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Katharine Graham – Personal History February 19, 2007

Posted by a Wristfister in Autobiography, Books, Journalism, Nonfiction.


Most considering Katharine Graham’s Personal History, would expect to read about the Washington Post’s role in breaking the Watergate story, and ultimately, bringing a presidency to its knees. Of course, this is how history will most likely remember Katharine Graham, editor of the Washington Post during the tumultuous 1970s. Personal History, however, offers readers a thoughtful and detailed narrative to one woman’s story – tracing her life from insecure child, unconfident wife and finally (and almost improbably) editor of the Washington Post.Born into extreme wealth in turn of the century NY, Katharine was a shy yet precocious child. Her father (Eugene) had already made his fortune by his early thirties and her mother (Agnes) was a recent Barnard graduate, supporting her family as a journalist. Her father was mesmerized by Agnes’ incredible beauty, and that a young woman would be so bold and interested in Japanese prints, that she would go visit an art gallery in NYC on her own, unchaperoned – highly unusual behavior for a woman of this time. They married soon thereafter, despite an 11 year age gap, and Agnes was ushered into the rarefied world of a moneyed New York family. (Agnes is such an incredible character and Graham spends considerable time discussing her.) This is the setting for Katharine Graham’s childhood.

Katharine’s father decides to enter the publishing industry and buys up smaller newspapers, suffering from mis-management or declining circulation. One such newspaper, was the Washington Post. Eugene struggled to bring this paper into its own. It would be Katharine, who almost 50 years later, put her father’s legacy on the map. Ironically, while her father wanted to keep the paper in the family, he did not think it should be run by a woman, and made Katharine’s husband (Phil Graham) the successor instead.

In the 1950s, Katharine marries Phil Graham, a highly intelligent, charismatic and righteous man who suffered from depression. Phil was given the reigns of the Washington Post while Katharine languished in the mind-numbing, suffocating conformity of 1950s America. There was really no role for a woman of her talents at this time and the nascent psychology field was unable to treat Phil Graham’s mental illness. Sadly, Phil’s depression only worsens and he kills himself with a rifle in the family bathroom. In an incredible show of strength, Katharine must assure the Board of Directors of the Post, the very next day, that the paper will carry on in her husband’s absence. It is Katharine, who then assumes Phil’s role at the Washington Post and ushers in the paper’s greatest era (Pentagon Papers and Watergate). For those of you who have not read All the President’s Men, written by the journalists (Woodward and Bernstein)who broke the Watergate story, Personal History will provide an excellent first hand account of this unprecedented event in American Politics.

Personal History is one of my favorite books – the prose are elegant and it is uplifting to read about such a highly accomplished woman. (Did you know that Katharine Graham was also the first female CEO of a fortune 500 company). Ms. Graham was awarded a Pultizer Prize for this work, which is probably the best endorsement. I invite you to read this book and gain a front row seat to the some of the most interesting times and family in modern America.

Reviewed by Yasmin.



1. Bowie - February 19, 2007

Very good and thorough review. I admit to not knowing much about this era of US History, but Katharine Graham’s memoir sounds fascinating and inspirational.

Have you read her posthumously published “Katharine Graham’s Washington”?

2. Yasmin - February 20, 2007

Thanks Bowie for the feedback. No I have not read “Katharine Graham’s Washington” – but might checked it out. Also, I apologize for messing up the site earlier!!!

3. Bowie - February 21, 2007

Please, no need to apologise; you didn’t “mess-up” anything. I should have been more clear in my message. I’m REALLY glad you’re a “wristfister” now and I look forward to many more posts from you.

4. Bryan - March 7, 2009

I just finished “Personal History.” Ms. Graham was a remarkable woman in that she was so smart, yet so incredibly humble. She always gave credit to others. I see why Warren Buffett is such a large fan and I really wish I could have known her.

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