Art review

Katharine Graham: Portrait of a lady, on display in D.C.

Graham led The Post to prominence and earned a reputation as one of the most admired women of her time. These photos are drawn from The Post and the exhibit, "One Life."
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010

The richness of the American experience is captured by this wayward fact: As part of its series "One Life," the National Portrait Gallery this year put on a show called "Echoes of Elvis," featuring you know who. As part of the same series, a show opens Friday at the Portrait Gallery and the subject is Katharine Graham, the former proprietor of this newspaper.

That the museum could put Elvis and Kay Graham in the same category (along with Walt Whitman, Katharine Hepburn and Abraham Lincoln, earlier subjects of the "One Life" exhibits) is powerful evidence that our old boss cannot be compared with any of her contemporaries among newspaper proprietors. Her place in history will be with the Hearsts and Pulitzers as a genuine celebrity and historical figure, an icon of her time (1917-2001).

Which is fine by us. Let it be said at the outset: No longtime employee of this newspaper asked to review this exhibit is going to pretend to be objective or dispassionate on the subject of Katharine Graham. The dame had class, and she was as good a boss as a newspaperman could imagine. She gave the journalists who worked for her total freedom, even when it hurt -- for instance, in 1968, when Ward Just, a Post writer, eviscerated her close friend Robert S. McNamara. Just reviewed a book on national security that McNamara had dared to publish that year without addressing the fiasco that he had presided over in Vietnam. "It is somehow indecent," Just wrote, that Mrs. Graham's pal could do such a thing. Ouch.

The Portrait Gallery exhibition is underwhelming -- confined to 25 photographs, a few items of memorabilia and replications of a pair of famous Post front pages, all in one smallish room. Of those 25 photos, 17 appeared in Mrs. Graham's remarkable memoir, "Personal History," which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for biography. Those familiar with the book and her story won't be surprised by anything here.

But the curator, Amy Henderson of the gallery staff, has chosen well, and with luck this earnest exhibit will prompt renewed interest in "Personal History," one of the best books written about a prominent and influential woman in the 20th century.

Henderson begins the show, appropriately, with a stern 1908 portrait of Agnes Ernst Meyer, Kay Graham's ferocious and self-absorbed mother, as described by her daughter. Like several of the show's best portraits, it was taken by Meyer's personal friend Edward Steichen and depicts a handsome, cold woman. She became an alcoholic and never had much interest in parenting. "My mother seemed to undermine so much of what I did," Mrs. Graham wrote in her book, "subtly belittling my choices and my activities."

Others close to her were not much kinder. By her own account, her father was unemotional and remote, and her husband, the charismatic and deeply troubled Philip Graham, was regularly "tearing me down." She was the butt of his cruel remarks and bad jokes, often in public.

He succumbed to mental illness and killed himself in August 1963, the turning point in her professional life. The men whom Phil Graham had hired to run the paper expected to take it over after he died, but she had a better idea -- she would take it over. Then she found the perfect partner for this enterprise in Ben Bradlee, who became her editor as well as her friend and supporter.

This reporter's favorite photo in the exhibit shows Mrs. Graham and Bradlee outside the U.S. District Courthouse downtown, moments after leaving a hearing on the Pentagon Papers case that had gone well for The Post. She is laughing her deep, heartfelt laugh while a grinning Bradlee punches the air with a fist, looking like a horseplayer whose long-shot daily double just came in.

Several of the best photos in the exhibit feature versions of that laugh. The fact that it could survive the sad personal life she led until she was 46 years old was a sign of the character that was often overshadowed by her nervous, anxious public persona. That persona is evident in a video of an interview Mrs. Graham gave at the Portrait Gallery in 1992 that is part of this exhibit. It shows her impeccably turned out, with an elaborate hairdo and a little too much makeup, answering questions, talking hurriedly -- with her mouth and with her hands.

It's nice to think that with this video, future generations can get to "know" Katharine Graham a little. In it she proves charming, funny and nervous as a cat. Watch it and you can feel her worrying: "Am I doing okay? Am I screwing up?" She worried a lot more than she needed to, never overcoming the insecurities left by the abuse that she survived from her parents and husband.

This small tribute is a reminder of how complicated a human life can be. It is full of happy moments, especially family moments, and one from a brief period of total freedom that must have been a high point in a long and rich life. This was the two months Mrs. Graham spent -- after graduating from the University of Chicago -- as a rewrite woman and cub reporter on the San Francisco News, a lively tabloid evening paper. A photo shows her kidding around with three colleagues on the News, capturing the joy she described in "Personal History" of being on her own in a new place where no one knew (at least initially) who her father was. She even had a romantic fling with one of the local labor leaders whom she was covering at the time -- "most unprofessional," she realized later.

In San Francisco she was a nobody, but that couldn't last. Later she enjoyed being somebody, and she also enjoyed the fact that other somebodies liked her and took her seriously. One wall in this exhibit illustrates this part of her life: Mrs. Graham with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, with pal Nancy Reagan and her husband, and the famous shot of her and Truman Capote, all dressed up for the Black and White Ball that Capote threw in her honor in 1966. (The bejeweled mask she wore is on display.) To the end of her life, Mrs. Graham was impressed by famous people -- too impressed, journalists who worked for her sometimes felt.

If you go to the exhibit, be sure not to walk too quickly past the life-size portrait by Richard Avedon. Taken in 1976, after she was well established as one of the most powerful women on Earth, it's a fascinating image. The 59-year-old woman in it appears strong, resolute. But look at the dress, a knit cashmere number whose softness is evident to the eye. It has cuffs on its long sleeves, but they are rolled up. Oversize reading glasses are propped in the crook of her right elbow. She's a tough cookie in a soft dress.

And always a great boss, if you missed that earlier.

One Life:

Katharine Graham

Through May 30 at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit

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