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Meet the Presses: Katharine Graham, the First Female Publisher of the 20th Century

Meet the Presses: Katharine Graham, the First Female Publisher of the 20th Century

In our Meet the Presses series, we highlight the pioneering women in print that we’ve named our beloved letterpress machines after. These women have shown us that with perseverance and bravery, it’s possible to not only achieve one’s goals, but to also have a large impact on this world. Every day in our studio, when we look at our letterpress machines, we thank these bold women who paved the way for printers like us.

 

You may know Katharine Graham’s name from the 2017 film The Post, where Meryl Streep played the fearless publisher of The Washington Post who risked her career and reputation to publish the Pentagon Papers. While the Academy Award-nominated film did an excellent job conveying the tenacity of Graham, her story is so much more than the Pentagon Papers.

Katharine “Kay” Meyer was born in 1917 to a wealthy New York City family. Her father, Eugene Meyer, was an investment banker and governor of the Federal Reserve Board before becoming the owner and publisher of the Washington Post in 1933. He later served as the first president of the World Bank. Her mother, Agnes Elizabeth Ernst, was a brilliant and socially driven young woman who attended college in a time when most women were discouraged to do so. Just like her daughter, Agnes began her career as journalist. She was the first female reporter at the venerable The Sun, a competitor to The New York Times. Agnes enjoyed the company of artists and intellectuals, such as writer Gertrude Stein, photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, and photographer Edward Steichen, who took this beautiful portrait of young Agnes.

In 1910, 23-year-old Agnes married 35-year-old multimillionaire Eugene. They had five children in total—Florence (1911), Elizabeth (1913), Eugene III (1915), Katharine (1917), and Ruth (1921)—but their marriage was not a happy one, nor were the couple stand-up parents. Katherine had a strained relationship with her domineering and ambitious mother. Despite having absent parents, Kay and her siblings enjoyed a privileged childhood, living in various luxurious homes and studying at private schools.

Kay studied at Vassar College and ultimately obtained her degree at the University of Chicago. Her first job out of school was a writing job at The San Francisco News, but she quickly moved on to the newspaper her father bought at a bankruptcy auction in 1933The Washington Post.

By 1940, 23-year-old Kay was married at the same age her mother was. Philip Graham was a Harvard-educated lawyer and clerk to Supreme Court Justices Stanley F. Reed and Felix Frankfurter who served in the United States Army during WWII. By 1946, Phil was designated president of The Washington Post after Eugene passed on the paper to his son-in-law. Phil and Kay would have four children: Elizabeth (1943), Donald (1945), William (1948) and Stephen (1952). Much like her own parent’s marriage, it was not a fairy tale. Philip suffered from mental health challenges and alcoholism, with manic bouts of extreme highs and extreme lows. “Phil had really kind of deprived me in a curious way of the ability to talk because he had taken over so much,” she told The Baltimore Sun in 1998. “I mean I could talk to him, but I couldn’t talk. We’d go out to dinner and I wouldn’t open my mouth. And the need to talk to him and try to talk to him and deal with this depression made me able to talk.” Phil talked down to his wife, and secretly tried to buy her out of the Washington Post.

Phil also embarked on a tumultuous affair with a journalist named Robin Webb. He left Kay for Robin only to return shortly thereafter. At a publishing convention in Arizona, Phil’s mental health struggles were introduced to the public. He got up on stage and began talking about his best friend John F. Kennedy’s affairs. After this fiasco, he was checked into a renowned psychiatric hospital—The Chestnut Lodge—where he received electroshock therapy, according to Kay. He would visit the hospital again, but sadly, his condition worsened and on August 3, 1963, Phil ended his life by shotgun at the family farm. Kay found his body. He was 48 and left behind 4 children under the age of 20, a faithful wife, and a fledgling newspaper.

Upon Phil’s death, Kay took over the paper. She didn’t see herself as a long-term president of The Post or Newsweek, which her husband had purchased before his death. In fact, after years of being overlooked and mistreated by her husband and parents, she wasn’t equipped with the confidence that she could handle the paper herself. “Left alone, no matter at what age or under what circumstance, you have to remake your life,” Kay wrote in her autobiography, Personal History.

Over time, Kay’s confidence grew. She found her footing at the paper, and with the hiring of journalist Ben Bradlee as executive editor in 1965, The Washington Post began to take off. But it was in 1971 that Bradlee, Graham, and The Washington Post would become a household name.

That was the year disillusioned military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. In these classified papers, it chronicled America’s military involvement in Vietnam dating back to 1945. The Times published the first of three excerpts on June 13th, 1971, but was immediately issued a restraining order by the Department of Justice. The staff at The Washington Post quickly obtained their own copy of the papers and the decision was left to Kay on whether to go to print. She was nervous, and her lawyers pleaded with her to wait, but she bravely gave the go-ahead, unsure what ramifications could unfold.

The release of the Pentagon Papers rattled America, and The Post joined forces with The Times in their lawsuit against the government. The Supreme Court decided in their favor, allowing both publications to continue with their coverage. But the Post didn’t stop there. A year later, Kay and team approved the publishing of articles from journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.—a.k.a. the Watergate scandal. With the help of Woodward and Bernstein, it was discovered that President Richard Nixon was directly involved with the stealing of classified documents and wire-tapping at the DNC headquarters. For The Post’s reporting on the scandal that eventually brought down the president of the United States, it won a Pulitzer Prize. By this time, Kay was one of the most powerful women in America, and was the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

In 1979, Kay moved on from her role as publisher but stayed on as chairwoman of the board until 1993 and chairwoman of the executive committee until her death in 2001. In 1997, she published her candid biography, Personal History, a look back on her life as a child of emotionally unstable parents, a wife of a mercurial and unhealthy man, a mother to four children, and a woman who became the leader of one of the most famous newspapers in the world due to her ingenuity. Like the paper she shepherded, she too won a Pulitzer Prize for her book.

Towards the end of her life, Kay served on numerous boards for national and international causes. She was still incredibly active when a fall cut her life short in Boise, Idaho, at the age of 84. The country mourned the death of this pioneering woman in publishing. Then president George W. Bush made a statement on her passing, and flags were lowered half-mast in Washington, D.C.

We’ve named our 1909 8 X 12 Chandler & Price old-style platen press after this remarkable woman in printing. Not only did she revolutionize journalism, she was a fellow sister who overcame so much. Though strong, smart, and motivated, it took decades for Kay to realize all that she had to offer to the world, and we’re so lucky she discovered her true potential.