Katharine Graham was born in 1917 in New York City. The daughter of the publisher of The Washington Post, in 1940, she married Philip Graham, who later became the Post's publisher. The Grahams acquired the paper from her father in 1948 and after her husband's suicide in 1963, Katharine Graham stepped in as head of the newspaper. Her tenure at the helm of The Washington Post was hugely successful and helped establish its formidable reputation as a beacon of journalistic integrity. Graham oversaw the Post's coverage of the infamous Watergate scandal. Her best-selling autobiography, Personal History, earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1997.
Early Life, School, and Marriage
Born on June 16, 1917 in New York City to Eugene Meyer, a banker, and Agnes Elizabeth (Ernst) Meyer, an author, Katharine was the fourth of five children. Katharine’s interests in journalism were cultivated at an early age. She worked on the school newspaper at the prestigious college-preparatory school, the Madeira School, and during her summers away from the University of Chicago, she worked at The Washington Post, which was owned by her father, Eugene Meyer (1875-1959), who acquired it in 1933. While Katharine was away at school, her father mailed her the daily Post to keep her closely connected to political affairs.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1938, she worked as a reporter for the San Francisco News and then joined the editorial staff of The Washington Post. Katharine married Philip L. Graham (1915-1963), a Harvard Law School graduate and clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, on June 5, 1940. When Philip served in the Army during World War II, Katharine, a devoted mother of four, moved their family around the United States to the military bases where he was stationed. Upon her husband’s discharge from the Army, Katherine’s father persuaded Philip to join her at The Washington Post as an associate publisher. In 1948, Katharine’s father “sold” the company to Philip for just one dollar. Philip Graham helped expand The Post’s success, acquiring its competitors (The Washington Times Herald in 1954 and Newsweek magazine in 1961.)
In her memoir, Katharine Graham described her relationship with her husband as "that of a chief executive officer Phil and a chief operating officer me." The couple faced difficult times when she discovered he was having an affair with a reporter. Philip also battled manic depression and was in and out of mental hospitals. In 1963, at the age of 48, he fatally shot himself with a hunting rifle on the family's farm.
America’s First Female Fortune 500 CEO
Following her husband’s suicide, Katharine Graham took control of the family business. She brought in skilled journalists to improve the quality of the newspaper and grew the publishing company’s reputation substantially. Under her leadership, The Post became one of the top newspapers in the country that was a trusted source for presidents and other leaders around the world. She oversaw The Post's publication during the period in which its coverage of the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
As CEO of The Washington Post Company, she controlled the fifth largest publishing empire in the nation, with profits growing 20 percent annually from 1975 to 1985. For more than two decades, Graham built a publishing empire and quickly became the most powerful woman in publishing. She also became a role model for other women leaders in male-dominated fields and spoke openly about the issues they faced. She once said: "the thing women must do to rise to power is to redefine their femininity. Once power was considered a masculine attribute. In fact, power has no sex."
Shifting Leadership and Additional Accolades
In 1979, Katharine Graham turned the company over to her son, Donald, but remained active in the publishing business and in politics in general. Her Georgetown home was host to gatherings of heads of state, politicians, and leaders in journalism and the arts throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1997, she received the Freedom Medal and she published her memoir, Personal History, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1998. She was also as a recipient of the David Rockefeller Award (for enlightened generosity and advocacy of cultural and civic endeavors), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation's highest civilian award recognizing exceptional meritorious service), as well as an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Colby College. She was also named one of the International Press Institute's 50 World Press Freedom Heroes.
On July 17, 2001, Katharine Graham died in Boise, Idaho. Her funeral at the National Cathedral was televised and she was eulogized by many prominent figures including former first lady Nancy Reagan and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. As America’s first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, her keen political sense combined with her congeniality made her a truly powerful woman in publishing.
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