In 1983, I had been a researcher at The Washington Post Co. for only a few months when Katharine Graham, the chairman of the board, called me into her office one day. She had a quandary, she said. She was thinking of writing a memoir but wasn’t sure whether she should.
She insisted that she wasn’t a writer. Moreover, she had never kept a diary and couldn’t remember details of the myriad episodes and experiences of her life. She didn’t know where to start. She was worried about what to include and what to leave out. She didn’t want to hurt anyone, even inadvertently or by omission.
She went on in this vein, thinking out loud, until she finally said that there were some boxes at her house, somewhere upstairs, apparently full of old letters and papers. She asked me to go have a look, then come back and advise her.
I’m sure I didn’t wait past the next day to hurry over to her house on R Street in Georgetown. I tore up the stairs to the third floor. Behind the first door I opened were boxes stacked to the ceiling. I got the highest one down, pulled apart the cardboard lid and picked up the letter on top, addressed to her mother and postmarked May 10, 1923. It began: “We took a trip to the White House and I sat in the president’s chair.” The next letter was written to her father in October of the same year: “Dear Daddy, I like you vere [sic] much. and I always hope to. love from K.”
I knew that these letters, plus more that I found in other boxes, were a treasure trove of history. I raced back like a speedy character in a comic strip and went barging into her office, blurting out something like, “There’s no question. You have a responsibility to write your memoir.”
Mrs. Graham smiled and immediately started her homework — she always did her homework — saying that we had to talk to friends and colleagues from her past and present. “Let’s start with a list,” she said.
She dove into the project from the beginning and ended up doing more than 250 interviews over many years. I sat in on all but a few, serving as backup and prompter to make sure that certain questions got asked and that shared recollections of various situations got caught on tape.
She interviewed old friends from grade school and high school, men and women on the production side of the paper, reporters and editors, Washington Post Co. people from The Post as well as Newsweek and the company’s television stations around the country, dignitaries, diplomats, government officials, friends from all periods of her life, and colleagues throughout the media. They were all fun and served as memory refreshers or in some cases as founts of information she hadn’t had before. She even dared interview people she had fired, discovering that time heals lots of wounds — but not all.
Especially memorable for both of us, I think, were the interviews in Texas with Lady Bird Johnson (with whom Mrs. Graham had been friends since the 1950s and with whom she had worked on the first lady’s beautification campaign) and Liz Carpenter, Mrs. Johnson’s press secretary in the White House. There was a great deal of laughing at some of Liz’s observations of people and events from the 1960s.
Legendary socialite Brooke Astor greeted us at the door of her apartment in New York with one of her tiny dogs in one arm, and in the other hand the book “Little Toot,” a classic from 1939 that she had just read to young children at a local branch library. She took us on a walk through her place, pointing out some of the paintings in the dining room. At one point she stopped short. “Un cadeau,” she laughed — a gift — as she sidestepped a small brown pile on the rug.
One beautiful day we walked over to meet with Mary Belin, a contemporary of Mrs. Graham’s who was also a friend and neighbor. She lived, possibly alone then, in a mansion on a 3½ -acre estate in Georgetown. She was a regal woman who had played at Wimbledon and whose husband had survived the crash of the Hindenburg. She and Mrs. Graham talked in large part about their children and their lives in Washington after World War II.
We spent a lovely afternoon with Scotty and Sally Reston, who had been friends of the Grahams since the 1940s. Scotty, a legendary reporter and editor with the New York Times, had been asked to come to The Post as editor at one point but had declined. The interview began with Scotty saying that he thought the book’s story would be that Mrs. Graham, under very difficult circumstances, took what was not a great paper and made it into one.
Mrs. Graham credited Scotty with being the first to wake her up to the fact that she was the guardian for the next generation. She recalled that as a seminal moment when she realized that she couldn’t stand still but had to step up to the task of making the paper stronger.
She did three interviews with Warren Buffett, with us hanging on his every word. Mrs. Graham said boldly that she remembered her “surprise and rather horror at some of your eating and dressing habits.” Buffett confessed that at one dinner at her house in the country he was “attacking the shellfish from the wrong side. . . . Some fish or crab or some damn thing that I had never even looked at before in my life. I was working away at it and you very gently pointed out to me that I was sort of going through the wrong side, which would be totally impenetrable. I might have been there weeks later.”
The interviews were all transcribed and coded. The most important code was inserting the word “nugget” at any point where something that Mrs. Graham said jumped out as a real reflection of her thinking and feelings. Those nuggets added up over the years.
Six years after she’d started down this long and winding road, Mrs. Graham asked me to come to her office and, looking a little sheepish, said, “Well, I’m going to take the plunge. I’ve decided to sign a contract.” It’s telling about her integrity that she wouldn’t even consider signing a contract until she felt that she could actually write a book and felt confident enough to believe that she could deliver on such a commitment.
Naturally, she had been thinking about what she wanted to write, including what it was like to learn a business from the top and how she went about trying to do it. She also wanted to write about how she experienced the women’s revolution, going from “the proverbial doormat wife and mother,” as she described herself to a Knopf sales group in August 1996, to “someone who knows what extraordinary progress women have made — and the difficulties today’s women face trying to balance careers and families and break through the glass ceiling.”
She wanted to tell the story of her parents, of her husband, Phil Graham, and of the crucial times in the life of The Washington Post. Clearly, she had no intention of being the main character in her book.
She wrote by hand, on yellow legal pads. She started by tackling a defined event — the pressmen’s strike against The Post that began in October 1975. But she found that she couldn’t just dive right into something so crucial to the newspaper, so she decided to work chronologically and go back to the beginning, tracing the roots of both her parents’ families.
A magic elixir for the whole process came in the form of Bob Gottlieb, editor par excellence and friend forever after. An editorial genius — whip-smart, hard-working and hilarious — he saw the whole person of who Mrs. Graham was and wanted to make sure that was evident on the page. He also survived what she called her “neurotic whines” about not being a writer by responding, “Shut up, please. You are a writer because you’re writing.”
When he came on board, the fun multiplied, especially during the times he stayed at Mrs. Graham’s house, dancing around in his socks and coming up with memorable bons mots that had us doubled over with laughter.
The fun included her accusing the “savage Gottlieb” of not-so-gently “hacking to ribbons” some of what she wrote, and me of “surreptitiously losing several thousand pages” as I transferred her “chicken tracks” (her words) from paper to the computer. She called us both “odiously strict” in saying that no, she couldn’t write at length about several of her passions, including the Brandt Commission, an international group she’d worked with for two years, investigating the conflicts between the First World and the Third. Luckily, her friend Meg Greenfield, then the editor of The Post’s editorial page, took our side by writing in the margin of the several pages of the Brandt Commission saga, “3 lines will do for this.”
More years passed, and the time came to think about a title for the book. The first possibility Mrs. Graham came up with was “As It Happened.”
“As it happens,” I responded, “I’ve just deleted ‘as it happened’ from the beginning of four or more paragraphs in the draft, so I’m not in favor of that title.” I didn’t want to rub it in by telling her that her friend Bill Paley, of CBS fame, had used it for his memoir in 1979.
The next day she said, “What about ‘As I Saw It’?” I reminded her that this was the title of former secretary of state Dean Rusk’s 1991 memoir.
Mrs. Graham knew that Ben Bradlee had asked his friends to suggest a title for his 1995 memoir, “A Good Life.” So she started calling friends and family. After polling her colleagues at the law firm where she then worked, her granddaughter Katharine said she had the perfect title: “A Better Life.” As Mrs. Graham said, she dined out on that line for many months.
In the end, it was the inimitable Bob who came up with “Personal History.”
Early in the fall of 1996, when the book was at the printer and just before Mrs. Graham was to go to Boston for hip surgery, she climbed the stairs to my third-floor office in her house one last time and sat down across the desk from me. It was far into the afternoon and the sun was going down, with that late-day color coming through the slats of the blinds in the west window and falling on her face.
I ventured to say that the book was almost done, almost a reality. She smiled and reminded me of Aesop’s fable of the milkmaid who vainly counted her chickens before they hatched. Then she added that she felt a bit like Penelope, who waited 20 years for Odysseus to return, keeping suitors at bay by working ceaselessly on a burial shroud that she never finished. Mrs. Graham would have been happy to keep working on the book.
But the book was finished, and the tour awaited. It was a months-long adventure that picked up steadily as “Personal History” climbed onto the bestseller list. Mrs. Graham gamely traveled across the United States for bookstore appearances. It was tiring, but she never seemed to flag, although there were the occasional bloopers. “It’s so nice to meet me,” she said in one television interview.
And then came April 1998 and the announcement that was the surprise of a lifetime.
“Personal History” had won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Katharine Graham had clearly found her voice.
Evelyn Small worked for The Washington Post Co. for 25 years as a senior researcher and contributing editor of Book World.
To read an excerpt of Katharine Graham’s “Personal History,” visit wapo.st/personalhistory.