5 Things You Didn't Know About Katharine Graham

filed under: 5things
Image credit: 

Katharine Graham helmed The Washington Post from the 1960s through 1991, and under her steady, resolute leadership the paper was able to break huge stories like the Nixon White House's cover-up of the Watergate break-in. For many years she was the only female head of a Fortune 500 company, so let's take a look at five things you might not know about this journalism and business pioneer.

1. She Had a Sad Rise to the Top

Graham's father, Eugene Meyer, bought the Post in 1933 and served as the newspaper's publisher until Harry Truman asked him to become the first head of the World Bank in 1946. Meyer named Katharine's husband, lawyer Philip Graham, as the paper's new publisher.

Graham was a capable publisher, but he had to constantly fight his bipolar disorder. By 1963 his psychological problems had become so severe that he had to seek inpatient treatment. During one stay away from his therapy center, he committed suicide by shooting himself at the family's farmhouse.

Rather than ceding control of the paper, Katharine Graham took over as the de facto new publisher of the Post following her husband's death.

Although it was unheard of for a woman to run such a large enterprise at the time, she attacked her new job with such tenacity that she eventually won over her newsroom and corporate offices. Graham later wrote of her ascent, "What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes and step off the ledge. The surprise was that I landed on my feet."

2. The Black and White Ball Honored Her

In 1966, Truman Capote threw his Black and White Ball, a 500-person masked shindig that brought some of New York's most elite celebrities to the Plaza Hotel in disguise and either black or white garb. The guest of honor? Graham. The party was one of the most famous social events of the Sixties; invitations were so hard to secure that people later said Capote had invited 500 guests and made 15,000 enemies. Graham and Capote spent nearly two hours at the party's door shaking hands and giving kisses to senators, princesses, maharajas, and children of presidents.

Although Graham was the guest of honor, she didn't know many of Capote's famous friends, so the author had to introduce her to much of the guest list. Capote later admitted he threw the ball in part as a way to introduce Graham to New York society. (She even joked later that it was an "odd, overaged and gray coming-out party.") Although they weren't previously tight, Capote and Graham became close friends following the ball. Their relationship later took a turn when Capote revealed details of her private life to the media, though.

3. She Would Get Her Hands Dirty

Graham may have wielded a lot of power as the Post's publisher, but she wasn't hesitant about chipping in where she was needed. In 1974 a Newspaper Guild strike left the Post with less than 20 percent of its normal staff. Graham helped out by answering phones for the circulation and classified desks. In one particularly memorable episode, she took a classified ad for a used Mercedes. After reading the ad back to the seller, he remarked that she must be over-qualified for the job and that answering the phone wasn't her regular work.

After she agreed he asked, "You could be anyone from a secretary to"¦are you Katharine Graham?"

Graham simply replied, "Yes, I am."

4. The White House Couldn't Scare Her

It's safe to say the Nixon White House was no fan of Katharine Graham. In 1971 the Post published the Pentagon Papers, the controversial secret history of the Vietnam War prepared by the Pentagon. A federal court had already blocked the New York Times from publishing the papers, but Graham felt that the story was important "“ it showed that the government hadn't been entirely honest about the situation in Vietnam "“ and didn't threaten our national security.

The Nixon White House pushed hard for the Post to kill the story. It threatened the Washington Post Co.'s television licenses and spooked Graham's lawyers so badly that they advised her not to run the story. But she ignored their counsel.

Nixon may have applied the pressure, but Graham ended up getting the last laugh. She gave her newsroom a free hand to investigate the 1972 burglary at the Watergate Hotel, and Nixon eventually resigned the presidency as the result of the Post's dogged investigation of the break-in and ensuing cover-up.

5. She Was Really Tight With Warren Buffett

In 1973 business guru Warren Buffett bought a large block of Post stock, and he and Graham soon became good buddies. Although Graham was 59 years old and Buffett was a married man, a romance blossomed. Instead of being inconspicuous, the couple was fairly forthcoming about details of their relationship. Buffett spent so much time at Graham's Martha's Vineyard mansion that he kept clothes in the closet, and his wife, Susie, even wrote Graham a letter giving the publisher permission to date her husband.

Buffett eventually found a new love interest, Astrid Menks, in the late 1970s. Although Graham and Buffett's romance eventually fizzled, the pair remained business partners and chums.

If there's someone you'd like to see profiled in a future edition of '5 Things You Didn't Know About...,' leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.

twitterbanner.jpg

More from mental_floss...

July 23, 2010 - 8:10am
submit to reddit