By Christopher B. Daly
With the resignation of Katharine Weymouth as publisher of The Washington Post, the period of ownership by the Graham family finally ends after 80 years. The new owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, exercised his prerogative and put in place a new figure to run the overall business of the paper. The new publisher will be Frederick J. Ryan Jr., 59, a founder of Politico. (He is usually identified as “a former Reagan administration official” — which I guess is code for saying he’s actually a Republican.)
The news of Weymouth’s departure (ouster?) brings to mind the question of how her great-grandfather took over the paper in the first place. As the leading daily paper in the nation’s capital, the Post is a major institution in American journalism — no matter who owns it — so it is worth paying attention to.
Such, such were the days — when the Post was immensely profitable. In his first few years as top editor in the 1960s, Ben Bradlee got to expand the newsroom by 50 new positions!
Here is an excerpt from my book, Covering America, in which I describe the paper’s takeover by Eugene Meyer, the patriarch of the family that became known as “the Grahams” when his daughter Katharine (cq) surprised everyone by becoming publisher. Given Meyer’s role in Washington, it was a bit like Janet Yellen deciding to buy the Post.
[Full disclosure: I was a contract writer for the Post from 1989-1997, so I was Kay Graham’s employee in those years. I met her twice, and it felt like meeting the Queen.]
[Apologies if this text doesn’t wrap.]
Katharine Graham was an unlikely choice to topple a president. The insecure,
awkward daughter of a wealthy businessman, she had never been prepared to
run anything more complicated than a dinner party. Her role in life was all set at
birth: as with Iphigene Ochs, daughter of New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs,
Katharine’s task was to marry a man who could inherit her father’s newspaper, the
Katharine was born to wealth and privilege. Her father, Eugene Meyer, the son
of an immigrant from Alsace, went into investment banking and made a fortune
on Wall Street. Her mother, Agnes Ernst, grew up outside New York City in more
modest circumstances; she went to Barnard College on a scholarship (over her
father’s objections), then did some freelance reporting for the New York Sun.
Agnes’s life changed when she met Eugene Meyer. A non-observant Jew, Meyer
married Agnes in a Lutheran ceremony. By the time Katharine was born in 1917,
Meyer’s personal fortune, derived from the Wall Street investment company he
had founded, was estimated at $40 to $60 million. With the coming of war in
1917, Meyer decided to offer his services to the Wilson administration as a “dollar-
a-year” man—the first in a series of public service appointments, under both
Democrats and Republicans, that would culminate in his running the Federal
Reserve Board and then the World Bank. While working in Washington, Meyer
attempted to buy the failing Washington Post in 1929, but the owner rejected his
$5 million offer. After more losses, the paper went bankrupt, and Meyer was able
to buy it at auction in 1933. When William Randolph Hearst dropped out of the
bidding at $800,000, Meyer got the paper for $825,000.
Young Katharine Meyer, meanwhile, grew up in high style, spending much
of her childhood in Mount Kisco, outside New York City, where the family had
a vast mansion. She attended the exclusive Madeira School, then entered Vassar
before transferring to the University of Chicago. Upon her graduation, her father
arranged for Katharine to work on the San Francisco News, where she started at
the bottom, helping to cover labor brawls on the waterfront and learning to drink
boilermakers. (Still, she remained a Meyer. Once, after a day of covering the longshoremen, she went with her aunt to the opening of the opera season, wearing
a long black velvet gown with leopard-skin straps that had been sent from back
East.) After a year, she headed to Washington in 1939 and went to work at her
father’s paper, on the editorial page. She soon met the brilliant, handsome Phil
Graham, who had risen from hard times in Florida to the front ranks of the most
ambitious young men of his generation. He had been editor of the Harvard Law
Review and was now clerking at the U.S. Supreme Court.
When Phil proposed to Kay, he had one condition: that they live on his salary
and take nothing from her father. On those terms (more or less), they married
and began making plans. Phil pursued the law, and Kay went back to work at
the Post, writing items for a Sunday section called “Brains.” During World War II,
while Phil was in the Army Air Corps, the Post finally began to make money, and
Eugene Meyer started thinking about a successor. Everyone assumed that it would
have to be a man, and Meyer turned to his son-in-law. Phil raised objections, but
eventually Meyer overcame them, and Philip Graham became associate publisher
of the Washington Post on January 1, 1946, moving up to publisher soon after. Kay,
meanwhile, played an affluent woman’s domestic role—looking after the children
and supervising a household staff that included a nurse, a cook, and a laundress.
Although she continued to write for the Post, she and Phil had a very traditional
Phil Graham did not know much about journalism, but he learned quickly. He
also discovered that the part he liked best was making deals. In 1948 he bought an
interest in the CBS radio station WTOP, bringing the Post Company into broadcasting.
In 1950 he built a new headquarters for the Post in downtown Washington.
In 1954 he helped engineer the purchase of the Washington Times-Herald, a move
that gave the Post a monopoly in the city’s morning newspaper market, and thus
ensured the paper’s financial future as far ahead as anyone could see. In 1961, Phil
took the advice of the assistant Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, Ben Bradlee,
and bought the weekly newsmagazine for some $8.9 million. In all these moves,
Graham had wide latitude. The company had been incorporated, but it was entirely
in the family’s hands. When the Post needed money for building or acquisitions,
Phil asked his in-laws for it, or he raised cash by selling assets. After Meyer died in
1959, Phil was fully in command. He was building a media empire under his own
During the Kennedy years, the Grahams were reaching an apex of early success.
Still in their forties (just like their friend the president), they were rich, powerful,
and connected. Outwardly they seemed like a golden couple. But there were
clouds, sometimes quite dark. The problem was Phil. Always a heavy drinker, he
had become increasingly erratic during the previous decade, swinging between
periods of high energy when he was making business deals or brokering political
alliances, then plunging into gloomy spells when he would lie nearly catatonic for
weeks at a time. In an era that valued stoicism and dreaded mental illness, Phil and
Kay always managed to keep his condition quiet. Once, in 1957, he had snapped,
weeping uncontrollably. Kay was panic-stricken, struggling not only with her husband’s
collapse but also with her own ignorance about mental illness and her sense
of shame at the stigma. Phil took about a year to recover, spending much of his
time at their country place, Glen Welby, in Virginia. Under the care of Dr. Leslie
Farber, a devotee of “existential psychology” and a follower of Rollo May, Phil
had his ups and downs, but the trend was largely downward. He became abusive,
and he began an affair with a young Newsweek staffer, Robin Webb.
In early 1963, Phil’s condition became public. He and his girlfriend flew to Phoenix
to attend a meeting of The Associated Press. There, in a ballroom full of the
nation’s top publishers, Phil Graham lost it. He stormed the podium and berated
the audience, telling them that they were all fat bastards and promising to wipe his
ass with their papers. Then he started taking off his clothes. Roused from a state of
stupefaction, Otis Chandler (publisher of the Los Angeles Times) and others stepped
in and hustled Phil off to a nearby room. Eventually Dr. Farber flew out to Arizona,
administered a tranquillizer, and put Phil aboard a presidential airplane dispatched
by Jack Kennedy. Phil was admitted to Chestnut Lodge, a private mental hospital in
suburban Washington, where he seemed to get better. He announced his intention
to divorce Kay, marry Robin, and take the Post away from the Meyer family. For
Kay, this was rock bottom: she could see that Phil was slipping away from her, but
she was determined to hang on to her family’s newspaper. By June, Phil was much
improved. He declared that the affair with Robin was over and that he wanted to
return to Kay, who welcomed him back. He was staying at Chestnut Lodge again,
but he talked the doctors into letting him out for a weekend in August. He and Kay
had lunch on the back porch at Glen Welby, then went upstairs for a nap. Phil got
up and went out. A few minutes later there was the sound of a shotgun blast. Kay
bolted up and raced around the house looking for Phil. She found him in a bathroom.
There must have been blood everywhere. . .
Now she was alone. After Phil’s suicide, everything depended on Kay; she was responsible for the kids, the houses, the staff, the family fortune, plus a potentially
great newspaper. It was a daunting array of challenges of very different sorts. In
many ways, the most difficult was the Post. In 1963, women in American journalism
were few in number and low in prestige. Despite some prominent exceptions such
as the syndicated columnist Dorothy Thompson or the reporter Maggie Higgins,
very few women had managed to move beyond what were still known as the “women’s
pages” (or “society pages”), where they wrote about weddings, fashion, and casseroles.
A young woman might work for a while for a newspaper or magazine taking
photos, as Jacqueline Bouvier had done (that was how she met Jack Kennedy),
or she might work as an assistant to an editor or publisher. But almost no women
wielded any real power in the newsrooms. Nor did they wield much power in any
other industry; in 1960 only 5 percent of all working women were in management.
When Mrs. Graham (as all her employees called her) took over the Post, she was a
pioneer at every turn. The boards she eventually joined—of the American Newspaper
Publishers Association, the Associated Press, and the Washington Post Company
itself—had never had a woman member before. In 1963, Mrs. Graham could
not even join the National Press Club, just a few blocks away from the Post, because
it was still all male. Even the Post itself would be the focus of an antidiscrimination
action by women employees, which resulted in a settlement shared by everyone in
the category, including Kay Graham. In that setting, it was widely assumed that she
would sell the paper or turn it over to someone else to run.
So what she did next came as a surprise. She decided to run the Post herself.
Though terrified of what she was getting into and almost entirely unprepared to
lead a large enterprise, Kay Graham became president of the Washington Post
Company in late 1963 and set about making her mark. In 1965 she brought Ben Bradlee
over from Newsweek and made him managing editor of the Post. She helped
him become a great editor, not only by supporting him professionally but also by
presiding over a business that was practically printing money. These were boom
years in Washington. Under Johnson, the Great Society programs were staffing up,
bringing thousands of middle-class, white-collar jobs to the city and its increasingly
far-flung suburbs. This was the target audience for the Post, and for every
advertiser in the region. Money came rolling in. During the three years after Bradlee
took over, the budget for the Post newsroom more than tripled, leaping from
$2.25 million a year to almost $7.3 million. Bradlee got to add fifty new slots in the
newsroom, and he went on a hiring spree. In the process, he transformed the paper,
creating a star system (known famously at the Post as “creative tension”) in which
reporters had to jockey for space in the paper and for favor in Bradlee’s inner circle.
But that was not Mrs. Graham’s domain. She visited the newsroom from time
to time, and she was delighted with Bradlee, but her real duties were upstairs, in
trying to run the whole business. Some time after Phil’s suicide she also began to
return to her social life, often on the arm of former Illinois governor and twice
unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Her role was a
busy one. She had many friends in Washington and another roster in New York,
where she and Phil had gone regularly for years to keep tabs on Newsweek, which
was based in midtown Manhattan. She became quite friendly with Babe Paley,
wife of the CBS chairman. Through Babe, Kay met Truman Capote in the early
1960s, and they became friends as well. In 1966, now that she was resuming her
social life, Capote told Kay that he was going to host a ball to cheer her up—“the
nicest party, darling, you ever went to.” Capote thought it would be fun to hold
it in the Grand Ballroom of New York’s Plaza Hotel and that it would be extra
special if the guests wore masks and dressed all in black and white. Kay would be
the guest of honor. The Black and White Ball, held on November 28, 1966, became
a phenomenon, a who’s who of the worlds of media, business, the arts, and the
burgeoning field of pure celebrity. Anyone who was fabulous simply had to be
there. Later, Kay would say that she felt like “a middle-aged debutante” and a bit
like Cinderella. The media, naturally, had a field day . . .
Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham react to the 1971 SCOTUS ruling in the Pentagon Papers case.