Katherine Graham: A woman of power and
Warren Adler E-Sheet 22
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My Experience with Katherine Graham
I had almost forgotten an interview I gave
to C.David Heyman, whose fine new
book The Georgetown Ladies Social Club
has just been published. In the book, Mr.
Heyman recounts an incident I told him about
concerning my experience with Katherine
Graham, the legendary publisher of the
Washington Post who I met more than twenty
years ago at Rancho La Puerta a spa in
My wife and I are long time devotees of
Rancho, created by our friend Deborah
Szekely and her husband just after World
War II. Our choice of a week’s stay usually
fell between Christmas and New Years, a
perfect time to leave the angst of the
holidays behind and enjoy the healthy
lifestyle at the ranch.
Ironically, after a hiatus of a number of
years, we returned this year during that
particular week, which brought back memories
of my time with Kay and the enjoyment of her
company. The coincidental vectoring of my
latest stay and Heyman’s book prompts an
amplification of this recollection.
A year before I met Kay, I had written a
novel which has been called a roman a clef
about a female publisher of a powerful
Washington newspaper who brought down a
President through its investigative
reporting and, flushed with power, now
pursued a plan to create a President of her
The novel was inaptly titled
The Henderson Equation, published by
Putnam, based on the name of my fictional
Presidential contender who was being
promoted by the fictional female newspaper
publisher. I had wanted the title “Ink”
which reflected the power of words,
especially those purveyed in an influential
newspaper. The publisher thought otherwise.
In my novel the female publisher’s husband
commits suicide in their country home by
blowing his brains out with a hunting rifle,
which is pretty much what happened to Kay’s
mentally troubled but brilliant husband
Philip Graham. There is no denying where
the idea for this event had come from.
Call it “bent” history, a popular genre
today as evidenced by the vastly successful
The DaVinci Code. Unfortunately, my
bent history was too contemporary and close
to the bone. It inspired the ire of the
Washington Post people and was, of course,
dismissed and ignored by the paper.
At the time I met Kay, the novel had
been out about a year. Naturally, it was not
a topic of conversation between us nor was
it referred to in any way.
We were frequent tennis and dinner partners
at the ranch. Her close friend Meg
Greenfield was with her and our
conversations were far ranging, vastly
interesting and intellectually stimulating.
The Washington environment is fertile ground
for eloquent and knowledgeable conversation,
especially of world affairs and finding such
willing and relaxed talkers was an
extraordinary mental addition to the
physical fitness program at the ranch.
At that moment in time, Katherine Graham,
by virtue of being the publisher of the
Washington Post whose investigative
reporters Bob Woodward and Carl
Bernstein’s revelations about the
Watergate affair had literally caused the
resignation of the sitting President
Richard Nixon, was arguably the most
powerful woman in America. Indeed, I was
flattered by her attention and her company
and was smitten by her good humor, charm,
intelligence and enthusiasm.
She would receive the Washington Post daily
and happily hug it and smile with girlish
glee when she picked it up in the office.
At some point after we had bonded, she
returned from a telephone call in a
particularly dark mood and it was obvious
that someone back home had discovered that I
was the author of “that” book and all that
it implied about my fictional newspaper
The next two hours were the most profoundly
disquieting and agitating of my life. Kay,
with tears in her eyes, proceeded to
excoriate me about the implications drawn
from my novel, clearly identifying herself
as the character referred to in my story.
She was deeply, profoundly hurt, drawing
conclusions that she was being accused in my
novel of deliberately bringing down a
President and cunningly engineering the
murder of her husband and other dastardly
crimes, some not even remotely suggested in
“It is pure fiction Kay,” I protested. “I
imagined everything. I did not know you
then. I did no research. Admittedly the plot
was suggestive of the Post’s stories on
Nixon, but it was all made up.”
I was somewhat ingenuous since the fact of
her husband’s self inflicted death by
gunshot was clearly based on what I had read
about Phil Graham’s suicide in the media,
perhaps in the Washington Post as well.
But what struck me then, was how such a
celebrated woman wielding vast power and
influence, a billionaire, whose newspaper
could make or break careers, and, yes, ruin
lives, deservedly or not, who appeared so
strong and self-confident to the outside
world, was, just under the façade of her
persona, so vulnerable, so easily hurt, so
thin skinned, so profoundly intimidated by
this novel, a work of the imagination, which
she might not have read. I never asked her
if she did, assuming that she had been told
second hand about its contents, which were
most certainly embellished by those
protectively surrounding her.
Her passionate and emotional remonstrance
was wide-ranging and seemed to open a
floodgate of other deeply felt issues. She
touched on female discrimination, asserting
that if she were a man who made hard
decisions she would be considered forceful
and decisive but as a woman she was labeled
a “bitch.” She denied that the Post brought
Nixon down. “The son-of-a-bitch brought
himself down,” she said.
Frankly, I was more startled than defensive.
Observing her pain, I felt terribly guilty
for writing this book with such dark
implications and hints of chicanery,
actually buying into her idea that my novel
was about real people in real situations. It
had never occurred to me that the book had
the power to be so hurtful to living people
who saw themselves in my characters. And,
even if they did, I truly believed, by
virtue of their own great power and
influence, they were beyond such feelings.
The incident left me shaken. I felt awful. I
had come to adore this woman, truly a woman
of substance and zest for life. I returned
to my cabin distraught, depressed and
somewhat confused. After all, I had written
a work of fiction. I had no idea how close
to the bone I had come.
I approached the dinner hour with
trepidation, wondering how my new found
friend would react to me after this long
diatribe. To my relief, she was welcoming
and charming. Whatever she felt in her
heart, I sensed that the vituperation was
spent and we continued our relationship
without any further references to my novel.
The following year we returned to Rancho.
Kay was there and we played tennis together
and socialized much like all the other happy
campers at the ranch.
I would see her occasionally in Washington.
We would greet each other warmly but neither
I nor my wife, who was the editor and owner
of the Washington Dossier magazine, was ever
invited into her social world. I did,
however, get her autograph on the copy of
her elegantly written auto- biography, one
of the most truthful and inspiring
revelations of a life lived in our time that
I have ever read.
Reading it gave me a further clue to her
character and a deeper understanding of why
she had erupted that day at Rancho. She was
the ignored child of a powerful mother and a
busy father and her rocky journey from
self-perceived “ugly duckling”, to
traditional, then rejected wife, to powerful
publisher required overcoming enormous
mental anguish. Apparently there was
something conveyed in my novel that, whether
she read it or merely heard about it,
triggered terrible memories of earlier
traumas embedded in an unhappy childhood and
In another ironic twist I discovered that
Kay’s father Eugene Meyer had once
owned the Red Rock ranch just a few miles
from my home in Jackson, Wyoming. The entire
Meyers family would summer there. Our guests
Bill and Carol Johnson, as it turned
out were friends of Kay’s sister Ruth and I
brought them to the ranch to introduce them
to the present owners. They came home with
contemporary pictures and reported Ruth’s
great emotion at seeing them after an
absence of more than sixty years.
What the experience with Katherine Graham
reinforced was my sense that stories of the
imagination have enormous power and the
ability to burrow into the psyche of people,
to move them deeply and passionately. Those
of us who are the creators of these stories,
written in isolation, rarely have the
opportunity to see their true effect on
I did and was astounded.
Children of the Roses
Coming in April!
the Roses, the sequel to The War of the
Roses nearing publication. It will be
out in April. Hope it's worth your time.
of the Press
The Henderson Equation was the book that
got Katherine Graham so excoriated. It
deals with a powerful female newspaper publisher
whose newspaper brought down a President.
Flushed with victory, the publisher now wishes
to back and hopefully create and elect a
candidate of her choice. It is as timely today
as it was when published.
The power of the press to manipulate and persuade comes under the microscope in this tense exploration of the media.
into the vast city room, as it subsided now
from the last flurry of deadlines, Nick Gold
savored a moment of comparative tranquility.
Deskmen and reporters, lifting weary eyes from
copy paper, might have assessed his mood as
one of self-imposed hypnosis, a kind of
daydreaming. News aides turned their eyes away
self-consciously, as though fearing their own
curious gazes would be an intrusion on the
But while Nick’s open eyes
gazed into the cavernous room, the ninety-one
clearly visible desks and typewriters, the
clusters of nerve centers through which
information had passed from brain to
typewriter, from paper pile to paper pile,
paragraph by paragraph, through each penciled
checkpoint, the image was not registering. The
mechanism of his mind was simply idling,
lulled by the comforting vibrations of the big
presses as they inked the awesome discharge of
a Washington day, the distilled essence of a
brogues planted at either side of his
typewriter table, hands clasped as a cradle
for his peppered head, tie loose but still
plumb in its buttoned-downed place, Nick kept
at bay any irritant wisp of thought that might
intrude on his self-imposed tranquility.
His adrenaline would not recharge
him until the completed street edition, the
freshly inked “practice” sheet, was
slapped smartly on his desk by one of the news
The slap of the Chronicle falling
on his Lucite desk top, like a slap on the
butt, jarred him out of his stupor. His long
legs unhitched from over the typewriter and
curled under the desk as he opened the first
section, smudging the ink with his fingers. He
covered the headlines with a single glance, as
his short-fused temper was immediately ignited
by a single word. He pressed a buzzer and
waited for the gruff mumble of Prescott, the
“Remove balk, Harry, as in
‘Russians Balk,’ lower right, beneath the
"Nit-picking. Balk is
"It’s an old baseball
term, Harry. Not precise.”
"How about bark?” Nick
could detect the professional irritation. Copy
editors traditionally overreacted to their own
myth. They fought over words like male lions
over their mates. Nick’s temper fuse
sputtered. Tread lightly, he told himself.
Don’t take it out on Harry.
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