Katherine Graham’s A Personal History (Boldtype, September 2005)

Katherine Graham’s “Personal History”Katherine Graham’s A Personal History (September 2005)

Born into privilege and surrounded by a who’s who of 20th-century American politics, Katherine Graham charts her awakening from D.C. debutante to one of the most powerful women in America.

When Katharine Graham wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Personal History, she was already an American icon. As the publisher of the Washington Post, she expanded the newspaper into a media conglomerate. During the turbulent ’70s, she was a key behind-the-scenes player in the Watergate controversy that catapulted the Post onto the international stage.

While later chapters are spiked with the controversy that toppled Nixon, the majority of the book chronicles her life’s trajectory, from a shy, awkward silver-spoon childhood to phenomenal success at the helm of a Fortune 500 Company. With the breadth of an ancient historian and the insight of a modern psychologist, her lively, conversational prose chronicles her marriage, career, and eventual Pygmalion transformation.

Whether greeting guests with Truman Capote at his famed Black and White Ball (she was the guest of honor), vacationing with President Johnson, chatting with Warren Buffet, or interviewing Egyptian President Nasser, Graham’s talent for weaving together quotes, letters, and observations makes this a remarkably lucid window on the charmed world she created.

Never exceeding its grasp, Graham’s inspiring tale is candid about her husband’s unsuccessful battle with depression, her professional inexperience, and her slow conversion to feminism (the journey is in the prose). As the story progresses, you sense that she experienced a lifetime all over again as she wrote, as innocently as she did the first time around — the thrill of discovery is always palpable.

In 1969, Women’s Wear Daily wrote that Graham seemed content playing second fiddle to all the men in her life. With this book, she proved that after 80 years she was finally comfortable alone in the spotlight. It’s a remarkable transformation that unfolds page by page. (HV)

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