By Monica Kast

There is one woman who has been called “one of the most powerful women in Washington” and “next in line after Queen Victoria as the world’s most powerful woman” (The Georgetown Ladies Social Club, by C. David Heymann).  That woman is Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of the Washington Post.

Katharine’s father, Eugene Meyer, bought the Washington Post in 1933. “None of us could have known what a transforming event this would be in all our lives,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Personal History” (page 55). Though Katharine came to know the Washington Post well, and work there off-and-on while she was in college, at first it appeared she didn’t see herself working there long-term.

“She has no desire to work for their father, who ‘wants and needs someone…willing to go through the whole mill, from reporting to circulation management, to editorial writing, and eventually to be his assistant,’” Heymann records Katharine writing to her sister while she was working as a labor reporter at the San Francisco News. 

However, Katharine, also called “Kay” and “Katie,” seemingly was destined to work at the Washington Post. Her father offered her a pay raise if she returned to Washington D.C. to “’learn the newspaper trade’ by working for him at the Post,” and she accepted, according to Heymann. Even early on in her career, her father recognized her abilities to potentially run the paper. In her own autobiography, Katherine recounts the deep connection she felt to the Washington Post, which would go on to be headed by her husband, Phil, and eventually herself:

“Much later, the depth of my caring was pointed out to me by Phil’s psychiatrist, who told me that Phil and I both had a problem: we cared too much about the Post. I told him, in one of the greatest understatements of my life, that I feared there was little he could do about that.”

Katharine married Phil Graham in 1940, and in 1946, he started working at the Washington Post. Less than six months after starting at the Washington Post, Phil was named the next publisher of the newspaper. Heymann records Chalmers M. Roberts, a reporter and editor at the Washington Post, on why Phil was selected after a short amount of time.

“Roberts…regarded Phil’s presence at the paper as ‘a natural progression, considering that Eugene Meyer hailed from a generation that believed businesses were meant to be run by men. He had four daughters and one son, Eugene II (“Bill”), and the son turned out to be a psychiatrist – he was not interested in the newspaper business. So Meyer had to pick up a son-in-law and when Kay married Phil Graham, he was the ideal solution to the problem, from her father’s standpoint’” (The Georgetown Ladies Social Club, page 31).

Later, Roberts added “I imagine [Eugene] envisioned Kay as playing an essential role in the paper’s future but always as a subordinate to her husband” (page 31).

However, Katharine would not be “subordinate” to Phil forever. In 1959, after struggling with mental illness for many years, Phil committed suicide in one of their homes. Two days later, Katharine, though she described herself as “hazy” in “Personal History,” met with board members of the Washington Post Company, “to assure them that she had no intention of selling the family business, that she planned to carry on either by herself or with the help of her children,” Heymann said.

Friends and family members were shocked by Phil’s suicide, but not by Katharine’s resolve to keep the Washington Post running. As one friend remarked after people continued expressing pity for Katharine, “Poor Kay, my ass. She’s rich, she’s in great shape, and now she’s also one of the most powerful women in Washington. I wouldn’t feel sorry for her if I were you” (The Georgetown Ladies’ Social Club, page 148).

While it was not a smooth transition, within three years, Katharine had established herself as “one of the shrewdest, toughest newspaper and magazine publishers in the industry” (The Georgetown Ladies’ Social Club, page 169). She would be the publisher for two major stories done by the Washington Post: the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal.

Katharine was the one who gave the final approval to publish the stories on the Pentagon Papers, despite pressure from friends to not do so. Katharine herself noted the effects that publishing the papers and subsequent lawsuit had: “Although the case came and went, unbelievably, in only two and a half weeks, its ripple effect was great. And publishing the Papers went a long way toward advancing the interests of the Post. As Ben [Bradlee] later said, ‘That was a key moment in the life of this paper. It was just sort of the graduation of the Post into the highest ranks’” (“Personal History, page 458).

Katharine said that in a way, the Pentagon Papers helped prepare the Washington Post for the Watergate Scandal. “Indeed, publishing the Pentagon Papers made future decisions easier, even possible. Most of all it prepared us – and I suspect, unfortunately, Nixon as well – for Watergate,” she said (“Personal History, page 459).

Katharine’s time as publisher during the Pentagon Papers coverage will be depicted in the upcoming movie “The Post,” where Meryl Streep plays Katharine.

Despite huge pressure from politicians to not write about the Watergate scandal, Katharine stood with her editors and reporters. She faced criticism for allowing the initial reports to be published and for pursuing the story. Attorney General John Mitchell threatened Katharine, saying “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big, fat wringer if that’s published.”

A portion of the Newseum display on Watergate discussed Katharine Graham’s involvement as publisher, including the threat she received from U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell. Photo by Monica Kast.

The Washington Post was the first publication to pursue the Watergate story, but it was quickly picked up nationally. By the time Nixon resigned, Katharine had been through years of criticism for her role as publisher.

“Though Watergate was no longer a lonely project for the Post, we were proud of the part we had played, but it was now on its way to becoming a national tragedy, and we had no impulse to flaunt our role, though every reason to feel relief at vindication,” she wrote (“Personal History, page 486).

Katharine Graham was seemingly thrown into her position as publisher of the Washington Post. She had to learn quickly how to run a newspaper, and made her name as a fierce and powerful publisher. Ben Bradlee summed up what it was like to work with Katharine, following the Pentagon Papers lawsuit.

“Doing business with you is so much more than a pleasure – it’s a cause, it’s an honor, and such a rewarding challenge,” he wrote.