Kay Graham Before the Pentagon Papers: “She Was Learning Not to Be Invisible”

This Kay Graham photo, by Cecil Beaton, was the story’s lead art.

In September 1967, author Judith Viorst profiled Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham for the Washingtonian. The story was published four years after she became publisher of the Post, following the death of her husband Philip, and four years before the Pentagon Papers, her first great test as publisher. The cover headline: “Kay Graham Blossoms.” Here are the opening grafs of the profile:

Kay Graham’s bridge game has improved and she isn’t nearly as shy and unsure of herself as she used to be. Friends say she has finally, thank God, learned how to dress properly. They swear she is even getting better looking. The improvements, everyone agrees, began about four years ago, when the sudden, shocking death of her husband Philip left her in charge of one of the largest communications empires in the world.

Katharine Graham didn’t want it that way. She was intensely in love with her husband—some say she still is—though the last years of their marriage were full of grief. She didn’t want to be a rich widow, and she certainly didn’t covet the power that goes with owning the Washington Post.

But want it or not, Mrs. Graham now sits upstairs on the Post’s seventh floor, with the black leather and the burnt orange, with the paintings by Frankenthaler and Motherwell and the photos of Phil with Kennedy, Kay with LBJ. There are plenty of executives around Washington who have spent far more money on their decor, plenty whose walls are far more crowded with the right art and the right Presidents. But Kay Graham doesn’t really need any symbols of her standing. . . .

Because the Washington Post may be the most potent daily in the United States, Kay Graham is, undoubtedly, the most powerful lady publisher anywhere. For a long time after her name was lettered on the door, Mrs. Graham lingered in what her friends call her “groaning and sighing, it’s impossible, poor little me” phase. She has taken the job feeling totally unqualified to handle it. But, she explains today, there was no choice, at least no choice she was prepared to consider. Although, she recalls with a shudder, potential buyers swooped in from everywhere—”vultures and hawks circling around my head, rumors; efforts; people asking and asking and asking”—the Post was not for sale.

“You see,” she says, “I had lived through the creation of it, though those hard, bad years when you didn’t know whether you’d be here tomorrow. Selling what I had seen my father and husband create with such agony and devotion was unthinkable.”

“Remember it’s fun,” a friend blithely advised her when she started. “I tried to remember,” says Mrs. Graham, thinking back to those early panicky days on the job, “but I never could. I walked around in a state of absolute terror.”

The responsibilities were intimidating, and she was in no sense prepared to take them on. Though the Washington Post had been her family’s newspaper since she was a young girl, she had stayed out of its affairs during the years when her husband was publisher. Instead she did good works for the city’s poor and managed an eight-bedroom house in Georgetown and a lush 350-acre farm in Virginia’s hunt country.

She gossiped and lunched with Luvie (Mrs. Drew) Pearson and Evangeline (Mrs. David K. E.) Bruce, and she raised three sons and a daughter with great tenderness and more than average success. Over these years she lived on the periphery of the newspaper business, listening to the inside talk and meeting the names in the headlines but never called upon to make decisions. So long as Philip Graham was alive, he ran the whole show, while his wife, as one  friend put it, played invisible.

Kay Graham isn’t playing invisible anymore. Last fall, in fact, she was quite excessively visible as the guest of honor at Truman Capote’s flamboyant masked ball, which the more high-strung members of jet society have proclaimed the Party of the Century. Among the people to whom such things matter, there was simply no contest between getting into heaven or getting into Capote’s exquisitely selective invitation list. As the folks with their noses pressed against the window gaped at the blessed 540 who had made it, they also got their first glimpse of what’s-her-name, the obscure guest of honor, Katharine Graham.

What they saw was a tall, well-tended matron, now fifty, with gray Kenneth hair, a scooped up nose, a chilly little mouth that escalates from C minus to A plus when she smiles, and eyes that Capote artfully describes as “the color of sherry held to the light” but which are really just plain brown.

Nobody could ever call her pretty—handsome is a far as one could go—but the figure, courtesy of tennis and the Canadian Air Force exercises—is admirable. Her voice, though excessively well bred and too redolent of expensive private schools, nevertheless comes off great because it is throaty and mellow and can convey enormous warmth. The laugh—and she has a ready, responsive laugh—often winds up in an inelegant but somehow appealing snort.

It seems fair to say that Katharine Graham is not the type to cause large crowds to gather. A few weeks after the party, when she was immortalized in Vogue by beautiful people photographer Cecil Beaton, she laughed and said of the picture, “I  adore it, of course. But you’ve seen me, you know what I really look like.”


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says:

    Enjoyable to read a little something from 1967. Gracias. I have KG’s autobiography somewhere and should reread it.

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