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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 424

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This is the grave of Philip and Katherine Meyer Graham.

Philip Graham was born in 1915 in Terry, South Dakota, but grew up in Miami, where his father bought a farm and some real estate and had a minor political career that helped start Graham’s half-brother, Bob Graham, the future senator, on his road to success. He graduated from the University of Florida, where he became friends with another future senator, George Smathers. Graham then went to Harvard Law and clerked for Stanley Reed and Felix Frankfurter.

In 1942, Graham married Katharine Meyer, the daughter of the millionaire owner of The Washington Post. She was born in New York in 1917. Her father bought the Post, then a bankrupt paper in 1933. Her mother was a socialite, journalist, and Republican activist with a lot of bohemian friends. In 1946, Eugene Meyer handed over the paper to Philip Graham, as the former became head of the World Bank, albeit only for six months. Graham became publisher and would hold that position until his death in 1963. He was a huge power player in American politics and played a key role in getting the VP spot for Lyndon Johnson in 1960. He also lobbied for Kennedy to name Douglas Dillon as Secretary of the Treasury and even wrote speeches for both JFK and LBJ after the administration started. If you think it is inappropriate for a newspaper publisher of a major rag to be speechwriting for a president he has to cover, I would agree with you!

Graham was a very difficult man and a pretty awful husband. He suffered from mental illness as well and was pretty mean to Katharine. In late 1962, Katharine discovered that Philip was having an affair with someone who worked for Newsweek. He responded by announcing he would divorce her. But at a newspaper conference shortly after, he had a nervous breakdown. He was hospitalized, but committed suicide later in 1963, at the age of 48.

When Philip died, Katharine took over the Post. This made her the second female publisher of a major American newspaper; Eliza Jane Nicholson had run the New Orleans Picayune in the late nineteenth century. Despite Graham’s wealth and fame, she suffered a lot from sexism in the newspaper industry. Other publishers dismissed her and her confidence seriously suffered. Although she had gone to Vassar before graduating from the University of Chicago, she often felt she lacked the knowledge to run a big newspaper. That said, she was the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And the paper exploded in importance during her tenure, eventually becoming the nation’s second (or arguably first) paper of record. Her hiring of Ben Bradlee as editor and close reliance on Warren Buffet for finances certainly didn’t hurt, but they were good calls. Obviously, the paper reached its preeminence with its pioneering Watergate coverage. She also moved the paper forward on hiring women in the 1970s, probably more so than other major papers.

Now, I don’t have a lot of patience for mythologizing the media of the past as somehow better than today. The Grahams were as much Beltway insiders in all the wrong ways as so many figures today. Sure, they were friends with the Kennedys. They were also friends with Reagans. Ideology mattered far less than chumminess, unless the interests of the rich were too threatened by legislation. Her response to Iran-Contra was telling. Speaking to CIA employees, which in itself seems inappropriate, she said, “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.” That’s not healthy and it sure reinforces the kind of bipartisan consensus around hurting other countries that leads to lots of Democrats voting to invade Iraq in 2003, for instance.

Over the years, Katharine received all sorts of accolades and awards that the rich get. She died in 2001 in a fall in Sun Valley, Idaho. She was 84.

Philip and Katharine Meyer Graham are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, DC.

If you would like this series to visit other icons of the newspaper industry, for better or for worse, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harrison Gray Otis is in Hollywood and Eliza Jane Nicholson is in New Orleans. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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