Personal History

a photograph of a woman
a photograph Katharine Graham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Katharine Graham; @ 1997; Vintage Books, a Division of Random House; 625 pages.

This is the story of Katharine Meyer Graham (1917–2001), the woman who led The Washington Post as its publisher for more than two decades. Personal History is her autobiograhy and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. It is also a history of The Washington Post, the newspaper that shaped the course of Katharine’s life.

Katharine writes in an incredibly straightforward, self-confident style. Reading her makes me think anything is possible with a little organization and planning.

Katharine begins by telling about her parents, who they were and how they met, and how her father acquired his vast fortune. Graham grew up fabulously rich, but she says she never knew she was rich. While her family owned vast assets, property, and huge houses, she and her siblings were not showered with lavish toys or clothes. They seemed to grow up without parents, as they were raised by governesses while their parents attended to business and social matters.

Katharine’s father, Eugene Meyer, was a very powerful man and during the Great Depression was appointed by President Hoover to be governor of the Federal Reserve Board. He guided the banking policies of the United States both domestically and abroad from 1930 to 1933. He was also the first president of the World Bank, serving for 6 months in 1946. (She never explains how he shielded or held onto his wealth during this time when the average American was losing everything. That would have been very interesting.)

In 1933 Meyer bought The Washington Post. He had attempted to buy The Post at an earlier time for $5 million and had failed, but during the Depression sale, he was able to anonymously bid and win The Post for $825,000. Knowing nothing about the newspaper business, Meyer stepped in and turned the failing paper around, transforming it into the prestigous paper it is today. A republican in political ideology, Eugene Meyer made it his goal to run an independent nonpartisan paper. To this end, he outlined and followed seven principles:

  1. That the first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.
  2. That the newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world;
  3. That as a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman;
  4. That what it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as for the old;
  5. That the newpaper’s duty it to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owner;
  6. That in the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifice of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good;
  7. That the newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.

What great principles/aspirations for a newspaper! (Though not completely followed by his son-in-law, we find out later.)

Just like the other books I’ve been reading and writing about, I am paying particular attention to what I can apply to my own writing. Katharine does a great job at reflection. After she shares an incident in her life, she tells us how she felt, why she thought things happened as they did, and what impact they had on her at the time or on her or others moving forward. Anyone struggling with this part of memoir writing should study this book.

I also noticed that the fact that Katharine was born wealthy diminishes my level of sympathy for her. And I think anyone who sets out to write a memoir should be aware of this factor. Maybe it is human nature to want our heros (protagonists) to have truly earned their hero status; we want to know that they have suffered. This is harder to get that across when all basic needs are met with abundance from the beginning.

But I do feel sympathy for Katharine. The fact that her parents were absent during most of her childhood lend greatly to this—her difficult relationship with her self-absorbed mother, her distant relationship with her wildly successful father all help to build my sympathy. The fact that she is so humble as she tells her story and that she tells us about her self doubt. The fact that she wasn’t incredibly beautiful and didn’t simply get by on her looks. It helps too, that she really did master the skill of writing as evidenced by her career and her autobiography. She is able to laugh at herself in several places.

One example is when Katharine humourously critiques herself as a mother: “One week when she [the nanny] was away, Donny fell out of his crib because I had left the side down, and out of his swing while I was weeding the yard. He ended up looking like Donald Duck, with his swollen upper lip sticking out an inch. That was the same week I put the nipples for his bottles on to boil and forgot them while I took time out to call people for a party. When the smell of burning alerted me, I found flames a foot high shooting out of the pan, threw it into the sink to put out the fire, and turned the water on, only to have the pot explode glass all over the place. I couldn’t help wondering how the children would fare if I took care of them all the time.”

Also funny is her comparison of childbirth to moving.

Katharine lived through the time in our country where women were expected to put their husbands and their families before themselves, all the time, and it appears that she did this. When her father handed over the management of The Washington Post to her husband, Phil, Katharine said she knew a man was needed to run the publication. It never occurred to her that she had been passed over. And even with all the cushion of her wealth, the values and expectations of the time didn’t sheild her from the average woman’s martial experience: “It was typical of our marital relationship that Phil conceived the idea of a country house for summers and weekends, and I did the actual work.”

And while that statement seems slightly bitter, on the whole, Katharine’s account of her husband is very loving and gentle. Looking back on her life, Katharine discovers the clues of her husband’s depression, clues she wishes she had understood better at the time. She says that because she had very little knowledge of the disease that she didn’t make the best choices to deal with it. And certainly in the whirlwind of their lives, with their relationships with people like Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, the social pressures must have been enormous for both Katharine and Phil.

For someone like me, who does not have massive wealth at her disposal, it does seem that a different life could have been had. Unbridled ambition and haunting self doubt seem to have been Phil’s undoing. But who am I to say. If I were rubbing elbows of the President of the United States and in a position to influence the course of our nation, I’m sure I could be tempted by this trap as well.

I marvel at how kind Katharine remained toward Phil, even after he lost complete control of his manic depressive disorder and even after he had a very open affair during which he wanted to divorce her. When Phil wanted to come back, she accepted him without hesitation, even with all the hurt, even knowing what his future bouts might bring. Even so, she hadn’t guessed that he would commit suicide as soon as he had the opportunity. But Phil, I guess, in realizing the enormity of his depression and his utter inability to control it fell into extreme hopelessness. That, coupled with his very public affair which he finally came to realize had hurt the woman who had given him everything, his whole identity at the Post. The fact of these two insolvable problems plus the weight of the depression must have led him to the conclusion that there was only one way out.

Not to appear unsympathetic, but this part made me think of William Styron’s Darkness Visible, in which he says that even with all the pain of depression, the one thing that kept him from committing suicide was that he couldn’t bare what it would do to his family when they found him. For Phil, this doesn’t seem to have been a consideration. He shot himself in their bathroom.

After Phil died, Katharine decided to run The Washington Post. Having grown up with the paper and having watched both her father and husband build it up, she felt she had no other choice. She had hardly worked a day in her life in the business world and recounted that she had much to learn. Her endless questions annoyed some of the people she would rather have befriended, but she perservered.

And it’s a good thing she did because life for Katharine Graham only got better. She recounts tales from this exciting new adventure of active participation in the publishing of the Post. Here is one example of her relationship with LBJ:

“As he was yelling at me, he started to undress, flinging his clothes off onto a chair and the floor—his coat, his tie, his shirt. Finally, he was down to his pants. I was frozen with dismay and baffled about what to do. I remember thinking to myself: This can’t be me being bawled out by the president of the United States while he’s undressing. Suddenly he bellowed, ‘Turn around!’ I did so obediently and gratefully…”

Katharine tells about the Nixon years, The Post’s role in Watergate, the changes in the roles of women over her lifetime, her friendship with Warren Buffett, and the union strike at The Washington Post. It’s wonderful to see how strong and confident she became once she became publisher of The Washington Post. It’s sad too to think that neither her father nor her husband had any inkling that she could do it. It just goes to show that you should never let anyone judge you or what you can do.

Katharine answers the necessary memoir question of “why am I writing this” towards the end. She has several reasons, but the one that stands out for me is that she hoped to gain some understanding “of how people are formed by the way they grow up and are further molded by the way they spend their days.”

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