing her, then sent his mistress away and promised he would stay with his family. The passion and energy which drew people to Phil were devolving into the pendulum swing of manic depression, a diagnosis late in coming. Katharine remembers that she did not speak of his depression to her family or anyone at the paper. “I wasn’t embarrassed; it was just something very private—something we both still assumed he’d get over,” she writes. “And there was the stigma of mental illness. Phil once said to Don, ‘This means I can never be in the Cabinet’” (252).

Phil’s illness lasted for six years. Katharine hoped the psychiatrists would cure him, and even saw one with him. But the downward spiral was final. After a prolonged hospital stay, Phil convinced his doctors to let him spend a weekend at the family farm with Katharine. After a quiet lunch and nap together, Phil went downstairs and shot himself.

His death traumatized the children, Katharine’s mother, and the staff at the paper, who assumed the Post would be sold. Katharine was overwhelmed with her inadequacies, but she was determined to keep alive her father’s vision for the Post and preserve it for the next generation of Grahams. So after years of serving the company peripherally, hosting staff parties, writing occasional articles, and generally supporting her father and Phil, Katharine assumed the company presidency. The second half of her memoir details the lessons, mistakes, and successes of the decades she was at the helm of the Post.

Katharine’s personal account is a partial history of women in the workplace. She studied management—helped considerably by Warren Buffet, who became a close friend. She followed the advice of friends not to worry about her lack of experience in business but to make the most of her good judgment. She struggled against the insecurities she later understood to be typical of women of her generation, being conditioned to please people, especially men, leading to a lack of confidence in decision-making and a tendency to apologize unnecessarily. Her reflections on these ingrained beliefs and the process of overcoming them merit an extensive quote:

When I first went to work, I was still handicapped with the old assumptions and was operating as though they were written in stone. When I started my job, I was ‘inferior’ to the men with whom I was working. I had no business experience, no management experience, and little knowledge of the governmental, economic, political, or other matters with which we dealt. I truly felt like Samuel Johnson’s description of a woman minister—“a woman preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Since I regarded myself as inferior, I failed to distinguish between, on the one hand, male condescension because I was a woman and, on the other hand, a valid view that the only reason I had my job was the good luck of my birth and the bad luck of my husband’s death. Being a woman in control of a company…was so singular and surprising in those days that I necessarily stood out … (417)

The issues relating to women were on my mind constantly throughout these years. Though it took me a long time to throw off some of my early and ingrained assumptions, I did come to understand the importance of the basic problems of equality in the workplace, upward mobility, salary equity, and, more recently, child care. What the women’s movement eventually did for me personally was to help me sort out my thinking. Most important to me was not the central message of the movement—that women were equal—but that women had a right to choose which life-style suited them. We all had a right to a frame of reference other than that we were put on earth to catch a man, hold him, and please him. Eventually I came to realize that, if women understood this and acted on it, things would be better for men as well as for women (430).

And she did act on it. In a business where women typically held positions of reporter or secretary, she hired them as editors too. She set precedents around the world, appearing before all-male governments to interview high profile leaders like Anwar Sadat, the Shah of Iran, Nicolae Ceausescu, Muammar Qaddafi, and Mikhail Gorbachev. For a time, she was known as the most powerful woman in America, a title she was uncomfortable with as it made her feel like “some kind of weight-lifter or body-builder” (507). But the title was justifiable: she was the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company, and the first woman to serve on the Associated Press’s Board of Directors.

Because her unique role as a woman in the business world was that of a newspaper publisher, her memoir also provides an account of a significant era in the history of American journalism. It was Katharine, with Ben Bradlee, the renowned editor she hired, who hunkered down in the legal trenches for two years to protect reporters Bernstein and Woodward, embattled with the Nixon administration over their reporting on Watergate. Even at the time the scandal was unfolding, Katharine knew the issues were greater than the Post’s right to print a story. “As astounding as Watergate was to the country and the government, it underscored the crucial role of a free, able, and energetic press” (508).

This was followed in short order by another precedent-setting episode, a pressmen’s strike that nearly bankrupted the company. Katharine and her management team worked day and night, setting type, running presses, and bundling papers, trying to meet minimal production demands, while union members shot out windows and set fire to presses. Eventually, both sides agreed to a settlement. A federal grand jury indicted eight of the pressmen in connection with inciting a riot, and several were later convicted of brutally beating the pressroom foreman. Katharine’s memoir documents the chronology of the strike and negotiations, and explains the management’s perspective on the issues leading to the strike.

The book concludes with her contented handoff of the company to her son Donald. Despite numerous occasions when she feared the Post would be lost, by perseverance she built on her father’s vision to leave her children an extraordinary heritage.

A lovely extra in the book are the collections of photos showing her in her childhood setting, with Phil, with their children at the family residences, with Post employees, and with their many national and international friends. This photographic chronology richly enhances her accounts of these figures.

Overall, Katharine’s story appeals to me because though in many ways it is an alien one, an existence of great wealth and political power, the unfamiliar is marbled with the familiar, its veins the landmarks, personalities, and proceedings of our national heritage. Her writing has an intimate quality, inviting the reader to experience with her the triumphs and tragedies of one woman’s life. Her transformation from a pampered college girl to a widowed mother of four to a Fortune 500 company president demonstrates the paradoxical fragility and strength of the human spirit, as well as the remarkable contributions of women unleashed from stereotypes. Her grace in difficult circumstances, her humility in learning from mistakes, her tenacity in seeking and developing business strategies, all inspire emulation. A whopping 642 pages of text in hardcover, Personal History is a time consuming but rewarding investment.


Katharine Graham died in 2001, four years after publishing her memoir. Photos, audio, remembrances by colleagues, and the Post obituary are online at

10. February 2007 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 3 comments

Comments (3)

  1. What a wonderfully thorough review. I have this on my bookshelf slated to be read next year, but now I may read it sooner. Thanks for posting!

  2. Thanks for this wonderful review of what is my favorite autobiography. One of my initial reasons for enjoying it so much was the contrast to Ben Bradlee’s book that I had read just previous to this. He was the editor of The Washington Post at the same time as the Watergate coverage and while Kathryn Graham was the publisher. His account was so crass and profane. Hers was so full of grace.

    The other thing that has stayed with me is that in this one woman, we see the broad sweep of the history of women in the marketplace. She went through remarkable changes, breaking incredible boundaries. Her change in her thought process, as quoted above, is still something women need to hear, think through, and act on.

    By the way, Meg Greenfield’s book, Washington, is also worth the read, but is not as enjoyable as this one.

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