The Graham era ends at WashPost. Here’s how it began. . .

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

Washington Post.

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

marriage.

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

control.

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.

Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham react to the 1971 SCOTUS ruling in the Pentagon Papers case.

 

 

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