A chapter-by-chapter look at Personal History by Katharine Graham, courtesy of your friends at Wordplay With The Sway. If you think this synapsis is long, it’s clear you didn’t read the (625-page) book. We can only hope our memoirs will be worthy of this much text.
We get a quick overview of Katharine (Kay) Graham’s family history, specifically the relationship between her mother, Agnes (a self-centered bohemian who’s into avant-garde art and opinions) and father, Eugene (a 32-year-old self-made millionaire). We are incredibly jealous of their round-the-world honeymoon, but Eugene suffers early business setbacks and Agnus is often an unhappy, reluctant mother.
Notable Quote: “Are you thinking of me lovingly in spite of the fact that I have temporarily deserted you?” – Letter from Agnes to Eugene, after retreating to Europe for a two-month reprieve from their marriage
Up for discussion: Do you think Agnes would have had children if she had gotten married in 2018?
At the beginning of World War I, Eugene enters public service, and eventually joins the War Industries Board in Washington, D.C. Katharine’s family becomes heavily involved in politics, moving to Washington for four years while leaving the children under the care of a governess.
Kay’s parents do not show love easily, and the children struggle with self-worth. Agnus enrolls Katherine in a strict schedule of extracurricular activities, but none teach her practical life skills. At the University of Chicago, Kay joins the school paper and is elected senior class president. Meanwhile, her parents serve in numerous civic roles and nonpartisan projects, while remaining aligned to Republican interests.
Notable Quote: “I can’t say I think Mother genuinely loved us. Toward the end of her life, I was a success in her eyes, and perhaps that is what she loved.”
Kay’s father retires from federal service, grows bored, and rescues The Washington Post from a $500,000 debt by buying it for $825,000. Kay is a junior in high school at the time, and Eugene takes her on a nighttime tour of the building.
Eugene revitalizes the paper, paying highly competitive salaries, boosting the sports section and hiring female reporters to write for an expanded women’s section. Kay works at the Post as a copy girl and messenger in the summer. Though the paper is far from profitable, Washington starts to pay attention to the Post for its insight in national politics.
Quote: “‘The Capital of this great nation deserves a good paper. I believe in the American people. They can be relied on to do the right thing when they know the facts. I am going to give them the unbiased truth.’”
For discussion: The women’s column was titled, “The Gentler Sex.” What do you think of this title?
While at Vassar, Kay begins to form her own political opinions. She almost gets put on academic probation for arguing with a history professor, but her mother uses her influence to bail her out. Her father respects her more and more, but her mother sees her as naive. She feels torn between the radical views to which she is exposed and her conservative, wealthy upbringing.
Kay switches to the University of Chicago and continues to be interested in politics and journalism although she has an aversion to advertising and circulation. She becomes closer to her father than her mother and hangs out with intellectuals, some of whom are joining the Communist Party. Running the Post is wearing on Eugene, and Kay knows at the back of her mind that her fate lies with the paper.
Notable Quote: “In retrospect, I can see this intense affection we had for each other and what an enormous influence he had on my life, my plans, and my thinking. . . he believed in me, which became a very powerful emotional asset as I grew older and gave me a measure of security which I greatly needed.”
For discussion: Are you closer to your father or mother? How has it influenced you?
Kay gets a job at the lesser known San Francisco News, getting paid $21 a month. She finds her legs after about a month, and reports on labor issues. When not working, you could find her on the waterfront drinking boilermakers with rowdy male colleagues. Her father wants to read all of her work, and encourages her to work at the Post.
Kay moves back to Washington D.C. and begins working at the Post. She meets Philip Graham, a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed, and is quickly charmed. Phil’s background is quite different from Kay’s, having been raised by a hardworking father and school-teacher mother. He tells Katharine if they get married he wants no handouts from her family. He also has a rule against fighting, after being subjected to scenes of turmoil by his parents.
Notable Quote: “Having a ‘no-fight’ rule meant that I didn’t bring up things that disturbed me, and neither did Phil — an unhealthy situation in which things that upset one or the other of us didn’t get aired.”
For discussion: Do you have a rule similar to the “no-fight” rule?
Kay and Phil get married on June 4, 1940. They go visit his family in Florida and she is met with many ant-Semitic signs as well as misogynistic views. Surprisingly, Phil and Kay’s mother get along well.
Notable Quote: “As we entered Florida, I saw a sign in front of an apartment house that read ‘No dogs or Jews allowed,’ and was deeply shaken, never having seen or experienced anything so ugly.”
For discussion: Do you think the South is still “certainly more sexist in atmosphere” than the rest of the country?
Phil and Kay’s first few years of marriage are happy but trying. Kay attempts to learn how to live without her family money while working for the Post. The 1941 Court session ends, and Phil battles red tape in Washington until the War Production Board is functioning. In the same year, Time declares the Post a journal of national importance.
As the chapter closes, Phil is leaving to fight in WWII and Kay has had two failed pregnancies. Kay slowly becomes more dependent on Phil and submissive to him, but the two also learn from each other and Kay grows away from the grip of her own family.
Notable Quote: ” . . . I had seemed to enjoy the role of doormat wife. For whatever reason, I liked to be dominated and to be the implementer.”
For discussion: Is being a “doormat wife” a bad thing?
The couple’s lives change as Phil joins the Army, and Kay gets her first inclination that Phil’s drinking may become a problem. They Army moves them around the U.S. and Phil eventually leaves for the Philippines. Kay accepts part-time jobs at the Post, first reading and comparing ideas for news and then taking complaints in the disorganized and ill-managed circulation department. She has two babies during this time — Elizabeth and Donald.
Her father worries who will take over the Post when he dies, and Phil surprisingly accepts, seeing journalism as a good way to influence public policy. Kay and Phil try to buy a home in Washington but are unable to buy it because of Kay’s Jewish heritage.
For discussion: Can you imagine a world where you couldn’t buy a home because of your heritage? Can think of housing restrictions that exist today that are unfair or even illegal?
Kay’s father starts grooming Phil to take over the Post, and the two start fulfilling social obligations together. The couple’s social circle grows. The Post buys 55 percent of CBS Radio in Washington, thrusting them into a new era. Kay has another son, William. In 1948, Phil and Kay buy the Post from her father. Kay’s siblings are given money instead of shares in the newspaper. Phil throws himself into the job. The Grahams have grown up overnight and stress over making the newspaper a success.
Notable Quote: “In any case, we — at 33 and 31 — were now the owners of the Post.”
For discussion: What do you think is a newspaper’s responsibility?
The Post moves to a new building, buys a television station, sees Truman in office, watches the culmination of McCarthyism, witnesses the Eisenhower election, and buys out the Times-Herald. Phil stretches himself too thin and his erratic moods become troubling. He often belittles Kay and makes her feel boring, leading her to silence herself in social situations. Kay has another son, Stephen.
Notable Quote: “In retrospect I realize that the more difficult moments were definitely connected with mood swings. But I, and indeed the world, was dazzled by him.”
Phil befriends Lyndon B. Johnson even though Kay dislikes him. Phil takes a decision by Eisenhower personally and it sends him over the edge into a deep depression. Kay calls her brother Bill, a psychiatrist for help. They hide Phil’s illness from family and friends. He begins seeing Dr. Leslie Farber.
Notable Quote: “Phil, I thought, with all his self-assurance, his glamour, his good humor, his brilliance, his wit and sagacity, would surely recover his good health, and things would return to normal. There was no need to share the temporary problem with the world, and every reason to conceal it.”
For discussion: How have stigmas surrounding mental illness changed? How have they stayed the same?
Phil has a strange, intense relationship with Dr. Farber, who does Phil much more harm than good. Phil pulls almost entirely out of society, but he can function when he has to and everyone at the Post seems unaware of what is happening. The paper enjoys a record profit.
He continues his close relationship with LBJ, which leads to a relationship with John F. Kennedy. Kay and Phil are giddy that someone of their generation will be making a run for the highest office. The pair will continue to have an intimate relationship with both Kennedy and Johnson. Kay’s father dies.
Notable Quote: “Phil and I had decided that, as publisher, he couldn’t contribute to the campaign, but it would be okay for me to do so. . . but I now think it was questionable, since we believed in a nonpartisanship for a publisher.”
For discussion: Does a non-biased news source exist?
It’s 1961 and Phil seems to be bouncing back, but in retrospect Kay sees danger in his frenzy to acquire Newsweek, which he does with a personal check as a down payment. She is diagnosed with Tuberculosis but hides it as long as she can. When Phil finds out, he refuses to believe it and begins drinking more heavily. He grows manic, works feverishly, and makes conflicting decisions. The Post continues to grow in importance and influence. Kay recovers and emerges from her confinement. That summer, Phil slips into another depressive state. Kay supports him while joining more social circles, even though she feels socially awkward and inadequate.
Notable Quote: “Despite my own background and actually having been born there, I always felt like a country girl in New York.”
For discussion: What activities or organizations should be off-limits to journalists?
The Grahams form the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, which grows to more than 600 subscribers worldwide. Phil appears alternately balanced and unhinged, and is always on the go. The Post writes about the Bay of Pigs, and JFK explodes at Phil, who tries to muzzle his staff. Phil inexplicably buys a 365-acre farm in Virginia, and a jet. He also begins an affair. His outbursts increase. Kay finds out about the affair and he eventually leaves home. Her neighbors tell her she’s better off without his mental abuse. At a board dinner, Phil lunges at a colleague and has to be escorted from the building; he also makes a scene at a meeting of the Associated Press, bewildering his colleagues. Phil concocts a plan to seize full control of the newspaper and Kay retains a team of lawyers.
Notable Quote: “The phone rang and I picked it up, not realizing Phil, too, had picked it up, in his dressing room, with the door shut. I heard Phil and Robin talking to each other in words that made the situation plain. I waited until he had hung up and went right in and asked him if what I had surmised was true. He said it was.”
Kay finally realizes the extent of Phil’s mental illness and begins grooming son Donald to take over the Post. Her friends tell her she can handle the job, too, but she has serious doubts. Phil declares his affair over and Kay allows him to move back home, and is unrealistically optimistic that he will recover from his mental illness. During a weekend away, Phil shoots and kills himself. Kay becomes swept up in a whirlwind of grief and necessary actions and fails to help her children through their own trauma.
Notable Quote: “‘You’ve got all those genes. It’s ridiculous to think you can’t do it. You’ve just been pushed down so far you don’t recognize what you can do.’”
For discussion: Have you ever been pushed into a role you didn’t think you could handle? What was the outcome?
On Sept. 20, 1962, Kay is elected president of the Washington Post Company. She is at a loss to what her role truly is, but is committed to succeed. She gets help from friends who help her manage her time, conduct herself professionally and avoid being taken advantage of. Still, she feels lonely and inferior, and irritates people who seek only clear direction. Slowly, she finds her footing and her days become endurable. As Katharine steps more firmly into her role, her personal relationships become more strained. She struggles to maintain publically independent while making her personal opinions known, but realizes that will become impossible.
Notable Quote: “Left alone, no matter at what age or under what circumstance, you have to remake your life.”
Kay begins an intensive learning campaign, taking trips with editors and reporters and learning not to take mistakes too personally. She makes changes in the news department, and brings Ben Bradlee on board in 1965. He soon becomes managing editor.
Bradlee is enthusiastic and energetic, and together he and Kay develop a solid relationship as they watch the Post improve. Kay continues learning all she can while trying to make Newsweek more profitable. She steps out at a ball hosted by Truman Capote and is thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight. In 1967, Donald is shipped to Vietnam. Kay’s serious doubts about the war put additional strain on her relationship with LBJ. At the Post, Kay struggles with decisions. The one lasting success is the replacement of the “Women’s Section” with a “Style” section, which becomes model for newspapers all over the country.
Kay finds herself at the forefront of the women’s movement for equality, though lacks the courage to take tough stances. She becomes the first female member of the board of directors for the Associated Press, and serves three terms. She is often written about in national media, and while it makes her uncomfortable, she is happy that it is positive.
Noteable quote: “Once married, we were confined to running houses, providing a smooth atmosphere, dealing with children, supporting our husbands. Pretty soon this kind of thinking — indeed, this kind of life — took its toll: most of us became somehow inferior. We grew less able to keep up with what was happening in the world. In a group we remained largely silent, unable to participate in conversation and discussions. Unfortunately, this incapacity often produced in women — as it did in me — a diffuse way of talking, an inability to be concise, a tendency to ramble, to start at the end and work backwards, to over explain, to go on for too long, to apologize.”
For discussion: Do you think that Kay’s problems with self-confidence were caused by her being a woman, as she asserts here, or because of her mother’s attitude toward her?
Chapter 22 — The Pentagon Papers
Kay’s mother’s health has been in steady decline, and she is found dead by a maid in 1970. The Post is strapped for cash, and it goes public in 1971, with Kay and her children retaining shares.
Meanwhile, Nixon has been inaugurated as president, and readers of the Post know that Kay does not hold him in high regard. The relationship between the Post and the White House becomes increasingly strained, and is dragged into Nixon’s war against the “Eastern establishment elitist press.”
The New York Times gets its hands on top-secret documents about the Vietnam War — which will become known as the Pentagon Papers — and begins publishing their contents. Judge Murray Gurfein issue the first-ever order of prior restraint of the press.
With The Times restricted from publishing, the author of the papers, Daniel Ellsberg, gives them to the Post on Kay’s birthday. Staff members sift through 4,400 photocopies and set to work. Lawyers point out that publishing is risky, now that the paper is going public; but editors want to publish as a sign of solidarity with the Times and to condemn the government’s attempt to silence.
Kay, while hosting a garden party on June 18, 1971, gives the OK for the pages to go to press. The government follows suit, legal battles follow, and on June 30 the Supreme Court announces that the government has failed to show justification.
Notable quote: “I was extremely torn by Fritz’s saying that he wouldn’t publish. I knew him so well, and we had never differed on any important issue; and, after all, he was the lawyer, not I. But I also heard how he said it; he didn’t hammer at me, he didn’t stress the issues related to going public, and he didn’t say the obvious thing – that I would be risking the whole company on this decision. He simply said he guessed he wouldn’t. I felt that, despite his stated opinion, he had somehow left the door open for me to decide on a different course. Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish.’ And I hung up.”
For discussion: What do you think of the publication of classified documents? Should those who leak information be revered as heroes, or prosecuted?
Chapters 23 and 24 — Watergate
Note: There’s too much to recap here. Read the damn chapter. For a recap of the Watergate scandal, click here.
As pressure looms, Kay feels beleaguered. Some of her long-term friends are puzzled at the Post’s reporting, and many readers see is as un-American. Kay is portrayed as a “Dragon Lady” and is cautioned by a friend to not be alone. Nixon blames the Post for all his woes, but the paper slowly gains allies as more comes to light. Kay looks back on the ordeal as as journalists dream.
For discussion: Have you had a career-defining moment? What did it teach you?
When problems crop up, Warren Buffett steps in and buys class B shares worth $230,000. He becomes the third great male influence on Kay’s life and an asset to her ever-increasing business sense. But, the Post suffers a setback when the pressmen strike, setting fire to the presses and beating foreman Jim Hoover. Kay, ever sensitive to labor issues, is determined not to be seen as anti-union, but she finds their demands unreasonable. After months of picketing and even shouting Kay down as she attempts to speak during bicentennial ceremonies in July 1976, leaders of the strike are turned out of their union posts. The strike gives the Post the opportunity to start with a clean slate of press staff.
Kay is dissatisfied with post-Watergate news coverage, and with how the press handles her business decisions. She knows her prime years are up, and depends more heavily on Buffett for advice. In 1979, she gives the paper over to her son Donald, and a few years later, hires Dick Simmons to manage Newsweek. It grows to be the leading news magazine of the 1990s. At the close of the chapter, she finally gives herself credit for her business decisions, though she remains critical of her shortcomings.
Kay keeps contact with politicians and public officials, finding it her job to ensure that politicians see journalists as able to remain non-partisan. She enjoys the women’s movement and several romances, while remaining independent. She retains the title of chairman until 1993, and finds that giving up control wasn’t as hard as she imagined.
For discussion: Have you ever felt that it was time to move on? How did you handle the transition?