The two lives of Katharine Graham

Katharine Graham

In the 2017 movie The Post, actress Meryl Streep gives a marvelous performance as Katharine Graham, the intriguing woman who was publisher of The Washington Post in the 1960s and 1970s. We take a closer look at who she was.

She was once described as ‘the most powerful woman in America’ and hated that. “It makes me sound like a weightlifter,” she joked during an interview in 1992, adding that, “What is really meant by this is that you are a woman who leads a company and that people find it incredible. It’s a little sexist.” Her own view, looking back, was that she had led two lives, one that began with her birth and ended at the age of 46 with the death of her husband, Phil Graham. And then her second life, in which she became, as president of The Washington Post Company, one of the most successful, influential, and yes, powerful women in the US.

Heroine of free speech

Katharine’s shining hour came with the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. It was an exciting episode in her life and in press history (as shown in the 2017 movie, The Post). Katherine (Kay) had to make the decision whether The Washington Post would publish secret reports about the US’ participation in the Vietnam War – against the explicit wish of the government. The newspaper was all ready at the presses when she was called at home during a party to be asked whether the printing should continue. There were valid arguments against printing: the company was busy with an initial public offering and chances were that publication would not do the sale of shares much good. In this case, she could lose everything: not only the newspaper, but also her private assets.

The Washington Post editors, however, were able to convince her that this was also about freedom of press. “I was really not a heroic leader at the time,” Kay admitted in a TV interview in the 1990s. “I took a deep breath and squeaked at Ben, ‘Go ahead’.” And that’s how she became the heroine of free speech.

  • Read the full story ‘The two lives of publisher Katharine Graham” in Issue 30.

Text Liddie Austin  Photography Getty Images