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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.


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.

One of Graham's early pillow books was Thomas Mann's "Tonio Kroger," a novella about the uncertain and ambivalent other, the pained outsider. She felt inadequate around her more glamorous sister, Bis. "I was growing shyer and less confident as I got older," she wrote of her life in the mid-'50s. "I was afraid of being boring, and went on believing that people related to us entirely because of Phil."

And Phil was always there to make it worse. She gained weight, and Phil had a new name for her: "Porky."

So how did she succeed? Where did she get the necessary confidence to run the Post, and to defend it from an angry, vindictive American president?

"I gained it as I went along, but very slowly," she recalls. "You gradually are shaped by what you do and that helps."

The heart of her book deals with her life as wife, daughter and mother, before the emergence of Kay Graham newspaper executive. She recounts the turbulence of her husband's mental collapse, the fear-drenched days as he approached his suicide. Her father was also ill then. Both were calling on her simultaneously, as the pain spreading out from that locus of emotional disintegration and sadness that roiled in the mind of her husband, touched everyone around her, adult and child.

Here she achieves a high literary level. She narrates this family tragedy without a trace of maudlin sentimentality. She tells of the bleak suffering; she is aware of all of those around her and never, not once, does she try to escape into comforting self-absorption, that vice both her father and mother had found so sweet.

Only once, after Graham is buried, does she fail. She leaves for Europe and immediately realizes she is departing at a moment when her young sons are most in need of her. She is behaving like her own mother.

Of course, Graham's is a memoir of a public person. Her analyses of the events she participated in that caught the nation's attention are interesting: the Kennedy years were hopeful; Watergate was a constitutional crisis; the Pentagon Papers case a legal milestone. "Personal History" would have been incomplete had it not elaborated upon all this. And so we have them.

Historians will be interested in "Personal History" for her take on these matters, and also for her judgments (generally kind) on the political elite of her day. Her house was always full of famous people, and their names litter the text. There's much here for those interested in the dynamics, myths and sacred rites of newspapers.

The book is built upon pieces of our national history, shared by every American who ever bothered to read about and anguish over them. They provide "Personal History" with its context.

But they are not what propelled it onto the best-seller list. The confessional elements did that, the private pieces that belong only to Katharine Graham, which she has offered to share.

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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