Katharine Graham: 1917-2001

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Katharine Graham is seen in her Washington office

Itís often been said that Katharine Graham lived two lives: One as a self-described "doormat wife" and another at the helm of a Fortune 500 publishing giant. It was in her second incarnation that she first came to my attention. As a young woman testing the testosterone-infused waters of news writing, I invoked her name more than once.

The 84-year-old Graham died Tuesday. She had been unconscious since Saturday, when she fell and hit her head on a walkway in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Setting an example

After I became aware of her existence early in my career, I would sometimes wish myself into her highly evolved presence: What must it be like to work for someone like Mrs. Graham? I mused occasionally as I watched a parade of dark-suited men pile into an executive boardroom.

At other moments, Graham was more of an abstraction: There was some inexplicable and subconscious comfort in knowing Katharine Graham was around, her solid news sense and unwavering business acumen making journalism a bit less of a boysí club.

In the beginning

Itís ironic, perhaps, that someone who has come to mean so much to journalism initially had so little confidence in her professional skills. Born in 1917, Katharine Graham had a privileged, if emotionally constrained childhood in the Washington suburbs. She attended Vassar, then the University of Chicago, then began writing lifestyle pieces for various papers. Her father purchased the Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933 for $825,000, and Katharine returned to Washington to start work on the editorial page.

In 1945, husband Philip Graham took over the ailing Post, and Graham ended her own short-lived writing career to concentrate on the familyís home life. She focused on raising their children and entertaining in their Georgetown home until the increasingly manic-depressive Phil committed suicide in 1963.

Widowhood came suddenly, as did the professional challenges. Surprising even herself, Graham stepped into her husbandís role at the Post, first cautiously, then with more assurance. Forced by her husbandís death to overcome her insecurities, Graham, eventually known as "Lady Pub" by her troops, spent her 20 years at the head of the Washington Post Co. as a clear-headed, if occasionally wary, advocate for even-handed, tough journalism.

"Lady Pub" takes charge

In 1965, Graham hired Bill Bradlee as the paperís deputy managing editor; he later became executive editor. In 1971, she made the final decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, a choice that effectively sealed President Nixonís fate — and her own. Two years later, the Watergate scandal surfaced, and, steeling herself for what appeared to be inevitable political backlash, Graham gave the green light to Woodward and Bernsteinís now-famous series.

Behind the scenes, Graham took an active interest in making the Washington Post a more diverse workplace, hiring more black and female reporters. When she handed over the reins of the Post to son Donald in 1979, she had transformed it from a traditional broadsheet flirting with dinosaur status into a vibrant, modern newspaper with a national readership.

While no longer publisher of the paper, Graham maintained her role as chief executive officer of the Washington Post Co. She also maintained her interest in writing: In 1997, Graham won the Pulitzer Prize for her autobiography, "Personal History."

A suitable legacy

I never met Graham, was never, to my knowledge, anyway, in the same room with her. But like those who read her autobiography and followed the path of her career, I felt as if I knew her. Today, I feel profoundly sorry that I never will.

When someone of Grahamís stature dies, the rush to eulogize often feels forced and the words themselves seem obligatory. In Grahamís case, however, there is no sense of obligation — instead, there is just sadness. Flowery speeches seem unnecessary, a fact I suspect might have pleased Graham herself, who probably would have appreciated another kind of tribute much more: As long as anyone reads the Washington Post Graham will be eulogized daily in the most fitting way imaginable.