I am far more excited for The Post movie than Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Katharine Graham is my Rey (FYI: if you don’t get this reference, each is the female protagonist and lead character in the respective films). During college getting-to-know-you questionnaires and job interviews after college, whenever someone asked “Who would you like to meet or have lunch with, dead or alive?” or “Who is your role model?” I’d simply reply, “Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post for 20 years, and a total boss lady.” Thus, I’m very excited that the recently released film The Post, with Meryl Streep playing Katharine Graham, will make my role model a little less obscure, and also prove that I’m actually ahead of the trend for the first time in my life.
I knew nothing about Katharine Graham before I chose to read a biography about Katharine and write three papers about her for my expository writing class during my junior year of high school. In a primarily all-male class, where my fellow classmates picked Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and lots of male presidents and rockstars, I picked Katharine because she seemed like a rockstar to me. She was an exemplary female role model as the publisher of The Post when the paper broke the Watergate scandal, Pentagon Papers, and more. She worked in a male-dominated business and was under a lot of pressure in a role where she succeeded her father and her late husband. Prior to reading Power, Privilege, and the Post: The Katharine Graham Story, by Carol Felsenthal, I thought Katharine’s life was smooth sailing: grew up wealthy, had a fabulous education, and got a job from her father. Little did I know that her career with The Washington Post, and her confidence and character as the Katharine Graham she would become immortalized as, did not begin until the age of 46, after her husband committed suicide and she became publisher of the newspaper.
The book shows that leadership and greatness do not come naturally to everyone, and sometimes it is just thrust upon those who feel less equipped for it. Because the movie is about how The Washington Post released the Pentagon Papers, I want to shed light on who Katharine Graham is and how she became the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. Let me share with you, below, some excerpts from a paper I wrote in high school about the crossroads in her life, and how tragedy opened so many doors for Katharine Graham (who went by “Kay” her whole life):
On June 5, 1940, Katharine Meyer married Philip Graham. On their first date, six months earlier, Phil had told Kay that she would marry him. On their third date, they were engaged. From the beginning of their relationship through their 23 year marriage, Phil controlled Kay and caused her endless insecurities. Kay dealt with her husband’s growing manic-depression, his cruel insults toward her, and his nonchalant extramarital affair. Only Phil’s suicide at the age of 48 would end Kay’s years of living in poor health, solitude, and embarrassment, and give her a new chance at life.
With the loss of her maiden name in her marriage to Phil, Kay also lost her identity. Kay, “who [once] strode across [her college] campus like the captain of a triumphant hockey team…became like the abused child who lurks in the shadows for fear of getting hit” (156). She remembered “playing idiot” for many years “so that Phil could run around Washington being brilliant” (157). Phil’s death gave Kay the greatest gift that would consume her passion until her death: The Washington Post. Yet for years, Kay was a bystander as her husband and father (multi-millionaire Eugene Meyer) ran the paper. Kay was not surprised when after eight years of grooming by Eugene, Phil was given 70% of the voting stock of The Post as a gift. Kay, the owner of 30%, said that Phil “thinks I’m an idiot. Honestly, I have no influence” (Felsenthal 130). “With her marriage, Kay’s ambitions died” (100). She was so greatly intimidated by her husband’s gregariousness, intelligence, and charisma (friends said that Phil “was the man of [his] generation most destined, most qualified, to be president of the United States”) (99) that Kay stayed out of Phil’s spotlight.
After Phil’s death, Kay morphed from a “dowdy” (253) and “timid” (99) “poor little widow” (237) into the only female CEO of a Fortune 500 company who caused Nixon to resign, fought against the Newspaper Guild, and was as “tough as nails” (340). The mother of The Post, she was affectionately known as “Katharine the Great” (365), and her years of playing “attendant” to Phil the “prince” (157) were over. At the age of 49, Kay was described by friends as “so beaten down by her mother and husband that she hadn’t built up an identity” (253). “Kay started to sign ‘Katharine Graham’ instead of ‘Mrs. Phillip L. Graham'” (236). She finally became her own person through the power of running The Washington Post. Despite Kay’s many insecurities from Phil that haunted her all of her life, her colleagues thought “The Post came to life under Katharine” and Kay “did a job Phil couldn’t have done” (445). When Kay received offers to sell The Post, “she said flatly that she wanted to keep it, that it wasn’t for sale to anyone, at any price” (236). Kay became so close to the paper (she was publisher from 1963 to 1979 and chairwoman of the board from 1973 to 1991) that it was said that “the man who ran the paper…would become a sort of nominative husband” (251). Kay “had decided to marry herself to The Washington Post” (251). Phil’s suicide allowed Kay to find her second spouse, The Post, and finally form her identity through her new life in the media world.
Because of Phil’s suicide, Kay was focused on making sure The Post “passed on to the next generation,” yet her unintentionally influential role in The Post was “one of the greatest achievements of journalism in this country” (445). One of the hymns that Phil’s children chose for his funeral was the Easter hymn “The strife is o’er, the battle done” (224). On that day, a 23-year battle ended for Kay and a new life began. “In a sense, Kay Graham was born in 1963” — the year of Phil’s death (443).
© Rissponsible Living, 2018