Melanie Stern is section editor of Families in Business
by Katharine Graham, Vintage Books (a division of Random House Inc)
It must have looked like the worst decision in history at the time: to hire the timid, Jewish, 31-year old Katherine Graham as CEO of The Washington Post Company in JFK's alpha male America. Instead it turned out to be the saving grace of the newspaper and the company, with Graham successfully traversing a perilously steep learning curve with little more than faith in the future and nerves of steel to see her through. By the end of her 37-year reign in 1991, shares in the company had risen 3,315%, with some of history's biggest scoops including Watergate and the Pentagon Papers scandal under its belt.
Her autobiography Personal History is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and deservedly so, if only for the intimacy afforded by her deeply honest and self-analytical approach. Her life easily provided enough meaty stories to write a best-seller, from her husband's suicide to her lavish upbringing, the parties with America's intelligentsia, the political wrestling, intertwined with the many issues of the day. But, to the contemporary woman at least, each page is viscous with the extent to which Katherine's life was shaped by good old-fashioned sexism and more than a touch of anti-Semitism, the slow dawning of the realisation and understanding revealing itself far later than one might imagine, her lack of confidence taking those hits instead – even though each run in with bigotry was perfectly observed and documented. Graham only seems to realise that she is allowed to assert herself and is the person responsible for the success of the Washington Post under her tutelage more than half way through the book, a valuable and clear observation – even if her repeated self-depreciation is wearing at times – for any female reader in business. Anyone who sits down to write their opus is undoubtedly seeking some sort of catharsis and opportunity to explain their side of events and, through Personal History – a tunnel into the life of an accidental heiress – the workings of a large, political family business make rich reading.
In 1948, being of the commonly-held opinion that "no man should work for his wife", Graham's father Euegene Meyer, a former governor of the Federal Reserve and the first president of the World Bank, installed Katherine's husband Phil, then a young and well-starred law graduate who had edited the Harvard Law Review, as head of the newspaper outfit he bought from a bankruptcy sale in 1933. He transferred his stock in the company to the couple, splitting it 70/30 in Phil's favour. Following years of abusive treatment of Katherine and depressive episodes kept secret by the couple from even the closest family members and associates at the closely-held and run Post, Phil committed suicide at the family's Glen Welby ranch in the summer of 1963. Katherine, by then a seasoned journalist at the Post but not a senior member of staff and averse to using her surname, was asked by the board at the paper to take over running the business, which she did with little forethought or consideration for her own desires. She became publisher of the paper from 1969-79.
Curiously for someone who confesses such timidity and shyness – and for a newpaperwoman who regularly discusses her staunch belief in editorial independence as the sole route to integrity in the media – Graham led the paper through its most exciting growth phase by skilfully procuring and nurturing relationships with all the most important and influential politicians, celebrities, journalists and anyone else who could smooth down the path to the best stories for the paper. Stopping short of reading a little like an issue of Tatler magazine, the book recounts endless tales of holidays and dinners at home with presidents, with letters between herself and the wives of various congressmen. Chillingly, she also recounts a close relationship with members of the Central Intelligence Agency, instigated by Phil in his time at the paper and of lasting importance to the Post in its political coverage. In turn, with her growing influence as one of the controlling heads of the US media (not least in Washington), Katherine was as useful to the government as their figureheads were to her. there were times, however, when this special friendship was strained such as the infamous Watergate and Pentagon Papers scandals. What the book makes most clear is just how muddy the waters of editorial integrity were, converse to Katherine's protestations that the paper enshrine her father's legacy of integrity. In turn, it is hard to swallow the concept that, all the way through her extraordinary life, she truly was the introverted, under-confident chancer she maintains she was. Whatever the truth, Katherine's legacy as a successful woman in business and as an heiress to a considerable family empire makes a compelling and thought-provoking read.