Right now, America is in the midst of an exhilarating newspaper war the likes of which has not been seen since the Watergate scandal. Reporters such as The New York Times’s Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman, and Glenn Thrush and The Washington Post’s Greg Miller, Philip Rucker, and Adam Entous—to name some of the most relentless—have been alternating scoops about the embattled Trump White House like tennis champions trading powerful ground strokes.
“As in the last part of the twentieth century, so now,” says Carl Bernstein, who, with Bob Woodward, broke the Watergate story in The Washington Post in the early seventies. “The Times and the Post are doing magnificently, and it’s Katharine Graham’s courage and example that both papers are following.”
Watch Meryl Streep Talk to Anna Wintour About Her New Movie, Harvey Weinstein, and Her Most Challenging Role (No, Not That One):
If she were here to see it, Graham, the fabled publisher and owner of The Washington Post, who died in 2001, would be having a hell of a time. And that is exactly how she would have put it. Mrs. Graham, first woman Fortune 500 CEO, doyenne of D.C. society, loved to shock with profanities. It was a particular thrill to hear her occasional finishing school–accented f-bomb. “I didn’t travel all the way here,” she’s said to have once scolded a Washington Post correspondent who had expended titanic effort to get a hot-air balloon for Graham to view Kenya’s breathtaking Masai Mara region, “to be a fucking tourist.”
Meanwhile, 45 years after making a decision that eventually ended the Nixon presidency, Graham is finally getting her due. With the release this month of Steven Spielberg’s The Post, in which she is played by Meryl Streep, she will be known as the woman who, at a critical moment, did the right thing for a free press and the Constitution. At the time, her executive editor, Ben Bradlee, was given the credit, and Alan Pakula’s 1976 movie of Bernstein and Woodward’s account, All the President’s Men, was a macho affair in which she was all but airbrushed out of history.
For Spielberg, whose film unites Streep and Tom Hanks (as Bradlee) for the first time on-screen, the emphasis is different. The project, he says, chose him rather than the other way around. “There are some stories that just don’t leave your consciousness, and this was one of them,” he says. “By becoming the first female publisher of a major newspaper, Graham set a new bar for women everywhere, and she was the first of her generation to show people that in the face of enormous pressure, being a bystander was not an option—and it still isn’t.”
Graham, whom I knew for 20 years, liked edge. Though always immaculate in her appearance, manners, and outfits by Oscar de la Renta (even at the beach), she was something of a gambler, like her father, Eugene Meyer, before her. He had started as a low-level stockbroker, became fabulously rich, and, in 1933, bought the bankrupt Washington Post for a song. Katharine, the fourth of five children, smart and ambitious, was her father’s favorite, partly because she, too, was fascinated by the newspaper business. After graduating from the University of Chicago, she worked as a reporter in San Francisco. She was very tall, rather ungainly, undermined by a chilly, self-absorbed mother; no one imagined a glamorous life for Kay Meyer.
But when Phil Graham, a poor but dazzlingly charismatic Supreme Court clerk, proposed to her after their second dinner, she accepted. Her husband took over the running of the Post, and Katharine gave birth to four children. Phil, however, became dangerously unstable due to largely undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and the marriage was difficult. He belittled Katharine in front of others and took up with a mistress. Then, one day in 1963, he came home from a stay in a mental hospital and shot himself to death with his hunting rifle after the couple had taken a nap. Katharine found his inert, bleeding body in the downstairs bathroom of their country house.
From that inauspicious beginning, as 46-year-old Katharine Meyer Graham was reeling from the violent death of the only man she had ever loved, yet demoralized by 20 years of marriage to him, she was about to surprise the world and herself. On discovering that The Washington Post, salvaged by her father and turned into a serious paper by her husband, had been bled dry during Phil’s turbulent final years, she took a chance and fell in love for a second time. This time it was not with a man but with a profession, to which she gave her all.
Meryl Streep captures Graham, a woman who helped redefine American freedom, in Steven Spielberg’s The Post.
Jim Hoge, then Washington correspondent of the Chicago Sun-Times, recalls, “She was terrified by the responsibility, and the men in her circle were not encouraging her to try.” Yet she summoned what she later described to Charlie Rose as her “native doggedness” and became much more than the Post’s temporary guardian. She had to learn every bit of the business, the management and the editing of the paper. But hell, as she might later say, she was having fun! The first man she ever asked out to lunch was Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, Ben Bradlee. She hired him, and together they forged the most dynamic and significant partnership in modern journalism.
Sometimes his irreverent new Style section made Mrs. Graham’s powerful friends unhappy. “I am sick and tired of the shit you are giving Henry Kissinger,” she reprimanded the columnist Richard Cohen. “The blood drained out of me,” Cohen tells me, “but Ben said, ‘Forget it. She doesn’t mean it.’ He was right. I was never told not to publish anything.”
Bradlee transformed a solid paper into a great one, soon feared by the powerful. The famous Black and White Ball, thrown for Kay by Truman Capote in 1966 at New York’s Plaza hotel, marked her coming out as a new persona, the once-dowdy widow now boldly enjoying her second act.
When, in 1971, she made the decision to contravene a court order and let her paper publish the leaked Pentagon Papers (which revealed, among other deceptions, the U.S. government’s secret dealings in Vietnam), she was under enormous pressure. It happened to be the very week The Washington Post went public, and it was not at all clear that the underwriters, notably Lazard Frères, would back Graham in such an act of defiance. Nevertheless, she made the call. In doing so, there were two things she focused on. One was that if she was going to be the keeper of the flame of this family newspaper, she had to gamble everything to preserve it. She would be more than an owner; she would be a custodian of trust. Number two: She knew she would lose Ben if she didn’t. She had the story—and to not publish it went against every fiber of his being.
It was a watershed moment. As Spielberg puts it, “What Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee did all those years ago still reverberates today and in so many ways defined modern investigative journalism.” Everything changed for Katharine Graham, the Post, and press freedom in America. (The Supreme Court eventually upheld her decision.) Graham enshrined the right—the duty—of news organizations to expose the inner workings of their government to the people’s scrutiny.
In the process, she became a personage, which, she later wrote, “both seared me and . . . fed my ego.” How could it not? A year later, in June 1972, five men were caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel. Led by Bradlee, the two young Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein got the scoop on the Nixon campaign’s involvement, backed at every turn by Graham. She withstood personal intimidation and threats from the highest reaches of the administration. Bernstein tells me that Nixon campaign manager John Mitchell crudely warned him, “Katie Graham will have her tit caught in a wringer” if she persisted in publishing the mounting evidence against Nixon’s attempt to subvert the Constitution. Which, of course, she did. “Got any more messages for me, Carl?” Mrs. Graham mischievously asked Bernstein the day after Mitchell’s threat. She also announced that if anyone was sent to jail for defiance of a court order, she would be the one to go. “Katharine Graham,” as Ben Bradlee, who died in 2014, wrote in his 1995 memoir A Good Life, “God bless her ballsy soul, was going to have the last laugh on all those establishment publishers and owners who had been so condescending to her . . . who warned her every day that we were going too far.”
Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham with reporters Carl Bernstein, left, and Bob Woodward, 1973.
By the time I met Graham, in the 1980s, she was the grandest of grandes dames. A bicoastal gathering of boldfaced names celebrated her seventieth birthday in the Mellon Auditorium on Washington’s Constitution Avenue, hung with monumental portraits of Katharine at every stage in her life. In the role of Bogart’s Rick, President Ronald Reagan toasted the birthday girl, ending with “Here’s looking at you, kid!” while Art Buchwald brought the house down by saying, “Looking around this room, what becomes clear is the power of fear.” Graham, tall and stately in polka-dot chiffon, beamed.
Though she could appear forbidding, in reality, Graham was game. She hated to miss a good party or a trip in lively company. There was nothing of the old lady about Kay. Her passion for tennis gave way in her later years to equal zeal for bridge (she was on her way to play when she collapsed in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2001, at the Allen & Co. Conference, an annual event where powerful CEOs and masters of the universe convene). Like a bunch of teenagers, she and her best chums, Polly Fritchey and Polly Kraft—the Pollies, as they were known—spent hours on the telephone, exchanging gossip, high and low. With Meg Greenfield, Washington Post editorial-page editor, as her favorite traveling companion, no journey was too exotic or too exhausting (though she was never merely a “fucking tourist,” as heads of state were generally on her itinerary).
In the early nineties, when I became chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit advocate on behalf of press freedom, Graham agreed to join our board. To announce that decision, she hosted a party at her Georgetown home. As her houseguest, I was putting on my makeup with the door to her upstairs guest bathroom ajar when she peeked in, and we started chatting. Perched on the corner of an old-fashioned bathtub, she did not seem a grande dame at all. With real interest and empathy, she asked about my recent and painful divorce from the father of my children, and my attempt to restart my life in my early 40s. In this intimate setting, I discovered that the formidable publisher, unlike her friend and fellow Washington hostess Pamela Harriman, was a woman’s woman. Betrayed in her own marriage, she had a heart wide open to others’ pain. Plus she loved juicy personal details of her friends’ lives.
So, two years later, I was less surprised than some by her remarkably candid, exceedingly human memoir, Personal History. Men, in particular, were astonished at Kay’s sometimes scorching description of her own insecurities and the public humiliation she suffered at the hands of the man she loved. “It must have been really rough,” Cohen said to her, “to write about all that.” “Not at all,” she answered. “I just started typing.” At age 80, to her absolute delight, she won the Pulitzer Prize.
Kay believed in being a convener of both sides and considered that to be part of her job. At one of her dinners, I was seated next to Justice Antonin Scalia. After the second course, he excused himself and said he had to go cast a vote but would be back. When he returned, he said, “Voted for the death penalty. Enjoy your dessert.” Today, she would have taken Trump’s measure and invited him to dinner, because that’s how she operated. I often saw her at her daughter Lally’s annual party for her mother in the Hamptons—Kay’s own outpost was Martha’s Vineyard—planned with all the orchestration of a state visit.
The family sold The Washington Post in 2013 to Jeff Bezos (who has so far proved to be an excellent steward), but Lally continues the tradition to this day. This year, in homage to Kay, Lally invited Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Wilbur Ross to the Hamptons party. She said in her toast, “Mummy always entertained both sides of the aisle, and we’re doing that tonight. We’re not going to throw food at each other, and let’s all try to get along.” Ivanka and Jared were introduced to Steven Spielberg, and everybody behaved perfectly.
When I spoke to Meryl Streep before she began filming The Post, she told me she had just finished listening to Graham’s own recording of her memoir. “I am entranced by her energy, mind, grace, humor, and humility,” Streep said, “qualities in such short supply these days!”
Observing Streep as Graham one day during filming on a Brooklyn soundstage, Richard Cohen, Graham’s former columnist, saw how absolutely Streep nailed her subject and was momentarily transported. “Afterward,” he says, “I went up to Meryl and asked for a raise. ‘Forget it,’ she said. Just as Mrs. Graham would have done.”