KATHARINE THE GREAT
Byline: Alison Oneacre / Robert Haskell
NEW YORK — Katharine Graham, 84, a Washington powerhouse in the boardroom as well as the living room, died Tuesday in Boise, Idaho, where she had been hospitalized after sustaining a head injury in a fall at a Sun Valley business conference.
Graham was a frequent interview subject in the pages of WWD and its sister publication, W magazine; she was a favorite of the Eye page in particular, which photographed her every exit from New York’s chic lunch spots in the mid-Seventies.
Throughout her lifetime, Graham collected her share of nicknames: Katharine the Great, the Queen Bee of Washington, the First Lady of the Press and the Jeanne d’Arc of journalism. To staffers in her Washington Post newsroom, however, she was simply “Momma.”
In 1963, succeeding her father and then her husband, Philip L. Graham, who had committed suicide, Katharine Graham became the publisher of The Washington Post. It was during her tenure, which lasted until 1991, that Graham made the decision to publish the stories that exposed the Watergate scandal — a move that not only brought fame and Pulitzer Prizes to the Post but changed the face of journalism.
“My role was to make sure we were being fair and we were being factual and we were being accurate. I had to ask every single question that I could think of because the reputation of the paper was clearly at stake,” she told W in a 1973 interview. A few months later, President Nixon resigned.
Shy by nature, Graham spent years getting used to the word “powerful.” “I don’t flinch at it the way I used to,” she explained in the same interview. “If power is there to be used, it is used whether you abdicate it or whether you use it. You have to remember that you can do as much damage by abdicating it as by using it in the wisest way you know.”
Though she shrank from attention, admirers yearned to be part of her circle. “But the real way she came to social prominence was through Truman Capote,” explained WWD’s Aileen Mehle. In 1966, Capote celebrated Graham’s birthday at his Black and White Ball, one of the century’s unforgettable parties — in his words, “a little masked ball for Kay Graham and all my friends.” Graham went on to become Washington’s greatest hostess, to whose door every prominent politician beat a path.
As for how her personal style held up to the rigorous chic of Capote’s 540 other guests, Graham told WWD in 1966: “Fashion can be such a crisis in my life. I find I can’t keep a second wardrobe in New York…just a dress for emergencies. As Babe Paley says, ‘You can’t leave your best dress in both places.”‘
Graham never remarried and always detested being labeled “a widow.” Worse, a “rather lonely” widow. “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” she told the New York Post in 1969. “I have to fight to get two hours to myself. I wish I were lonelier.”
Capote put in another way: “I don’t think anyone is good enough to marry her,” he told W in 1973. “What you’ve got to understand about Kay is that she’s got moral vision. [Watergate] disturbed her a great deal but she never wavered. She said to me, ‘I’m going to jail or they are.’ When we had lunch together, she always asked me to make the reservation. She’d say ‘They don’t know my name and we’ll get a bad table.’ She has no sense of her importance, She doesn’t believe in important people.”
No job was beneath Graham when it came to her beloved Washington Post. During a strike in 1974, she returned to the trenches to keep the paper going: She interviewed Nancy Kissinger, she manned the complaint desk and even took classified ads. According to a WWD article from 1974, one story had Graham taking dictation by phone for a technical ad from an impatient man. “Bear with me,” she kept insisting, “I’m new at this.” When she read the ad back perfectly, the man was stunned. “You’re over-qualified,” he told her. “I didn’t say anything, then he said ‘You could even be Katharine Graham.’ And I said, ‘Guess what? I am.”‘
At 80, Graham won a Pulitzer of her own for “Personal History,” a memoir. “I feel like Cinderella,” she told Aileen Mehle at a book party. “I reminded her that this was not the first time she had felt like Cinderella,” Mehle wrote. “That was also her reaction when she had her social coming out, so to speak, at the famous Black and White Ball in her honor. She laughed and said, ‘That’s right, that’s exactly the way I felt.’ So though Kay may be more easily associated with silver spoons than ashes, that obviously is the way she sees herself.”
Mehle saw Graham last weekend at a birthday party for Graham’s daughter, Lally Weymouth, in Southampton. “Kay seemed to be in wonderful spirits,” Mehle reported, “kissing and being kissed. And she made a moving speech about how much she loved Lally.”
In addition to Weymouth, Graham is survived by her sons, Donald, William and Stephen Graham, 10 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and her sister, Ruth Epstein. Services will be held on Monday, July 23, at 11 a.m. at Washington National Cathedral.
Oscar de la Renta, one of Graham’s closest friends in New York along with the Kissingers, Barbara Walters and Barry Diller, last saw her in April at Mica and Ahmet Ertegun’s 40th anniversary party at the St. Regis Hotel. “Like every woman, she liked to dress — but that wasn’t an important point to her,” de la Renta said. “She was an extraordinary lady, one of a kind. And she marked history.”