A Woman of Substance

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Katharine Graham told the story of her life so well and with such raw candor in her 1997 autobiography, the Pulitzer-prizewinning "Personal History," that retelling it here seems redundant. It was the tale of a fretful rich girl who married the dazzlingly brilliant Philip Graham. It was her father who owned the Washington Post, but her husband was given majority control of the paper on the theory that no man should ever work for his wife. When she found the manic-depressive Graham dead of a gunshot wound in the bathroom of their country house in 1963, this "doormat wife" at 46 was thrust into running the company. Men in suits thought they would be able to wrest it from someone so crippled by anxiety that she practiced saying "Merry Christmas" before giving her first staff party.

But she was a brainy graduate of the University of Chicago with common sense who hired good people and learned to fire those who weren't. She bet the farm on editor Ben Bradlee, who had Phil's manic brilliance without the depression. The Post went from a decent, dull paper to a crackling, moneymaking one. She was not a natural skeptic but a natural, principled truth teller, shaking the Establishment of which she was a pillar. Against the wishes of financial advisers worried about the Post's imminent IPO, she published the Pentagon papers. Alone among publishers, she followed the facts in Watergate. With the creation of the paper's irreverent Style section, Graham had to face at night the very powers that Sally Quinn was skewering by day. Graham never killed a story, although she occasionally rolled her eyes in sympathy with a deflated pol. At the paper she was a regular presence in the newsroom, even taking classified ads during the violent pressmen's strike of the mid-'70s. She visited the child-care centers she funded, folding her 6-ft. frame into many a kiddie-size chair. Last week, at an elite retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho, after lunch with Tom Hanks and before dinner with Mexican President Vicente Fox, she fell and lost consciousness. She died on Tuesday.

By then, Katharine Graham was the most powerful woman in America, no longer shy and awkward but regal and utterly imposing. With an ever more influential newspaper, with Newsweek — which Phil had acquired in 1961 — and with an ever more influential salon at her house on a hill in Georgetown, she was Walter Lippmann and Perle Mesta rolled into one. Much has been made of her salon — the network stars, the Vice Presidents, the gray eminences. But her reach was deeper. She was the connective tissue for the permanent substratum of the capital — the one layered with beat reporters, academics and junior Senators yet to head a committee. She never babbled and showed little patience for those who did. I was scared to death when I met her. She was quick to judge someone a bore, though ready to reverse the call on receipt of evidence to the contrary. I'd been at her house for dinner 50 times before she wondered whether she might be invited to mine. "I don't mind lap eating," she said. Having missed the bustle of a happy family life, she was thrilled to pitch in and toss the salad. She drew the line at busing dishes.

She never got sentimental. But she sat with her best friend Meg Greenfield, op-ed editor of the Post, through almost every chemotherapy treatment in a losing battle with cancer. She talked with her old friend Nancy Reagan almost every week after the former President fell ill. No one quite took care of friends the way Kay Graham did. One night she shared Chinese food with me and my daughter as Courtney and I argued over the propriety of a strapless wedding gown. "Now, Courtney," Kay said, "this is your wedding. You're the one wearing the dress. You should get exactly what your mother tells you."

When it came time to pass the baton to her son Donald Graham in 1991, she did it seamlessly and gracefully, which is not always the case with dynastic successions. She still asked the first question at editorial lunches. But she kept out of her son's hair by spending six solid years writing her book. If there was any interference, it took place during their weekly Sunday walks around Dumbarton Oaks. By then, an artificial hip was slowing her. She never complained about getting old. At parties she would plant herself on a chair and let the room come to her. She kept in touch by going to the movies, even the bad ones, and she'd always ask for the senior discount.

She invariably wrote out her toasts and delivered them with shaking hands, as she did at a February dinner for President George W. Bush. But on her 84th birthday in June, in her house on the hill, she had no notes. The room had seen its share of kings and princesses, but the event on that evening meant the most to her. "When you live alone," she concluded, "you're married to your friends." She wasn't trembling at all.