Pecking Away At Kay Graham


By Carol Felsenthal

Putnam x 511pp x $29.95

'The most powerful woman in America." For a quarter-century, writes Carol Felsenthal, that has been "an almost ubiquitous way of describing" Katharine Graham. As head of Washington Post Co. from 1963 to 1991, Graham was at once the envy of corporate presidents and the symbol of what a woman in business can achieve.

Hers is a life with dramatic potential: How did a sheltered widow build a modest publishing operation into a giant enterprise and help topple a President? But readers don't get much of an idea from Power, Privilege, and the Post. Although Felsenthal, author of biographies of Phyllis Schlafly and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, professes to admire Graham, her book is longer on unkind gossip than on the details of Graham's accomplishments.

For much of her life, Graham didn't seem destined to be anyone's heroine. She was the self-effacing daughter of larger-than-life parents: Eugene Meyer, who headed the Federal Reserve in the 1930s, and Agnes Meyer, a social crusader and arts patron. The busy couple largely ignored their five children, but Kay's father did encourage her journalistic leanings. Not that he expected her to manage The Washington Post, a mediocre rag he bought in 1933; he hoped she would snag "a similarly inclined husband" who would take over.

Kay complied in 1940, marrying Philip L. Graham, an intelligent and charismatic Harvard Law School graduate. In 1946, he became the Post's associate publisher, and Kay, by then the mother of two, quit her job in circulation.

By the 1960s, Phil had set the company on a profitable expansion course (including the purchase of Newsweek) and improved the paper's editorial pages. But Phil was manic-depressive, and he grew increasingly erratic: flaunting his mistress, stripping during a speech at a publishers' convention, finally suffering a nervous breakdown. In 1963, he shot and killed himself.

"In a sense," writes Felsenthal, "Kay Graham was born in 1963, when she was forced to enter the fray." But why she felt compelled to enter it isn't clear. She wanted to hang on to the paper for her eldest son, Donald. But she might have let professionals run it. Instead, she began learning the business. Slowly, this "big brown wren," as one friend described her, gained confidence. And over three decades, Felsenthal summarizes, she turned "a small and somewhat parochial family business into a behemoth."

But Power, Privilege, and the Post doesn't really provide much detail about that. Felsenthal briefly praises Graham's agreement to take Post Co. public and her acquisition of profitable print and TV properties. Editorially, she applauds Graham for two key decisions: to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, despite a threatened federal injunction that could have sunk the company's new public offering, and to support the Post's Watergate coverage, starting in 1972.

"She was not the creative one, the one with the ideas, but she had the quality characteristic of the best newspaper publishers and owners: the ability to recognize talent, hire it, let it express itself, accept change," Felsenthal writes. But if Graham backed talent (the most famous being Post Managing Editor Ben Bradlee), she also turned on those with whom she became disenchanted. Her displeasure, Felsenthal says, could be aroused by someone's having gone to the wrong school, having an affair with a colleague, or seeming "too Jewish"--even though her father was Jewish. Newsweek went through five editors-in-chief between 1972 and 1983, and the presidency of Post Co. was often a revolving door. As she documents Graham's capriciousness, Felsenthal, perhaps unwittingly, seems to suggest that even her choice of Bradlee involved more luck than judgment.

Whenever employees heard Graham praised as an executive, they would laugh, one staffer recalls. "In some respects, Kay remained a matron of exasperating narrowness, finally claiming one of the privileges of her birth--the right to behave like a spoiled brat," Felsenthal writes. She threw tantrums--and once a shoe--in the Post newsroom. Felsenthal depicts her as not just cruel and snobbish but also indecisive. Newsweek Editor Lester Bernstein once asked Bradlee: "What do you do about the problem that Kay always listens to the last person she spoke to?" Bradlee's reply: "Be the last person she spoke to."

Of course, such nasty observations make a juicy read. But if the book fairly wallows in complaints about Graham, it's probably because the people who like her are underrepresented. Neither she, Bradlee, nor Donald Graham, now Post CEO, consented to be interviewed. Even as gossip, the book seems downright sketchy in places.

Felsenthal's analysis is also sketchy. Graham seems a complex and contradictory woman: The supreme advocate of press freedom, she nonetheless suppressed several biographies and company histories. She reminisces affectionately about Phil--but has never forgiven those who abetted his affairs. The very model of a modern corporate woman, she believed in the "innate superiority" of men. Felsenthal dutifully describes, but never resolves, these disparate attributes, falling back on such lame characterizations as "multifaceted."

The fundamental contradiction is also unresolved: How did this woman, for many years kept in the dark about business, by nature not forceful or creative, achieve so much? The failure to provide an answer makes Power, Privilege, and the Post an earnest, sometimes titillating, but ultimately unsatisfying effort.

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