What’s in it for me? Uncover the remarkable story of America’s leading lady of letters.
Personal History Katharine Graham Summary – “This is a man’s world,” sang James Brown in one of his iconic tracks, released in 1966. At the time, few would have disagreed with him.
But at the same time, there were also many determined women set on changing that. One of them was Katharine Graham, the first woman to head up a major American newspaper and the brilliant media mogul who presided over the Washington Post from the mid-1960s until her retirement in 1991.
Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Personal History recounts her rise to the top in a fiercely competitive, male-dominated industry, in an era of dramatic social change. An intimate inside story, this is Graham’s own account of her life, from a childhood dominated by her overbearing mother to the presidency of the Post and her role in breaking one of the biggest scandals of the century: Watergate.
So how did she do it?
In this article, you’ll find out
- why Graham almost quit her career in journalism before it had even started;
- what happened when she became the first Western woman to meet the Japanese Emperor; and
- how her unique leadership style kept the Post afloat and moving with the times.
When she was young, Katharine Graham had a demanding mother and wanted nothing more than to fit in.
Katharine Graham née Meyer was born into an affluent New York family in 1917. Although she enjoyed a privileged upbringing, Graham’s childhood was in many ways an ordinary one. The most remarkable influence on the young Graham was perhaps Lucy Madeira Wing, her high school principal and a woman of fiercely egalitarian views who claimed that God was female.
But at that time in her life, Graham had other things on her mind; what she wanted most of all was to fit in with her classmates.
Like many young women before her, she realized that one way of going about this was to win the attention of men at the parties and dances she regularly attended. Laughing at whatever they said was guaranteed to win their favor and, sure enough, they would find her attractive. She soon became popular among her peers.
Graham didn’t only strive for social recognition – she was also an academic overachiever, which made her schedule a hectic one. On top of classes, she joined the basketball and hockey teams, and was a member of both the glee club and the school theatre group. And if that wasn’t demanding enough, she also took piano lessons on the side!
So what drove her?
In a word, her mother. An imposing and formidable woman, Graham’s mother Agnes Elizabeth Meyer set high standards for her daughter.
Meyer’s own life had been an impressive one. An avid reader who had blazed a path into the journalistic profession long before women were widely accepted there, she was also a well-known socialite who had rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest figures of the age. Both the German author Thomas Mann and the twenty-sixth president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, were in her address book.
Meyer was a loving mother who took pride in her children’s achievements, but she was also a strict taskmaster. She expected a lot from her children – too much, perhaps.
Take Graham’s youthful enthusiasm for the novel The Three Musketeers. Her mother’s reply upon hearing her daughter express admiration for this classic historical drama? She’d never be able to appreciate it properly until she’d read it in the original French!
That was an attitude which was applied to everything Graham did.
She was expected to be both popular with her classmates and top of the class.
With expectations set so high, Graham learned to be economical with the truth. She claimed to have more friends than she really did and went to great lengths to state this white lie whenever her parents visited the school.
Graham’s first newspaper job had a steep learning curve, but she soon began enjoying her work.
If Graham’s mother had been an overly dominant presence in her early life, her father had been largely absent. Occupied by his own work, Eugene Meyer had little time for his children.
That changed when Graham went to the University of Chicago to study history in 1936. Over the following two years, she grew much closer to……..
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