Review: Personal History by Katharine Graham

The late Katharine Meyer Graham (1917-2001), publisher of the Washington Post, was one of the most fascinating and powerful women of the twentieth century.  Personal History won a well-deserved Pulitzer when it came out in 1998.  Graham gives us a tense, fascinating insider’s view of the newspaper during an era when the Post printed the Pentagon Papers and when Woodward and Bernstein were reporting on Watergate.  But the book isn’t just an inside-baseball look at the newspaper world.  It’s a very honest, sometimes painful memoir about Graham’s life – in particular, her loving but extremely difficult marriage to Phil Graham.

The book gets off to a bit of a slow start; the focus in the beginning is largely on Graham’s parents, Eugene and Agnes Meyer.  Eugene, a successful financier, bought the Washington Post in 1933 at a government auction after the paper went bankrupt.  Agnes was an intellectual but intensely self-absorbed woman who carried on a series of passionate emotional affairs with prominent writers and politicians such as Thomas Mann and Adlai Stevenson.  It felt like the early chapters dragged a bit — the Meyers are interesting but I was anxious to learn more about Katharine.

The book takes off when Graham, denied a junior year abroad in England (her parents feared she was becoming too Communist and thought London wouldn’t help), tells the story of transferring from Vassar to the University of Chicago for a change of scenery.  She recounts taking classes from some of the twentieth century’s greatest intellectuals (and even being propositioned by one!), moving to San Francisco after graduation to report on labor relations, and getting to know a circle of brilliant young people that included her future husband, Phil Graham, a Harvard Law graduate clerking for Felix Frankfurter.

Katharine and Phil married in 1940 and Graham’s painfully honest portrait of their life together would have made a compelling book on its own.  Phil was overjoyed to win Katherine’s hand but was nervous about marrying into her wealthy family.  Fortunately–or, perhaps, not so fortunately–both Meyer parents thought highly of Phil.  Eugene made Phil publisher of the Washington Post in 1946.

The Grahams quickly became one of Washington’s power couples.  Phil was close to both JFK and Lyndon Johnson (in ways would now be considered a conflict of interest, as Katharine acknowledges) and the Grahams were a fixture of the Washington social scene.  Phil built on Eugene Meyer’s work as the Post‘s publisher, but over time, Phil became increasingly obsessed with questioning how much of his success was due to being Eugene Meyer’s son-in-law.  His manic depression exacerbated the problem.  He began belittling Katharine, mocking her housekeeping, her appearance, her conversation.  Katharine brushed it off as mere teasing and laughed right along with Phil; she now acknowledges the caustic effect those remarks had on her self-image.   Phil’s mental illness led to several breakdowns and, eventually, to his suicide in 1963.

After Phil’s death, Graham stepped into a role which she had never expected to play: publisher of her beloved Washington Post. Graham’s account of her life after becoming publisher is fascinating, and not just for its inside look at the newspaper world.  She has a lot of smart things to say about being the only female publisher of a major paper.  Graham herself once told a women’s magazine that she was sure a man would do her job better than she could.  She credits the women’s movement with changing her attitude and encouraging her to believe in herself and her capabilities as an executive.  Graham’s own marriage was the product of an era when women were expected to cater to their husband’s lives and never develop careers or interests of their own.  She makes an eloquent argument for her belief that feminism improves marriages for both men and women, without ever being strident or preachy.

If you’re interested in American history, journalism, women’s history, complicated marriages, or fascinating people, Personal History is your book.  It is tense, honest, moving, and inspiring.  Read it.

Rating: Buy it

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