Personal History by Katharine Graham + Why I Love a Great Biography

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Katharine Graham was most well-known to me for being publisher of The Washington Post during the newspaper’s reporting of Watergate. However, her life extended far beyond the walls of the Washington Post city room. In a sense, her life was a life of contrasts and similarities. After reading Katharine Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, Personal History, I am impressed once again with how powerful a great biography can be. I loved her story, and I loved her approach to her own life.

Katharine Graham was born to great privilege. Such a statement, however, cannot even begin to encapsulate the spoiled upbringing this woman enjoyed. As I read about her financially privileged birth, I wondered how I could like such a “spoiled brat.” However, Katharine Graham’s life illustrates that monetary security does not guarantee happiness, security, love, health, or an easy life. She grew just as anyone grows.

When Katharine was a 17-year-old boarding school student in suburban Washington, D.C., and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression (1933), her father bought The Washington Post Company (the fifth of five city newspapers and a pitiful, failing wreck) for $825,000. From then on, her life centered on The Washington Post.

At first, Katharine’s involvement with the Post is observational: she studies journalism in college while her father strives make a profit running the newspaper; she marries and her husband, Phil, inherits the newspaper while she raises her children; she remains socially aloof while striving to find a place in society; she aids her husband while he struggles through mental illness. But on her husband’s death in 1963, Katharine Graham becomes the head of the Post and everything in her life changes.

Katharine Graham’s life seems full of contrasts and similarities, any one of which could be an essay by itself:

  • Insecure child longing for love versus Insecure wife searching for acceptance
  • Doting wife to loving husband versus Supportive wife to mentally ill husband
  • Submissive wife (1950s) versus Widowed feminist (1970s)
  • Full-time mother (albeit with a nanny) versus Full-time publisher of a growing newspaper
  • Insecure publisher (1960s) versus Confident publisher (late 1970s)
  • Shy woman versus Outspoken socialite

Within all of these contrasts and similarities are some common themes in Katharine Graham’s life:

  • A personal look at women’s changing roles, 1930-1990

Katharine was a women publisher to a large-city USA newspaper in 1963; she was considered a powerful woman. Although Katharine was a bit slow to grasp the concepts of the feminist movement, her careful insights into her own behavior reveal much about the attitudes of the time.

  • A personal look at bipolar disorder, its effect on family and friends, and treatment (or lack thereof) in the 1950s and 1960s.

Katharine Graham’s husband suffered from a debilitating bipolar disorder; Katharine’s look at her relationship with him reflects a lot of understanding, unfortunately too late to help Phil Graham. I was amazed at the lack of understanding and the inept attempts to try to help him. What a tragedy that proper help wasn’t to be found!

  • A personal look at publishing a daily newspaper, The Washington Post, Watergate, and the printing union strike of the 1970s

Katharine’s life revolves around The Washington Post Company in every way, especially after her husband’s death and her assumption as president and publisher of the company. During the unfolding of Watergate, she or the newspaper were getting threats from the Nixon White House on a daily basis. In addition, while one might have thought that The Washington Post was a well established paper when Watergate happened, it wasn’t. In 1974, after Watergate, the printer’s union went on strike, and The Washington Post could have easily folded. Instead, Katharine Graham learned how to run the presses, and the paper got out every day during the nearly six-month strike. Grahams’ ability to save the paper, despite the pressures, was incredible.

Katharine Graham led an interesting life of contrasts. While I worried her rich childhood meant she had a spoiled, sheltered life, I was surprised by her character and development even during the seemingly insurmountable challenges. Hers was the story of a human.

Katharine Graham’s Personal History is a perfect example of a biography and of an autobiography, and it certainly deserved the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1998. I loved reading this book.

As Katharine reviews her own life, she reveals much about the times in which she lived and the developments that society faced. I learned not just about Katharine Graham but about politics and political figures, publishing and journalism, travel, the life of the rich, history, culture, and the changing face of humankind over time.

To close her review of her life, Katharine wrote:

It’s dangerous when you are older to start living in the past. Now that it’s out of my system, I intend to live in the present, looking forward to the future.

What a lovely sentiment on her own life. She died four years after writing her story, at age 83.

Reviewed on June 20, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • […] Personal History by Katharine Graham. From a childhood of privilege, Graham grew into a role of a powerful publisher of the Washington Post, but along the way faced a number of challenges. […]

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