Katharine Graham led the Washington Post for more than two decades. (The Washington Post)

Storied publisher

The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham, AB’38 (1917–2001), learned as she went—and made history along the way.

In 1937, four years after Eugene Meyer bought a struggling local paper in Washington, DC, his daughter Katharine considered the life of a newspaper publisher and found little to like. “I damn well think it would be a first class dog’s life,” she wrote to her sister Elizabeth.

After a 28-year career at the top of the Washington Post’s masthead, Katharine Meyer Graham, AB’38, saw things differently. In her Pulitzer Prize–winning autobiography Personal History (Knopf, 1997), Graham looked back on her work with joy: “I loved my job, I loved the paper, I loved the whole company.”

In her years leading the Washington Post Company, Graham weathered personal and political turmoil and emerged, to her own surprise, as a pioneering figure in the publishing industry. Thrust into leadership when her husband committed suicide in 1963, Graham steered the family company through a nail-biting legal battle over the Pentagon Papers, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s extended investigation of the Watergate scandal, and labor disputes that engulfed the Post in the 1970s. Under her leadership, the Post went from what she once called “the fifth newspaper in a five-newspaper town” to a journalism powerhouse that rivaled the New York Times in national reputation.

When Graham endured her baptism-by-fire introduction to the business world, female executives were almost unprecedented. Her employees saw her as steely and intimidating, but Graham felt terrible self-doubt in her early years as publisher. She traced her insecurity to “the narrow way women’s roles were defined,” she reflected in her book. “We had been brought up … to think that we were put on the earth to make men happy and comfortable.” In Graham’s first decade on the job she grew less tentative. When Newsweek’s president told her that inviting women to sales meetings would cause trouble, he found himself the target of a flying ashtray.

Graham attributed her adult anxiety to the difficulties of her childhood. Born into economic comfort but emotional deprivation, she saw little of her parents. It was Graham’s childhood nurse who “supplied the hugs, the comforting, the feeling of human contact.” Much was expected of the Meyer children, who struggled with what Elizabeth called “a compulsion to be terrific”—and a gnawing fear that they would never succeed. In school Graham got by using the same fake-it-until-you-make-it approach she adopted in her early years at the Post: “I had to cope with my loneliness, my differences, and become some other person.”

Graham transferred from Vassar College to the University of Chicago in 1936, an impulsive choice occasioned by seeing a photo of Robert Maynard Hutchins in Redbook. The dynamic intellectual and political atmosphere suited her, and Graham made fast friends with her fellow International House residents. “‘Fun’ for our group was talk, exchange of ideas, laughter, close-harmony singing, and hours at the college beer parlor, Hanley’s,” she remembered.

In college Graham decided to enter the family business as a reporter. She wasn’t sure she would be good at it, “a gift given by God to a very few,” but she hoped to cover labor issues, “possibly working up to political reporting later.” After graduation Graham spent almost a year at the San Francisco News before returning to Washington to work at the Post in the spring of 1939.

Her social circle in Washington was filled with young, well-educated professionals like herself—including Phil Graham, a charismatic young lawyer. They married in June 1940.

The young couple shared a playful but sharp-edged rapport. On their honeymoon, when Phil missed an easy shot in a game of tennis, Katharine teased him: “I said, ‘Oh well, they say he has a fine mind.’ Shortly afterward, I missed one. Phil retorted, ‘And they say her family has spent millions on her game.’”

Eugene made Phil his deputy—and ultimately his successor—at the Post. It didn’t occur to Katharine, by then a stay-at-home mother of two, to feel slighted. “It never crossed my mind that [my father] might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper,” she wrote. “The only possible heir would have been a male,” and Katharine’s brother Bill showed no interest in the Post.

It was an overwhelming job. Phil felt the paper was “a leaky boat” financially when he took over as publisher in 1946. He made several smart acquisitions, including Newsweek and the Washington Times-Herald, a Post competitor. By 1954 the paper was profitable and by the early 1960s its daily circulation had more than doubled to 400,000.

What might have been a happy time for the Graham family was overshadowed by Phil’s increasing drinking and moodiness—problems that had emerged during his Army service. At the time little was known about bipolar disorder and few treatments were available. Katharine did her best to cope with Phil’s breakdowns and erratic behavior, but the illness gradually overtook him. When in the summer of 1963 Phil shot himself at the family summer home, it was Katharine who discovered his body.

In the face of staggering grief, Katharine Graham went to work. At the time she did not see herself as the Washington Post Company’s true head, but as a temporary stand-in until one of her children could take over. She soon realized that “nothing stands still.” She could not be a silent figurehead—she would have to lead. “I am quaking in my boots a little but trying not to show it,” she wrote to a friend.

She began hiring new leaders and executives to improve the Post and grow the company. One addition was Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief Ben Bradlee, who told Graham he would “give his left one” to be managing editor of the Post. That level of sacrifice was not required, and he took the position in 1965. Graham and Bradlee became a powerful duo, united in their determination, as Bradlee put it, “that a Washington Post reporter would be the best in town on every beat.”

Their bond was cemented in 1971 during a debate about whether the Post should print the so-called Pentagon Papers, a classified history of US involvement in Vietnam. The Post had obtained a copy of the document after the New York Times was enjoined from publishing it in full. To publish the document would put the Post in legal jeopardy too, threatening the company’s initial public offering, which was under way. In a tense standoff, the Post’s lawyers argued against publication while its editors argued for the public’s right to know. It was Graham’s decision to make. Her choice to publish earned Bradlee’s loyalty. “Katharine had shown guts and commitment to the First Amendment,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography.

The Pentagon Papers fracas provoked frosty relations between the Post and the Nixon administration. Things got chillier still when Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began investigating a 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters. The Post reporters doggedly chased the story for the next two years. For much of that time, their competitors did not follow. As Graham later admitted: “I sometimes privately thought: If this is such a hell of a story, then where is everybody else?”

The Nixon administration retaliated by shunning Post reporters and trying to discredit the paper at every turn. Graham herself came under fire from John Mitchell, the head of Nixon’s reelection committee, who told Bernstein that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if the Post continued to pursue the Watergate story. Graham wore the remark, literally, as a badge of honor. She began sporting a necklace with two small charms—a washing-machine wringer and a breast (the first given to her by an admiring reader, the second from Post columnist Art Buchwald).

The Post’s role in bringing down a president raised its national profile and caught Hollywood’s attention. Graham joked she’d be played by bombshell Raquel Welch in the movie adaptation of All the President’s Men, “assuming our measurements jibe.” Ultimately Graham did not appear on screen, which she later admitted hurt her feelings a little. Still, she loved the film and wrote an appreciative letter to Robert Redford after a screening for Post staff.

Graham spent much of the mid-1970s on the decidedly less glamorous task of steering the Post through disputes with its unions, including the Newspaper Guild, which represented most writers and editors, and craft unions representing pressmen, photoengravers, stereotypers, and others. Graham was in principle prolabor but felt the Post had bargained away control of its production process. Production quality was a long-standing problem at the Post. When Bradlee arrived, he called it “a disgrace, with typos galore and color so bad that the people in the pictures regularly had four eyes and two sets of teeth.”

In 1975 negotiations between the Post and the pressmen’s union—historically the most powerful of the paper’s craft unions—fell apart. On October 1 the pressmen went on strike, damaging the Post’s equipment on their way out. In the early weeks of the strike, pages were flown by helicopter to nonunion printing presses. Graham’s anxiety was intense. “I felt as if I were pregnant with a rock,” she remembered.

By mid-October the Post’s executive, circulation, and sales staff had learned to operate the presses themselves, and in December the Post began hiring nonunion workers to replace the pressmen. By February 1976 the other craft unions had accepted new contracts and returned to work, effectively ending the strike after 139 days. It was an exhausting, miserable ordeal, made worse for Graham, a lifelong liberal and onetime labor reporter, by the realization she was perceived as antiunion.

By the late 1970s Graham’s thoughts had turned to the future of the Post. Her son Don, who by then had held several management positions at the paper, succeeded her as publisher in 1979. She remained CEO of the Washington Post Company until 1991 and chair of its board until 1993. For someone who spent decades doubting her business acumen, Graham’s track record was hard to dispute: from 1963 to 1991, the company’s revenue grew from $84 million to $1.4 billion. (Like the rest of the newspaper industry, the Washington Post struggled in the early 2000s and was sold by Don Graham to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013, ending an 80-year family dynasty.)

Yet profitability was never Graham’s sole priority. Ultimately she believed journalistic excellence was the best business strategy. “I thought if you did one thing well—focused on a quality product—the results would follow,” she wrote. Graham’s focus on journalistic excellence was rewarded with 23 Pulitzer Prizes for the Post during her leadership.

In his eulogy for Graham (“a spectacular dame”) in 2001, Bradlee recalled their tradition of exchanging Christmas letters that reflected on the previous year. “My god,” she’d written in one, “the fun. It’s unfair. Who else has this kind of fun?” She concluded another letter by writing, simply, “It is a pleasure to do business with you, as ever.” That remark, Bradlee told the more than 3,000 mourners, was “the understatement of my lifetime.”