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Katharine Graham Dies at 84

Graham with reporters Carl Bernstein, left, and Bob Woodward in 1972. Graham stood behind the two reporters and Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee despite pressure from the Nixon administration to back off the Watergate story.
Graham with reporters Carl Bernstein, left, and Bob Woodward in 1972. Graham stood behind the two reporters and Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee despite pressure from the Nixon administration to back off the Watergate story. (Mark Godfrey - Estate of Katharine Graham)

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By J.Y. Smith and Noel Epstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Katharine Graham, 84, who led The Washington Post Co. to prominence in the worlds of journalism and business and became one of the most influential and admired women of her generation, died yesterday morning at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho.

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Mrs. Graham, former chairman and chief executive officer of The Post Co. and former publisher of The Washington Post, died at 11:56 a.m. of head injuries suffered when she fell on a sidewalk Saturday in Sun Valley, Idaho, where she was attending an annual conference of media business leaders. Her son, Donald, The Post Co.'s current chairman and CEO, also was attending the conference. He and many other members of the family were at the hospital in Boise when she died.

"The nation's capital and our entire nation today mourn the loss of the beloved first lady of Washington and American journalism, Katharine Graham," President Bush said in a statement yesterday. "Mrs. Graham became a legend in her own lifetime because she was a true leader and a true lady, steely yet shy, powerful yet humble, known for her integrity and always gracious and generous to others."

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who ordered that flags be flown at half staff at all District government facilities, said that "Mrs. Graham has been a part of this city not only as a preeminent publisher, but as a businesswoman and an active civic leader."

Mrs. Graham guided The Washington Post through two of the most celebrated episodes in American journalism, the publication in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the war in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal, which led to Richard M. Nixon's resignation from the presidency in 1974 under the threat of impeachment. She and Benjamin C. Bradlee, the editor she chose to run The Post's newsroom during her years at the helm, transformed The Post and its reputation.

"She set the newspaper on a course that took it to the very top ranks of American journalism in principle and excellence and fairness," said Bradlee, now a Post vice president. "That's a fantastic legacy."

The Post Co. also grew enormously as a business during her three decades of leadership. Revenue grew nearly twentyfold, the company acquired numerous new businesses, and it became a public corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Mrs. Graham took over the company in 1963 after the suicide of her husband, Philip L. Graham, who had run the company since 1946. The family enterprise, then relatively small, included the newspaper, which her father had purchased at a bankruptcy sale in 1933; Newsweek magazine, which her husband had bought in 1961; and two television stations.

By the time Mrs. Graham stepped down as chief executive in 1991 and as chairman in 1993, The Post Co. had become a diversified media corporation with newspaper, magazine, television, cable and educational services businesses. After Donald E. Graham succeeded her as CEO and chairman, Mrs. Graham remained active in the company as chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors.

She was the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company and the first to serve as a director of the Associated Press, the news service owned by member newspapers, and of the American Newspaper Publishers Association. She also served as chairman of the newspaper publishers group.

'Personal History'

In 1997, she published her memoir, "Personal History," which received critical acclaim, became a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. The book, written in longhand on legal pads, fully reveals a life marked by personal struggle and tragedy as well as public triumph.

Characteristically modest about her accomplishment, Mrs. Graham, then 80, was amazed that she had won a Pulitzer Prize. At a newsroom celebration of the awarding of the prize, the late Meg Greenfield, then The Post's editorial page editor and a close friend of Mrs. Graham's, turned to her and said: "Now do you believe you wrote a good book?"

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