Book Three: Personal History by Katharine Graham
Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. A much better use of your reading time would be to stop reading this blog and go read this book!
I will admit that the only reason I even bought this book was because it was so cheap. I went to the public library the day before our trip to find a book in their little used bookstore. My criteria were simple. It had to look like it was new. (I like the idea of writing in a fresh book.) It couldn’t be hard cover. (I wanted to be able to carry it easily.) It had to talk to an area on which I was mostly ignorant. Personal History by Katherine Graham fit the bill and for 50 cents it seemed like a steal even before I read a single word.
One reason I wasn’t sure I would get it because at 625 pages I was afraid it would interrupt my pace and I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my goal to keep reading about a book a week. No worries! It was really hard for me to put this book down, even when Costa Rica lay all around me!
I hadn’t even heard of Katharine Graham before picking up this book but was interested in the woman who was described on the back jacket to have piloted the Washington Post through crisis of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.
In her autobiography Katharine Graham not only tells her story but uses it as a vehicle to tell the largely untold stories of her parents and Phil Graham. In the beginning of the book we are introduced to the extreme life of privilege that Graham was born in to. But we also see how lonely this life is, where she is often left with her siblings under the care of governesses and grown ups with the non-existence of her mother’s affection.
Her father is an ambitious and extremely successful businessman. After he buys the Washington Post it becomes his great life work. Her mother is an incredibly selfish and often destructive woman. But there is no doubt that her mother is also brilliant. In one passage Graham quotes her mother, “Most people go through life without ever discovering the existence of the whole field of endeavor which we describe as second wind. Whether mentally of physically occupied most people give up at the first appearance of exhaustion. Thus they never learn the glory and the exhilaration of genuine effort….” This is totally me! I can never focus long enough now to get that satisfaction of pushing through and past a difficult part in my academic work. In law school one of my friend’s use to always tell me to try to sit down long enough that those first flirtations of distraction were gone. I never did succeed but I am going to try again. What an awful state to live in when you only see the most pathetic part of your ability exercised!
Later we meet Phil Graham. At the beginning he is a completely charming man. He is likable and the onset of Graham’s relationship and subsequent marriage seem very promising. She takes us through his great rise. He becomes the publisher of the Post at 30, personal advisor and friend to Lyndon B. Johnson and JFK. His brilliance is breathtaking at times. But he is manic depressive in a time where the language to describe his condition doesn’t even exist.
As he mentally deteriorates Graham is his only comfort and care taker because they are too ashamed to tell anyone about his deep bouts of depression. For five years she nurses him while trying to take care of their four children and still maintaining a picture of a perfect family and business. (Keep in mind that the Post is essentially completely under Phil’s control at this time.)
As our heart breaks for Graham we are as shocked as she is when we discover that Phil has been having an affair (and also tells her about various other ones he has had) and has decided to leave Graham. At this point Graham blames just about everything on his illness and I am not sure if that is correct. But there is no doubt that at the time that Phil is spiraling out of control. At one dinner to honor his friend he rushes to the mic where he starts to incoherently talk and then proceeds to undress himself. This is his first public outing with Robin, the woman for who he has left his wife. Soon after he is institutionalized. After getting out he glob trots and starts a new life with his mistress. Graham writes “I found it haunting that the life he was reconstructing seemed to be a mirror image of everything we had done together.”
Eventually Phil’s life with his new woman falls apart and he suffers another bad bout of depression. He is soon institutionalized and with the charm that many manic-depressives have, he is able to secure a pass to leave the institution to go home for a bit. Graham and Phil enjoy a nice lunch together and then lay down for a nap. Phil excuses himself to go lay down in one of their other rooms. Moments later Graham hears a gun go off. She races into the room to find her husband lying dead as the pool of blood around him grows.
Graham emerges from this tragedy to take over the Post and begins to make a career for herself. The rest of the book details her rise, the incredible sexism she faced and highlights the many challenges she rises to in her career as publisher of the Post and in her many hats at the Washington Post Company. The story is remarkable and inspiring. If you are looking for a book that will greatly increase your knowledge about American history and politics, this is a sure bet.
The whole time I was reading this book, I didn’t want to know if she had passed away. It was written 12 years ago and as I read the last chapter I was so angry with her. She sounds tired and sad in some ways. My greatest fear is growing old. For the longest time I have prayed that I would die young. (I am sorry to the people this offends.) There is something about becoming that old, having seen that much of the world and losing everyone you have loved that is incredibly depressing and scary. Even Graham, who’s life has been so rich and varied and beautiful must humble herself before the cruelty of age. She is tired, illness is starting to take over her body and she realizes that she is in the “the last lap.” Those words broke my heart. Graham passed away in July of 2001. I pray that she is with her beloved Phil, far away from the darkness of his illness, with her parents who are restored to the days of their best health and with her many friends that she lost over the years. Ameen.