Getting to know Ms. Graham, at a distance, unconfirmed

April 04, 1993|By Carl Sessions Stepp

POWER, PRIVILEGE AND THE POST: THE KATHARINE GRAHAM STORY. Carol Felsenthal. Putnam.

512 pages. $29.95. Biographies aren't normally described as page turners, but this one certainly qualifies. Is it a good book? Now that's another matter.

Like many modern pop-biographies, this story of Washington Post chairman Katharine Graham is breezy, gossipy and slightly voyeuristic. The author, a Chicago free-lancer who has written two other biographies, capitalizes on Mrs. Graham's exceptional life in what seems part serious exploration, part celebrity expose.

She makes much of Mrs. Graham's troubled childhood, with a distant millionaire father and a social-climbing mother who belittled her. Young Kay, she contends, carried to adulthood a self-consciousness of both her plain looks and her father's Jewish heritage.

Whatever impact this all had was compounded by an ill-fated marriage to Phil Graham, a --ing and dazzling figure, but a fTC tormented man who, the author writes, "emotionally battered" his wife. Sources remember Graham's public philandering and his mocking his wife as a "Jewish cow."

Alongside Mrs. Graham's story is that of the Post, a woebegone weakling that her father picked off at a 1933 bankruptcy sale for under $1 million. Slowly, he built the paper's reputation and solvency, until gradually turning it over to his son-in-law Phil after World War II.

At that point, Kay Graham, who had embarked on a promising journalism career of her own, "retired" into a traditional spouse's role.

But in 1963, Phil Graham, on leave from a mental institution, killed himself. Ready or not, his wife was thrust into one of the highest-profile media positions in America.

It is no exaggeration to say -- and Mrs. Felsenthal generously grants the point -- that Mrs. Graham triumphed, outfoxing the chauvinists who challenged her, guiding the Post to profitability and prominence, gaining First Amendment laurels by printing the Pentagon Papers and eventually presiding over the transcendent Watergate era. But she also left a trail of abruptly fired loyalists, smashed labor unions and disillusioned critics.

Even though much of this is familiar, Mrs. Felsenthal gives it drama and excitement. Drawing on extensive interviews and documents, she assembles abundant information into an immensely interesting tale. And she raises intriguing issues about Mrs. Graham's complicated personal and professional behavior.

Foremost is this central question: Was Mrs. Graham a charmed innocent who depended on paternalistic advisers for her good fortune, or was she, despite initial shyness and business naivete, a shrewd strategist who shaped her own agenda and cleverly maneuvered the men around her?

While the latter explanation seems likely, the book doesn't really provide the answer. Neither Mrs. Graham, who is writing her own memoirs, nor her son Don, who has succeeded her, nor Ben Bradlee, the Post's longtime, larger-than-life editor, cooperated

with the author.

Consequently, Mrs. Felsenthal views her subject from a distance. Many sources are anonymous; a high percentage are people fired or otherwise offended by the Grahams; and many key points hinge on only one person (violating, ironically, the "two-source rule" the Post made famous during Watergate).

Just to take one example, she asserts that Watergate icon Bob Woodward was bumped from being Mr. Bradlee's heir-apparent because of a notorious hoax written by reporter Janet Cooke.

But the single source listed for this revelation is one-time Post ombudsman Joseph Laitin, an honorable man but not, it would seem, a primary authority for such a disclosure.

Mrs. Felsenthal writes without becoming either worshipful or malicious, though she occasionally veers into idle gossip, as when she tells of a man "who spent the night under Kay's roof and, one friend speculates, under her covers."

She lays out the favorable (Mrs. Graham's emergence as one of America's most powerful people, worth $500 million) as well as the disagreeable (her ruthless side, as seen in the crushing of a 1975 Post pressmen's strike).

But Mrs. Felsenthal hardly cracks the inner sanctum. We never ** really see how Mrs. Graham thinks, makes decisions, and manages. As if listening to someone describe the Grand Canyon, we get the general picture but without the awesome impact of close-up sight.

For the record, my wife Laura works for the Post, and I have done consulting work there. That said, my judgment is that Mrs. Felsenthal has written a readable, informative and basically fair book, though it does not quite authoritatively convey the essence of Kay Graham. That essence, whatever it may be, remains just beyond our view.

Mr. Stepp teaches journalism at the University of Maryland and is

a senior editor of American Journalism Review.

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