Mom and Dad, of course, could not have known how important the newspaper would later be to their daughter or she to it. When Eugene Meyer retired, he passed control of the paper to Kay's husband Philip Graham, who ran it until his suicide in 1963. Only then did Kay Graham, at age 46, come out of the shadow of the men in her life and gradually transform herself into a near legendary figure: the "iron lady" who built the Post into one of the nation's great papers, stood up to the Nixon Administration during Watergate and hobnobbed with the rich and powerful while running one of the nation's premier media companies (owner of newspapers and TV stations, as well as Newsweek magazine). In "Personal History" (Knopf; 642 pages; $29.95), her disarmingly candid and immensely readable autobiography, Graham not only chronicles that personal transformation with more honest self-analysis than probably any other media mogul ever; she also provides an invaluable inside glimpse of some of the most critical turning points in American journalism.
She grew up in privilege. Her father was a well-connected Jewish financier who made millions on Wall Street and was an adviser to Presidents. Her mother, a writer and socialite, counted among her friends the sculptor Constantin Brancusi and the novelist Thomas Mann. In 1940 Kay married Phil Graham, a charismatic protege of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and later something of a golden boy of the postwar liberal establishment. It was quite a family.
But for Kay it was oppressive, particularly the subtle ways in which Phil--she realizes in retrospect--condescended to her, damaged her self-esteem, made her content to be "the tail to his kite." She never wavered in her devotion to him, however, even when he had an affair with a young Newsweek stringer in the early '60s. By that time, his behavior was becoming more erratic, the result of a manic-depressive disorder that was treated by a psychiatrist who "did more harm than good," she says, recommending existentialist philosophy in lieu of drugs. Finally, on the day he returned home after a stay in the hospital, Graham said he wanted to take a nap, went into a bathroom and shot himself to death.
She is especially revealing about the insecurities that plagued her when she took over the Post after Phil's death. "I still had little idea of how to relate to people in a business environment," she says, "and no idea how closely I was being watched by everyone." She also had to unlearn a few of Phil's bad habits. He had thought nothing of mingling politics with journalism: a close friend and adviser to Lyndon Johnson, for instance, the Post publisher was instrumental in persuading John Kennedy to pick L.B.J. as his running mate in 1960. After becoming President, Johnson cultivated Kay as well. In 1964 she assured Johnson that while the Post would not break with its policy of nonendorsement, she "was for him" personally and even wanted to contribute to his campaign--a conversation that "embarrasses me now." So does a "sniveling little note" she later wrote in an attempt to mend fences with Vice President Spiro Agnew. She attributes the gesture to "that good old-fashioned encumbrance of mine, the desire to please."
Graham made many smart moves as well. She saw that the Post needed to be improved editorially and hired the right man, Ben Bradlee, to do it. (The meeting in which she put out the first feelers to him was the first time she had ever taken a man to lunch.) She gave the crucial go-ahead to publish the Pentagon Papers, after a federal judge had halted publication of them in the New York Times. And, of course, she stood tall during the paper's groundbreaking Watergate coverage, backing her reporters in the face of enormous pressure from the Nixon Administration, which included politically motivated challenges to the Post's TV licenses. Though often credited with courage in this confrontation, she writes, "the truth is that I never felt there was much choice...Once I found myself in the deepest water in the middle of the current, there was no going back."
More ambiguous episodes followed. During the 1975 pressman's strike, Graham helped wrap Sunday papers herself in an effort to keep the paper publishing; it's a charming scene, but her account of the bitter labor battle is understandably one-sided. She agonizes about the executives she had to fire, then complains of the "sexist implications" of stories that call her a difficult woman to work for. There was steel there after all. Kay Graham had finally come of age: she no longer had to please everyone.