A remarkable life in remarkable times History: Katharine Graham was ill-prepared to lead a publishing empire that would bring down a presidency. Or so she thought.

February 17, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Katharine Graham has written a best seller and nobody's more surprised than Katharine Graham. "It wasn't even on the chart of my secret hopes," she confesses. "It truly stuns me."

But that's the way it's been, at least since 1963 when her husband and publisher of the Washington Post, Phil Graham, killed himself, and she pulled herself together and to everyone's amazement -- mostly her own -- took charge.

She always underestimates herself. It is the motif of her memoir, "Personal History."

She was 46 when she took over the Post. She's near 80 now. This is the first and last book she will ever write, she says during an interview before an appearance in Pikesville.

"Personal History" is more than another celebration of the high times of the Washington Post in the 1970s, savior of the republic and all that. It is about Kay Graham, her family, and of maturing along with the newspaper her father bought at auction on June 1, 1933, for $825,000, when she was 25.

Because her life has had a more dramatic change of course than most people experience, she brings a rich point of view to bear on things. She gives away more in this book than most memoirs do, especially those written by journalists, preoccupied as they often are with their notions of relevance and proto-history.

Her writing is simple and direct, and rarely self-serving. And she did it herself, with a lot of help from friends, an editor and researchers.

"They're all my words," she insists, shifting in her chair, uncomfortable from a recent hip operation.

She is dressed in a tailored black suit, with a scarf the color of a ripe tomato splashed across her narrow upper body. She looks tired. Her face is drawn; she has a small mouth which yields a small smile.

Graham was born rich and has never been poor. But in some ways, she was deprived; her ration of parental affection meager. Utterly absorbed in their own busy lives, Eugene Meyer and Agnes Ernst abandoned their children for years to the care of nurses and nannies. They left their young untutored in life's essential lessons. Money was never spoken of, nor its rTC management explained. Sex? As a young girl Graham confesses she had no idea about it. So she asked her mother:

"She responded, 'Haven't you seen dogs in the street?' Although unfortunately I hadn't, I naturally said, 'Of course,' and that was the end of the conversation."

They never spoke of their father's Jewishness; this at a time when anti-Semitism was always in the background. In short, "nothing difficult or personal was discussed among us."

Katharine Graham spent the larger part of her life in the world of women: having children, raising them, managing a household. She did this well. She was enthralled to her husband, the ambitious young lawyer her father had chosen to run the family newspaper, without a hint of an objection from her. It never occurred to her to do so.

She endured nearly the entire 23 years of her marriage ignorant of her husband's low regard for her, and of his philandering. She was tossed into the world of men -- that of power, politics, business -- after Graham, a manic-depressive, blew his brains out in the bathroom of the family farm in Virginia. After that she began to learn how destructive of her personality their marriage had been.

Graham turned out to be a superior publisher to her husband. Why? She listened to wiser heads (columnist James Reston, for one), and learned to respect journalism's bedrock principles. She decided not to use the newspaper to effect political results she thought desirable and thereby gave it a measure of dispassion as an institution.

Her husband had operated in a contrary fashion. He had to have a hand in everything. Phil Graham had helped shape the 1957 civil rights bill and negotiate Lyndon Johnson's acceptance of the vice presidency under John F. Kennedy.

Nobody could have been less prepared for the job she took on. What did she know about the production and logistics of the newspaper business? About unions or advertising, or of bringing together all the other ingredients of the daily miracle? Except for a brief stint as a reporter in San Francisco as a young woman, what did she know about the craft of journalism? Suddenly there she was, the only woman in the board room. Forced to make speeches. Forced to understand things she never before understood. Forced to deal with all the fast, power-tripping players at Newsweek and the Post and beyond -- men every one of them, in whose company her husband once thrived. Most of them had always ignored her.

The prospect frightened her. The quickening evolutionary stream of American business had not yet thrown up those meat-eating female execs who appeared in the late '80s and '90s. Katharine Graham, without role models, was very nearly alone. Aunt Bea she wasn't. But neither would she be a Margaret Thatcher in the newsroom.

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