Books on GIF #68 — 'Personal History' by Katharine Graham


This Sunday's book is 'Personal History' by Katharine Graham.

Before you ask whether this review is a shameless ploy to capitalize on Meryl Streep's new movie, 'The Post,' let me just say for the record: OF COURSE IT IS.

Donna, who is awesome, gave me this book as a gift after I mentioned it while reading another gift from her, 'Avid Reader' by Robert Gottlieb. Gottlieb wrote about working with Graham on her book, which reminded me that I'd wanted to read it when it first came out in the late 1990s as I was starting my journalism career. Everyone in media, it seemed, was reading it then. But perhaps because my first news job paid $22,000 a year, I didn't pick it up. What I'd missed was an important and compelling memoir by the former owner of The Washington Post, a heroic badass who decades ago crusaded alone (very much alone) against a vile male-dominated news business that was more toxic than it is now. I'm not going to go step-by-step through her life. Instead, I want to share some highlights that stood out to me. Among the many photos included in the book, there's one of Graham at a 1976 meeting of the Associated Press board of directors sitting at the head of a large table flanked by more white men than I care to count. The smile on her face is like:

On the facing page, there's a photo of her playing baseball barefoot swinging a bat while wearing a sweater and a skirt cut to mid-thigh. The juxtaposition shows a woman matching the boys at their own games, but they mask her complex interior life and constant struggle against self doubt, insecurity and feelings of inadequacy. We should all be as clear-eyed, honest and introspective as Graham when we look back on our lives. She dug deeply into her own fears, mistakes and challenges as she grappled with such things as Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and a major union strike. But there were also personal struggles, including when she finally realized that her husband constantly put her down behind her back (as well as to her face), and that he was mentally ill and unfaithful. This culminated with her discovery of his body after he shot himself in a bathroom in their home. (He was buried in a cemetery across the street from their house, and Graham could see his grave from her window. Yikes!) Up to that moment, she had always been in his shadow, content with raising children and running the home. But his death forced her to choose whether to step out of the shadow to assume control of her father's newspaper paper that had been given to her husband to run, or to to be like:

She chose to step out of the shadow. She also had that bathroom remodeled. I was like:

There was also a wonderful anecdote about Watergate. In the movie version of 'All The President's Men,' the only reference to Graham is when Bernstein calls John Mitchell for comment and Mitchell berates him saying that Graham is going to get a piece of her anatomy caught in 'the big ringer' if they ran a particular story. (I've also heard this is the only reference to Graham in Woodward and Bernstein's book, but it's been a long time since I've read it, and I can't confirm that.) Graham notes that that quote about her is often repeated as though it was her only contribution to the Watergate story. (It wasn't.) It was even repeated in a recent documentary about Ben Bradlee. Well, it turns out that someone sent Graham a tiny gold laundry wringer as a gift, and then Art Buchwald gave her a tiny gold breast. She wore both secretly on a chain around her neck for a while until a gossip columnist found out and was going to write about it. That private act of defiance and subversion had me like: 

I haven't seen 'The Post,' but I hear it's good. I hope the movie resurfaces this book in the public consciousness. It's an important memoir, particularly during the necessary #MeToo reckoning currently happening in the news business and beyond. It's a long book, and there are moments where it falls into the tedious trap of a first-I-did-this-and-then-I-did-that style. It's also written with massive paragraphs and set in blindingly small type. But the deeply personal insights and inside stories about presidents and other notables (including Truman Capote and Warren Buffett) far outweigh the slow bits. If you care about women's empowerment in media, read this book.

My rating: 

'Personal History' by Katharine Graham was published by Alfred A, Knopf in 1997 and by Vintage Books in 1998. 625 pages. 

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* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review! (And for the book!)