Katharine Graham, 84, who led The Washington Post Co. to prominence in the world of journalism and business and became one of the most influential and admired women of her generation, died Tuesday at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho.
Her death resulted from head injuries suffered when she fell on a concrete sidewalk last Saturday in Sun Valley, where she was attending an annual conference of top-level media executives.
During three decades at the helm of The Post, Mrs. Graham guided the newspaper through two of the most celebrated episodes in American journalism, the publication in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the war in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal, which led to Richard M. Nixon's resignation from the presidency in 1974 under the threat of impeachment. She and Benjamin C. Bradlee, the editor she chose to run The Post's newsroom during her years at the helm, moved the newspaper into the front ranks of American journalism.
Under Mrs. Graham's stewardship, The Washington Post Co.'s revenues grew nearly twenty-fold. The company acquired numerous new businesses and became a public corporation listed on the New York stock exchange. She had taken over the company in 1963 following the suicide of her husband, Philip L. Graham. The family enterprise, then relatively small, included The Washington Post, which her father had purchased at a bankruptcy sale in 1933; Newsweek magazine, which her husband, who became head of the company in 1946, had bought in 1961, and two television stations.
Mrs. Graham stepped down as chief executive officer of The Post Co. in 1991 and as chairman in 1993. Her son, Donald E. Graham, succeeded her in both jobs. She remained as chairman of the executive committee of the board of a now-diversified media corporation with newspaper, magazine, television, cable, Internet and educational services business.
She was the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company and the first to serve as a director of the Associated Press, the news service owned by member newspapers, and of the American Newspaper Publishers Association. She also served as chairman of the newspaper publishers group.
In 1997, she published her autobiography, Personal History, which received critical acclaim, became a best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Written in longhand on legal pads, the book tells her story best, fully revealing a life marked by personal struggle and tragedy as well as public triumph. . . .
A leading figure in international, political, business and social circles, Mrs. Graham was a personal friend of many of the most prominent leaders of her time, including American presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, presidents Valery Giscard D'Estaing of France, Corazon Aquino of the Phillipines, Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Kenneth Kuanda of Zambia, chancellor Willy Brandt of the Federal Republic of Germany and prime minister Edward Heath of Britain. In the 1990s, her younger friends included William H. Gates III, the co-founder and head of the Microsoft Corp., and Diana, Princess of Wales. . . .
Mrs. Graham was often described as the most powerful woman in the world, a notion she dismissed out of hand. Even when speaking about her role at The Washington Post, she insisted that no single person can shape the persona of a newspaper. "You inherit something and you do what you can," she said. "And so the person who succeeds you inherits something different, and you add to it or you subtract from it or you do whatever you do. But you never totally control it."
In 1972 Mrs. Graham bought Mohu, the spectacular and storied 218-acre West Tisbury property located in Lambert's Cove at the western edge of James Pond. The place was formerly owned by the late Sen. James Butler and at one time had been a visiting spot for Calvin Coolidge when he was governor of Massachusetts. Mrs. Graham bought Mohu at the urging of the late Vineyard Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough, who desperately wanted to see it rescued from a development scheme.
She paid $1.4 million for the property.
"The transfer means that Mohu will continue as one of the Island's special glories, its hills, ponds, declivities and beach preserved from the 'development' that had threatened a scenic heritage tracing from long ago when the glacial ice sheet cut into the coastline," reported the Vineyard Gazette that year.
Mr. Hough, an ardent champion of land conservation, was openly thrilled at the prospect of saving what he had poetically described as "Mohu, beautiful Mohu," in an earlier piece.
Mrs. Graham's own family history on the Vineyard in fact ran back to her parents - Eugene and Agnes Meyer were summer visitors on the Vineyard in the early 1950s and Mr. Meyer had visited Seven Gates Farm even earlier, when Woodrow Wilson's secretary of agriculture, David F. Houston, summered in the house known as The Bungalow.
In Personal History, she wrote:
"Buying a house on Martha's Vineyard was a step that altered my life very much for the better and added greatly to my happiness. When I first found the house it was completely tumble-down, having been rented by people who basically camped in it, but I loved its shape and the way it sat on its beautiful land. From my first look at it, I began to imagine that the house could become a family center if the children liked it, or they could leave grandchildren with me if they wanted to travel. Since I bought it in 1972 and renovated it the following year, I have spent every August there, and my children and grandchildren love it as much as I do. My stays there always restore me."
At Mohu, Mrs. Graham's brand of restorative summer quiet was in fact very active.
Her guests on the Vineyard over the years were a reflection of her own eclectic life: Warren Buffet, Henry Kissinger, Princess Diana and Oprah Winfrey were just a few of the endless parade of house guests over the years. Mike Wallace, Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, Ward Just and Sarah Catchpole, Art Buchwald, Bill and Rose Styron and Robert McNamara were among her closest Vineyard summer friends. Luncheons and dinners at Mohu were quiet but dynamic affairs; Mrs. Graham always made an effort to gather a mix of people from widely divergent walks of life. Her socializing was always quite deliberate, and she was an active participant in the discussions, full of questions and at the same time a listener. It was at these gatherings that the kindly (and rarely recognized) side of Katharine Graham came out; she was conscious of the needs of her guests.
This week as the news of her death spread around the country, her house at Mohu sat quietly in the sparkling summer sunshine. On the front deck, with its spectacular pond and ocean vistas, purple petunias spilled from clay pots, and tables and chairs were neatly arranged, as if ready for the next Katharine Graham party.
Mrs. Graham understood what the character of the Vineyard was all about, and she also had an abiding interest in Vineyard affairs. When the hospital was in trouble, she worried about it. She cared about land conservation and she worried about the traffic.
"As more people come to the Island, there is a delicate balance to be struck between growth and preserving what people care about - both those who live there year-around, and those who spend the summer there and pay taxes, but have no voice," she wrote in a letter to the Massachusetts secretary of environmental affairs in 1987, protesting a bank and supermarket complex planned for State Road in Tisbury. The letter was published in the Gazette.
Mrs. Graham was a benefactor - both noisy and quiet - to many worthy causes on the Vineyard. At the annual Possible Dreams Auction for Martha's Vineyard Community Services she peddled herself, along with lunches and tours of the Washington Post, and helped to raise tens of thousands of dollars over the years. In 1997 she was the top "dream," bringing in $100,000 when three people bid against each other for the prize. Mrs. Graham satisfied all three bidders by agreeing to host three seperate lunches and matching their $25,000 bids with one of her own.
Lunch with Katharine Graham was again listed as a possible dream in the program for this year's auction, set for early August.
She also quietly gave money to many other nonprofit groups on the Vineyard.
She never tried to cross swords with town government on the Vineyard. When she proposed building a pier on her property 10 years ago, and it quickly became apparent that the pier plan was at odds with many environmental interests, she withdrew the application.
"She always avoided confrontation with the town if she could. I think she was perhaps one of the most dignified people who lived on the Island," said West Tisbury selectman John Alley, who knew Mrs. Graham for 30 years, both as a town official and as a friend.
"About once a year she called me - sometimes it was to ask something about the Vineyard or something about her property, and sometimes it was just to say hello," Mr. Alley said.
He said Mrs. Graham always told him to go to Mohu in the fall and harvest her grapes - and he often did. One year he made grape jelly and during a trip to the capital he left a jar for her at The Washington Post.
"I think the town of West Tisbury and the Island will miss Kay Graham and this certainly is the end of an era. I was shocked to hear the news," Mr. Alley said.
When she took over The Post in 1963, she had only modest experience in journalism and no training in business. Shy and vulnerable, she said she was terrified of asking dumb questions and making mistakes as she entered the mostly male world of publishing. She was so ill at ease before attending the company Christmas party five months after her husband's death that she spent some time rehearsing how to say "Merry Christmas." She was 46 years old.
Within a decade she was making momentous decisions about the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. In both instances she withstood enormous pressure from the White House and other government agencies not to publish, including the possibility of criminal charges for violating espionage laws and challenges to licenses for the company's broadcasting properties. Vindicated by events, she gained a reputation for courage and devotion to principle that carried around the world.
Through the years her manner remained the same. A striking figure who stood 5 feet 9 inches tall, she was serious, attentive, well-mannered and generally soft-spoken. She could be extremely forceful, and she could swear like a sailor. Although she lost her earlier diffidence, it was widely remarked that she projected an aura of vulnerability. . . .
A beloved figure throughout The Post company, she also devoted considerable time to its other holdings, especially Newsweek, for which she traveled widely to assist in its advertising sales and publishing arrangements around the world. She played a major role in The Post's shared ownership and direction with The New York Times, of the International Herald Tribune newspaper.
As the head of the company, Mrs. Graham wrote in her book, she was guided by the principle that "journalistic excellence and profitability go hand in hand. I had to try to assure Wall Street that I wasn't some madwoman, interested only in risks and editorial issues, but that I was concerned with how we ran our business."
Warren Buffett, the legendary stock investor and the company's largest shareholder outside the Graham family, became a close friend and business mentor to Mrs. Graham after he began buying large amounts of Post stock soon after it was first offered publicly in the l970s. "The paper, really the company, always has been the most important thing in her whole life," he said. "This was not a step in the long dance of life; it was the whole show."
By Mrs. Graham's own account, the most difficult part of her business career was a bitter, 139-day strike by the pressmen's union at The Washington Post in 1975 and 1976 that began when strikers set fire to part of the pressroom. It ended with replacement workers being hired.
As a manager, her strengths were intelligence, toughness, a willingness to listen and learn and an ability to judge character. She gave her executives great autonomy, but it was always clear that she was in charge. Mr. Bradlee said she "had the guts of a burglar. . . ."
Sometimes her exchanges with editors led to major new policies. Such was the case with the editorial stand on the conflict in Vietnam. When the war began, the Post supported it. By 1969, it had become a major critic of U.S. policy. . . .
Katharine Meyer was born in New York city on June 16, 1917, the fourth of the five children of Eugene Meyer and Agnes Ernst Meyer. They gave their children the advantages of great wealth, but also led busy lives of their own.
Eugene Meyer, the son of a prosperous Alsatian-Jewish immigrant, was born in Los Angeles. He was a spectacularly successful investment banker and pioneer in investment analysis. J. Pierpont Morgan once said, "Watch out for this fellow Meyer because if you don't he'll end up having all the money on Wall Street." Mr. Meyer founded the Allied Chemical Company. He was chairman of the Federal Reserve Board under President Herbert Hoover and the first president of the World Bank under President Harry S. Truman. . . .
Katharine Meyer grew up in New York and Washington, where the family had a mansion on Crescent Place just off 16th street NW. Summers and holidays were spent at the family estate in Mount Kisco, N.Y., or at her father's ranch near Jackson Hole, Wyo., or on trips to Europe. After graduating from Madeira School in Washington, she went to Vassar. . . .
In the spring of 1939, at her father's behest, she returned to Washington to edit the letters to the editor of The Washington Post.
Eugene Meyer bought the newspaper on June 1, 1933, for $825,000 from the estate of Edward B. "Ned" McLean, who had squandered a fortune and was confined to a psychiatric hospital. . . .
The Post, founded in 1877, had fallen on hard times. Four other papers in the city were competing for advertising and circulation and all were in better shape. . . .
Such was the newspaper that Katharine Meyer joined in the spring of 1939. Other young staff members introduced her to a group of young men who shared a house, first a rowhouse on S street NW, and then a large house and grounds in Arlington called "Hockley Hall." Among them was a recent graduate of the Harvard Law School, Philip Leslie Graham. Born in the mining town of Terry, S.D., he had been raised in Florida, where his father had gone to make a career in farming, real estate and politics. In Washington, Philip Graham served as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed in 1939 and for Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had been one of his professors at Harvard, in 1940.
After getting to know each other at the Hockley Hall group's social gatherings and continuing discussions of life and politics, Katharine Meyer and Philip Graham fell in love. They were married on June 5, 1940, settling down in a two-story row house on 37th street NW that was just wide enough for a door and one window.
Philip Graham planned to follow in his father's footsteps in the Florida legislature and perhaps one day run for the U.S. Senate. (His half brother, Bob Graham, became governor of Florida and a senator.) Eugene Meyer had another idea. His only son, Eugene III, who was called Bill, had become a physician, and Mr. Meyer didn't think the role of publisher was suitable for women. So he offered it to his son in law, and after talking it over with his wife, Philip Graham agreed. . . .
Philip and Katharine's first baby died at birth, but Elizabeth Morris Graham, now Lally Weymouth, was born in 1943. Donald Edward Graham was born two years later. William Welsh Graham arrived in 1948 and Stephen Meyer Graham in 1952. In 1946, Mrs. Graham bought the house on R street NW in Georgetown that was to be her principal residence for the rest of her life. . . .
While running the newspaper, Mr. Graham played a backstage role in politics. President Lyndon B. Johnson gave him credit for the outlines of the Great Society program. In 1960, he helped persuade John F. Kennedy, another close friend, to take Johnson on his ticket as the vice presidential candidate.
By then, Philip Graham already was in the grip of the illness that plagued him until his death. . . .
Three days after her husband's death, Mrs. Graham told the board of directors that The Washington Post Co. would stay in the family. On Sept. 20, 1963, following a month's cruise in the Aegean with her mother, her daughter and some friends, she assumed the presidency of the company.
"What I essentially did," she said, "was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes and step off the ledge. The surprise was that I landed on my feet."
At first she relied on Frederick S. "Fritz" Beebe, a New York lawyer who had become chairman of the company after the purchase of Newsweek in 1961. Other important advisers were James Reston, the chief of the New York Times bureau in Washington, and Walter Lippmann, the columnist. . . .
One of her first important decisions was one of her most successful. It involved Ben Bradlee, who had worked for the paper from 1948 to 1951. . . .
After she hired him as an assistant managing editor in 1965, Mr. Bradlee quickly moved up to managing editor and then executive editor. Mrs. Graham did not know Mr. Bradlee well when they joined forces, but she admired his toughness and his eye for good stories and good reporters. One of the first things she let him do was go on a hiring spree, and the newsroom budget increased rapidly in subsequent years.
They soon became friends as well as colleagues - there was a special chemistry between them. What made them such a formidable newspaper team was their shared desire to publish stories that had what Mr. Bradlee described as "impact."
The Pentagon Papers was a story that had impact. It pitted the First Amendment of the Constitution and its guarantee of the right to publish against the government's right to protect secrets. It also involved possible consequences for The Post that threatened its financial stability. Despite fears for her company, for example, she approved Mr. Bradlee's June 17, 1971, plea for immediate publication of the Pentagon Papers, which the Post had obtained on the day that a government-won court order barred the New York Times from continuing its exclusive reports on the 7,000-page Vietnam history. . . .
The two-and-a-half week Pentagon Papers episode, ending with victory for the Times and Post in the U.S. Supreme Court, was a turning point for Mrs. Graham and the newspaper.
But it was to be overshadowed by the issues she began to confront a year later, after Post managing editor Howard Simons phoned her at home on a Saturday, June 17, 1972, to tell her, as was his habit, what stories the paper was working on. Mr. Simons told her of two strange developments the night before: A car had driven through a house where two people were making love on a sofa - and five men had been arrested after breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building.
During the more than two years of the Watergate scandal that followed, The Washington Post Co. was the target of unrelenting hostility from the White House and its friends.
But Mrs. Graham again stood behind Mr. Bradlee and his staff. "By the time the story had grown to the point where the size of it dawned on us," she said, "we had already waded deeply into the stream. Once I found myself in the deepest water in the middle of the current, there was no going back."
After President Nixon's resignation, the newspaper's role in unraveling the Watergate story produced, among other things, worldwide acclaim for Mr. Graham and the paper, a Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service, a Robert Redford movie based on the Woodward and Bernstein book All the President's Men - and discomfort as well as pleasure for the publisher. . . .
It was an extraordinary journey, from housewife to head of one of the world's leading news and publishing companies. At its heart remained The Washington Post, of which she once said:
"When my husband died, I had three choices. I could sell it. I could find somebody else to run it. Or I could go to work. And that was no choice at all."
Mrs. Graham is survived by her son Donald Graham, chairman and chief executive officer of The Washington Post Company; her daughter, Lally Weymouth, a Washington Post and Newsweek journalist, of New York; her son William Graham, an investor, of Los Angeles; her son Stephen Graham, a stage producer and philanthropist, of New York; 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild; and her sister Ruth M. Epstein of Bronxville, NY.
The funeral service will be held on Monday, July 23, at 11 a.m. at Washington National Cathedral.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company. Obituary material published in the Vineyard Gazette is reprinted by permission. Gazette senior writer Julia Wells contributed the Vineyard section of the article.