When Katharine Meyer’s father, retired banker Eugene Meyer, bought the Washington Post out of bankruptcy in 1933, her future was sealed. While still in college, she worked at the paper during summers, then signed on full-time after graduating.
In 1940 she married Philip Graham, a Harvard Law School graduate who’d clerked for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. After Philip Graham’s World War II service, Eugene Meyer made him the Post’s publisher. In 1963, however, Philip committed suicide, and his widow took over the job.
Under Katharine Graham’s leadership, the Post’s status grew significantly, especially after it published the Pentagon Papers in 1971. This multi-volume report, spirited out of the Pentagon by one of its authors, Daniel Ellsberg, provided clear evidence that the Johnson administration had lied to Congress and the public about what and how the U.S. was doing in its war in Southeast Asia. The New York Times published excerpts from the report before Nixon administration lawyers persuaded a court to order a stop. But Ellsberg had also sent portions of the report to the Washington Post and, in defiance of a request from the U.S. attorney general, Graham gave her staff the go-ahead to publish more excerpts. Days later, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the media.
The Post’s other big coup during Graham’s tenure was its breaking of the Watergate scandal starting in 1972. Watergate involved the Nixon administration’s efforts not only to wiretap political opponents and activist groups, steal documents from them, and commit other abuses of power, but also to cover up these acts. Congressional hearings revealed the extent to which the president had been personally involved, and he resigned on August 9, 1974.
One of the country’s most powerful figures in publishing, Katharine Graham was the Post’s president during 1963-1973, its publisher during 1969-1979, its CEO during 1973-1993, and its chairman during 1993-2001. She was the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Her memoir, Personal History, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998.