Queen Katharine

From ugly duckling to hard-ass swan.

Personal History
By Katharine Graham
Knopf; 625 pages; $29.95

The saga that unfolds in Personal History, Katharine Graham’s 625-page autobiography, is worthy of a Joseph Campbell exegesis: A young Wall Street king, Eugene Meyer, marries his aggressive queen, Agnes, and they spawn a royal family of four princesses and a prince. Dominated by their overbearing literary mother and ignored by their dismissive multimillionaire father, these virtual orphans are raised by governesses and servants. Frumpy Princess Katharine shivers with inadequacy.

But wait! Charismatic Philip appears from the South (by way of Harvard Law) to rescue the grown-up Katharine, enchant the queen, and seduce King Eugene with his magic. (Actually, the old monarch falls for Phil’s flattery, which fools other powerful elders such as Justice Felix Frankfurter, for whom Phil clerks.) Phil marries Katharine, and the king gives them the ink-stained duchy of the Washington Post. The young couple bear progeny, and the duchy grows mighty–mighty enough for Prince Phil to anoint a king himself (LBJ).

Darkness descends: Worn out by his labors on Wall Street, the Federal Reserve Board, the Washington Post, and the World Bank, King Eugene dies. Phil, who dominates Katharine as her mother did, goes mad over the course of six years and then kills himself. The cruel queen’s lights finally expire. Only then does the fairy tale begin. The self-doubting Katharine raises the queen’s tiara to her head, slays Nixon the Awful, holds court in Georgetown and around the world, buries the Washington Star, and builds an empire as she prepares her son, Prince Donald, for the throne.

The story is irresistible, as is the telling. Just when you’re ready to credit the copy to Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb, Graham quotes an old letter of hers, a sharp critique of the Post that she, aged 17, sent her parents in 1934, the year after her father bought the paper. The woman can write.

Most autobiographies are more about concealing than telling, but Graham ropes off relatively little. Her children’s personal lives are deliberately excised from the book; the cowardly episode in which she and Ben Bradlee misused their inordinate power to scuttle a wretchedly flawed book about her (Katharine the Great by Deborah Davis, published in 1979) is not mentioned; and she only hints at her post-Phil romantic life. Adlai Stevenson? Robert McNamara? Henry Kissinger? Ted Heath? An Italian stallion? Warren Buffett? Watch Graham wink.

Oddly, Personal History largely echoes Carol Felsenthal’s unauthorized biography, Power, Privilege, and the Post: The Katharine Graham Story–oddly, because its publication in 1993 incensed the Graham family. Graham’s daughter Lally Weymouth compared Felsenthal to Joe McCarthy in the Post op-ed pages, and son Donald Graham excoriated the author on the New York TimesBook Review letters page. (The Post, to its credit, published a rave by Ronald Steel.) The Grahams were enraged by Felsenthal’s cold and detailed charting of the psychotic free fall of Katharine’s husband, New Deal/New Frontier bright-light Phil Graham. Felsenthal and Katharine both report that Phil assumed Agnes’ role as bully and emotional abuser, but only the biographer writes that as Phil lost his mind, he taunted his half-Jewish wife with anti-Semitic slurs.

G raham’s aptly named book crosscuts between the engrossing social history of her life and times–populated by the likes of Marie Curie, Edward Steichen, Auguste Rodin, Thomas Mann, Bernard Baruch, Walter Lippmann, FDR, Truman Capote, LBJ, Jessica Mitford, Scotty Reston, Emperor Hirohito, Bill and Babe Paley, and Richard Nixon–and her agonizing personal history. Graham’s portrait of her mother, the social-climbing, booze-hounding, domineering Agnes, makes a persuasive case for matricide. “[M]otherhood was not exactly Mother’s first priority,” she writes. Or again, “Mother set impossibly high standards for us.” At the same time, Graham complains, she was taught little about “the practical aspects of life,” like “how to dress, sew, cook, shop, and, rather more important, relate to people of any kind, let alone young men.”

Married to Phil, Katharine comes to “enjoy the role of doormat wife.” When the Graham children arrive, she becomes a self-described “drudge” who has “no idea how to organize a meal.” Just when you think that the ugly duckling has snorkeled to the bottom of the Marianas Trench of her lowest self-esteem, she dives still deeper: “I ignored the fact that [Phil] was frequently using [his] wit at my expense. [He] was often critical or cutting in his remarks when things weren’t just right–either about the house or my clothes, for example, which left lots of room for disparaging remarks.”

Depleted of self-confidence? Not quite. Graham constantly discovers new reserves of emptiness. Seated next to President Kennedy at a party, she panics that she’ll bore him to death. (She does fine.) Society people intimidate her–“Despite my own background and actually having been born there, I always felt like a country girl in New York”–no matter that her parents had introduced her to high society while she was still in diapers, and that she had frolicked with the Paleys, the Whitneys, and the Mellons as an adult. The business world spooks her, too. Following Phil’s death, she assumes the Washington Post Co. helm with trepidation because she is “uneducated in even the basics of the working world.”

Can’t cook, can’t sew, can’t run a household, can’t stand up to her imperious mom and husband, can’t make small talk with celebrities or notables, can’t run a Fortune 500 company. Kay, honey, what did you learn to do in your first 46 years on the planet?

All modesty is false, and Graham’s extravagant humility is no exception. If you apologize for your shortcomings, you can count on harvesting sympathy. If you apologize for your nonexistent shortcomings, you harvest sympathy and blind folks to your genuine shortcomings. Graham plays both games, perhaps because there’s truth, of a sort, to her claims of inadequacy. At critical points in her life, she chose brilliant and charismatic men to marry (Phil, president of the Harvard Law Review), hire (Bradlee–well, Bradlee is Bradlee), or go into business with (Buffett, the modern Midas). Against this backdrop of stars, any mortal would quake. But her “I am inept” self-portrait is still hard to swallow. Before Phil died, she ran two households and birthed four kids, rubbed political shoulders with everyone from FDR to JFK, contributed to Democratic campaigns, worked the back rooms at a slew of national political conventions between 1948 and 1960, and sat in on negotiations as Phil purchased the Washington TimesHerald, television stations, and Newsweek.

Even Graham’s earliest confessions of incompetence are refuted by her father’s transparent scheme to groom her for some top slot at the Post. After she graduates from the University of Chicago, he arranges a job for her as a reporter at the San Francisco News, and afterward hires her as a Post editorial writer. Perhaps Eugene Meyer was a 19th-century chauvinist with no intention of letting his most talented child run a newspaper. But if he sinned against his daughter and her gender by giving his Wunderkind son-in-law the controlling interest in the Post (no man should have to work for his wife, the old man said), then Graham surely sinned against her eldest child, journalist Lally, for handing the keys to the Washington Post Co. to the younger Donald. Ownership has its privileges.

Personal History’s false modesty begins to evaporate after Phil’s suicide in 1963. Seizing control of the Post, Katharine swats the newspaper jackals who want to steal it: Sam Newhouse, the Los Angeles Times, and Roy Thomson. She orders the top eye-shade to run the company as a partnership with her, just as he did with Phil, even though she doesn’t really grasp business. She does understand editorial, though, and better than Phil did. (He was more interested in becoming a major Washington dude, writing speeches for LBJ, running COMSAT for Kennedy, and joining the board of the RAND Corp.)

Impressed by Bradlee’s remark that he’d “give his left one” to edit the Post, she imposes him on the paper over the objections of the paper’s then-editors. And she teams with Buffett to take the Washington Post Co. public, which makes everyone involved nasty rich. She triples the editorial budget between 1966 and 1969, allowing Bradlee to make the Post great. She hires and fires top executives as wickedly as any male CEO. She publishes the Pentagon Papers at great peril to the company and stares down Richard Nixon over Watergate when he threatens to revoke the company’s lucrative broadcast licenses. She battles and beats the thugs in the pressmen’s union who think they, not she, own the Post.

Most folks associate the risk-taking cockiness and gaiety of the Katharine-Ben-era Post with Bradlee. But, as anyone who has seen Graham run a stockholders’ meeting knows, she is an agile, arrogant, and gracious beast, and the paper is as much a product of her personality, talents, and priorities as it is of his. I refer doubters to the Post as published by her son and his hand-picked editor, Leonard Downie Jr. It’s as humdrum and safe as they are.

Truth be told, the ugly duckling never needed Bradlee’s left one to transform herself into a carnivorous swan.