A 1974 CHAT WITH “THE NATION’S MOST POWERFUL WOMAN,” ON HER JOURNEY TO THE TOP.
Byline: Kandy Stroud, August 1974
Momma,” as the boys in the Washington Post newsroom still call her, has become Katharine the Great.
Katharine Graham is one of the world’s most powerful publishers and perhaps the nation’s most powerful woman. She is called the Jeanne d’Arc of Journalism and the Queen Bee of Washington, and it is she who made the tough decision to have her Washington Post print the stories that helped expose Watergate.
With her preeminence, Katharine Graham has changed. Although she protests bitterly what she calls the “opening-flower” theory and labels “sexist” the idea that she is different, even her daughter, Elizabeth Weymouth, says her mother has changed “drastically.” But the metamorphosis cannot be attributed directly to Watergate.
Forty years ago, she was a sickly child afflicted with tuberculosis. She read Proust in bed. A decade ago, she was a withdrawn housewife with four growing children. And she was overshadowed by a workaholic husband, Phillip Graham, a human dynamo who built the Washington Post Co. into an empire but took his own life in the process.
She was a painfully shy woman eclipsed by an accomplished, domineering mother, Agnes Meyer, who could make her daughter feel insignificant. (“Go away, dear,” the mother once said when young Katharine came upon her and Phil Graham conversing in the garden. “We’re having an intellectual discussion.”)
“I suppose if I have a philosophy it’s that the two sides are interdependent — our business profitability and our editorial attempts to be excellent. Some days, they seem to be contradictory, but I think they go hand in hand.”
But Watergate has had its effect. “Obviously, I was full of concerns and high emotions and the need to be careful to check out everything. And, obviously, there was great pleasure and pride in what we had done. It was a very tough and rewarding experience, especially since we were vindicated. But, although it was an extraordinary experience, it happened so gradually. There was no change in my philosophy. It just happened that our reporters got the story and we backed them because we were sure they were right.
“I don’t have any new view of the press. It’s a very old view — that the First Amendment gets strengthened by exercise, and it has just been through an extraordinary exercise. The press’s role is still the same, to bring information to people — and only that. Our only power is to inform. I don’t feel my role is to be a leader or to speak out on issues unrelated to the business. The only public things I take are company-related.
“And I don’t feel any different about Watergate than any ordinary citizen would. I feel the same dismay. I don’t feel any second thoughts about what we did. That would imply we had a choice. But there was no choice. It was just an unfolding story. And I don’t feel maybe it would have been better that the country never knew. That would assume ignorance is better than knowledge.
Kay says her relationships with administration friends did not endure stress or change because of Watergate. She never communicated with President Nixon. But Henry Kissinger, before his marriage, was an escort, and they kept going to the movies together on Saturday nights.
One difference, say friends, is that it used to be just Kay, Henry and two Secret Servicemen. Gradually, the Secret Service contingent expanded until it was Henry, Kay and an entire carload.
She manages to remain very much a mother, talking to her children almost every day. “I’m amazed how often she calls us,” says her 29-year-old-son Donny, who will eventually control the company. She threw a wedding luncheon at home when her 26-year-old son William married in March. She still taxis to daughter Lally’s apartment when she’s in New York for Newsweek meetings every other week to have tea with her six- and eight-year-old grandchildren.
She manages to read Solzhenitsyn in her blue-and-white canopied bed in her beige Georgetown mansion and to sneak off to the Circle-in-the-Square theater in New York or to Maxwell’s Plum or Le Grenouille for lunch. She catches the news at night when there’s time and gets to Elizabeth Arden to have her hair done and to Halston to replenish her well-stocked wardrobe. She arranges her schedule to fly to summer weekend seclusion at her new 250-acre farm in Martha’s Vineyard to read, walk, talk and dine with close friends. And she gets spring-winter solitude at her 350-acre Virginia farm, “Glen Welby,” with tennis and superb lunches.
She finds time to collect plants and to scribble joke notes to her editors and reporters, like the one she sent to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: “If you don’t send me an autographed copy of your book, you won’t get the next salary increase.” And she recently called Woodward and talked for an hour “about everything.”
She still gives the best parties in town — sit-down dinners for 40 or 50 on red velvet chairs with gold frames at round tables covered with red-and-green porthault and centered with real red cabbages. “It’s the most elegant and interesting table in town,” says Sen. Jacob Javits (R., N.Y.). The dinners are cooked by her Greek chef with the help of three others and range from salmon to lasagna.
Her language is as salty as ever. “Goddam” is an expletive rarely deleted. Once, when this reporter wrote about inner strife at the Post, Ms. Graham retorted: “That’s a lot of crap!” At a party honoring Pete and Sally Peterson in New York, Steve Martindale, dancing with Ms. Graham, expounded a theory of Marion Javits. “Oh, bullshit!” said Ms. Graham.
Kay tells it like it is. Not long ago, she looked at Barbara Howar and said, “My God, you’re getting fat as a pig!” As [Post editor] Ben Bradlee puts it: “I’ve learned all my bad words from her.”
One thing that has not changed is her sense of humor. She loves to laugh, and it’s “a hilarious laugh,” says managing editor Howard Simon. “She gives a great warwhoop to begin it. Then she doubles over.”
Another constant is her self-effacement. Victory has not turned her into a snob. “Maybe an intellectual snob,”says Barbara Howar. “She hates boring people. But in no other way.” Just a few weeks ago, she was seen helping Sally Quinn clear off the dishes after a Chinese carry-out dinner.
She is humble about her accomplishments. “Have I mastered the job?” asks Katharine the Great, terminating an interview. “No one ever masters a job. I try to do the best I can. You just keep plugging away.”