Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Remember Her?

     She was born in 1917 in New York City to a wealthy and privileged family -- but one rooted in tolerance. Her mother, Agnes Ernst, was a Lutheran of German descent. Her father was a Jewish financier on Wall Street who from 1930 to 1933 was also Chairman of the Federal Reserve (a post now held by Janet Yellen).

     Her father was estimated to be worth some $40 million (the equivalent of about $1 billion today) by the time she was born. The family owned several homes across the country, including a main estate in Mt. Kisco, NY (down the street from the Clinton's current house in Chappaqua, NY), and a smaller home in Washington, DC.

     Can you figure out who she is? She went to a private all-girls prep school in Virginia, then on to Vassar College and the University of Chicago, where she developed an interest in labor issues. After graduation in 1938 she went to work for a San Francisco newspaper where, among other assignments, she covered a longshoreman strike.

     Meanwhile, her father left the Federal Reserve and bought a bankrupt newspaper. For the next 20 years he spent millions of dollars of his own money to get the newspaper back in business while trying to improve its quality and its reputation. Along the way he brought his daughter home from San Francisco to work in what was now the family business.

     She met a young lawyer from Florida who was clerking at the Supreme Court, and they were married on June 5, 1940. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and the young couple was sent first to South Dakota and then Harrisburg, Pa., before he was shipped off to the Pacific to serve briefly as an intelligence officer.

     After the war, President Truman tapped the father, Eugene Meyer, to head the World Bank, and so he turned not to his 29-year-old daughter, but to his 31-year-old son-in-law, to run the newspaper. The daughter later wrote in her autobiography: "Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me. In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper."

     The daughter, Katherine, was busy having a family. She lost her first child, but then went on to have a daughter and three sons. Meanwhile her husband, Philip, expanded the family business, buying out a competing newspaper and purchasing a local radio and TV station. He also traveled in political circles, and the couple became friends with the Kennedys, the Johnsons, the Kissingers, the Rockefellers and many other political luminaries.

     However, Philip was also developing mental problems. He suffered from occasional bouts of depression and more than occasional problems with alcohol. In 1962 he had a public affair with an Australian journalist which ended after he had a nervous breakdown.

     In late 1962 and again in 1963 Phil Graham was committed to a psychiatric hospital. In August 1963 he left the hospital, went home to Virginia and, while Katherine was in another part of the property, committed suicide with a shotgun.

     After her husband's death, Katherine Graham assumed control of the family newspaper, The Washington Post. She first took the title of publisher, then in 1972 assumed the mantle of chief executive officer, thus becoming the first female ceo of a Fortune 500 company. During this time she also began her famous friendship with Warren Buffett who invested millions of dollars in the company and became her business counselor. The Washington Post expanded into a publishing behemoth that owned Newsweek magazine, a group of TV and radio stations, a cable network and a for-profit educational publishing company called Kaplan.

The August 5, 2013 edition
     Graham hired Kennedy confidant Ben Bradlee as editor of the paper, and she presided over the paper during the Watergate investigations. In 1979, she named her son Donald publisher of the newspaper but remained chair of the board until 1991.

     Katherine Graham published her memoirs, Personal History, in 1997. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998. She died in 2001, at age 84, after a head injury from a fall in Sun Valley, Idaho.

     In 2002 Graham was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush. Her family is still active in the business, now called the Graham Holdings Company, which still owns Kaplan and a group of TV stations. However, in 2013 the flagship newspaper was sold to Amazon's Jeff Bezos for $250 million. But even today, in the exceedingly difficult economic environment for print media, the newspaper remains one of the leading journalistic voices in America.



Anonymous said...

Very interesting bio. Yes, depression can often lead to suicide. Too bad about her husband.

DJan said...

What an interesting person! Now that I've read this, I'm going to get that book and learn more about her. Thanks, Tom. :-)

Anonymous said...

I should have recognized her after all these years, but I didn't. By the way, did you know Jeff Bezos just bought The Post?

joared said...

I recall learning about her life from various sources -- probably especially Charlie Rose Show and his interviews which I really enjoy. She was a remarkable person whose monies also made her an attractive person to befriend for many and she was able to benefit from their friendship and support.

Stephen Hayes said...

I knew who she was but your bio filled in a lot of gaps. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I read her memoir several years ago and really enjoyed it. She was a remarkable woman. I wonder what she would have said about the state of the modern newspaper industry.

Barbara said...

Very interesting. I remember her. Great share. Thanks.

Sally Wessely said...

She was an amazing woman. I need to read her biography. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I actually read that entire book. Interesting, espcially seeing how the "other half" (read: the rich) live.

One mentionable part of the book is the encounter with Adlai Stevenson. If you have read, you know what I mean.