Personal History

by Katharine Graham

Hardcover, 1997

Call number




Alfred A. Knopf (1997), Edition: 1st, 642 pages


The captivating, inside story of the woman who helmed the Washington Post during one of the most turbulent periods in the history of American media. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography In this bestselling and widely acclaimed memoir, Katharine Graham, the woman who piloted the Washington Post through the scandals of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, tells her story--one that is extraordinary both for the events it encompasses and for the courage, candor, and dignity of its telling.   Here is the awkward child who grew up amid material wealth and emotional isolation; the young bride who watched her brilliant, charismatic husband--a confidant to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson--plunge into the mental illness that would culminate in his suicide. And here is the widow who shook off her grief and insecurity to take on a president and a pressman's union as she entered the profane boys' club of the newspaper business.   As timely now as ever, Personal History is an exemplary record of our history and of the woman who played such a shaping role within them, discovering her own strength and sense of self as she confronted--and mastered--the personal and professional crises of her fascinating life.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member swinebass
Never have a I read a more honest, genuflective and intriguing autobiography. Graham is as open and frank about her life, especially her early years and her marriage to her bipolar disorder-suffering and eventually suicidal husband, as she could possibly be.
LibraryThing member k6gst
I read it mostly because of my morbid fascination with the more miserable aspects of the 1970s, like Watergate, but it’s a very engaging book beginning to end. (To cover some of the same ground I also recommend Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures (1995).)

So you might
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think that the most interesting bits would be about the inheriting the Washington Post upon her husband’s suicide, or the Pentagon Papers, or Watergate. But no, the best part was about her knock-down, drag-out labor fight with the craft trade unions that were strangling her paper.

“Knock-down, drag-out fight” is not hyperbole. They were negotiating with the press operators up to the day the contract was set to expire at midnight. Negotiators gave each other assurances that so long as the parties continued to negotiate in good faith, they’d continue working and paying status quo. Management was nervous, so they stayed in their offices until after midnight and just keep an eye on things for a while. Everything with the print run for the next morning’s paper was proceeding normally, so at about 2:00 a.m. management went home. At about 4:00 a.m., the pressmen destroyed three presses, set fires, flooded the building, beat the shop foreman nearly to death, and went on strike.

Fourteen of the saboteurs were criminally convicted. The union’s precondition for negotiation was that all fourteen be re-hired with the rest. Graham refused and broke them. She reached deals with all of the other craft unions, but to this day the paper’s presses are run by non-union pressmen. The pressmen’s union was uniformly white, and most of the replacement workers hired were black.
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LibraryThing member Clueless
Very informative but could have used some serious editing. There was a lot of name dropping that would mean absolutely nothing to someone out of the USA. Still an interesting story. Empowering for women.
LibraryThing member mumlady
Too long. Reads like a compilation of her personal diaries and her assistants filling-in.
LibraryThing member Michele48
One of the best autobiographies I have ever read. The political and historical details are covered extremely well but above all it is the honest and deeply moving account of Ms Graham's personal and family life against the backdrop of these events which made it so compelling. She was a worthy
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winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
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LibraryThing member Marliesd
While my mind is on Washington, D.C., another good read. I listened to this one a few years back.
LibraryThing member phyllis01
This may be the best autobiography I've ever read. Graham was charming, brilliant, tough as hell, and a lady all the way through. Her description of the legal wrangling regarding publishing the Pentagon Papers is as hold your breath tense as any thriller.
LibraryThing member sallysvenson
A fabulous autobiography by a woman who was forced into and mastered a role that she had no interest in and thought beyond her. Wise, honest, and ego-free.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Even though I categorized this as an autobiography it is not a traditional "my life" story. Instead, it is Katharine Graham's personal history with The Washington Post first and foremost. She begins with a brief overview of how her parents met, when and where she was born, and her college years.
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This sets the stage for her increased involvement with the paper. From the time she was 16 years old, when her father bought the failing Washington Post at auction, until the end of her role as chairman of the board in 1991, 58 years of Graham's life was immersed in making the paper a success. Raised without a strong mother-figure or adolescent role models Katharine Graham was a trendsetter for women in business. For her era, her rise to power was nothing short of remarkable. But, in addition what makes Personal History such a fascinating read is Graham's unflinching view of her world. She does not hide the fact she had a strained and difficult relationship with her absentee mother. Her voice drips with contempt when she recounts her mother's failed attempts at guidance in life. Graham addresses her husband's mental illness and subsequent suicide in a matter of fact manner. She does not sugar coat the difficulties she faced being a woman of influence in a world traditionally reserved for the man of the house. Despite being born into privilege Graham exemplified the meaning of hard work and perseverance.
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LibraryThing member Elpaca
It goes to show that you can be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but can still have some serious shit layed on your plate. The proof in the pudding is how you move ahead, and handle it. Well written and honest in the way good journalism should be. Recommend it for everyone.
LibraryThing member J.v.d.A.
Very interesting & readable account of Graham's personal and professional life; though at various stages in the book I did get a distinct feeling of upper class snobbery coming through.
LibraryThing member SigmundFraud
An awesome autobiography by an awesome woman who grew up with a silver spoon in her mouth but with little understanding of how the world worked. Yet when she was put in the position of running her company, The Washington Post, she did admirably well. Not that she was without anxiety much of the
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time but she made good judgments and performed and brought the company to new heights. I admire her and am so glad that I read the book which was a page turner.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Clearly Graham was a publisher and NOT an editor. She badly needed editing! I struggled through it for book club, but when a second book club also chose it, I opted not to re-read it or even attend that discussion.
LibraryThing member christinejoseph
Behind the scenes wealthy life 1/4 Jewish Depression Husband Suicide — Behind Wash. Post — Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Massive Strike — My Kind of Book — Better than Fiction!

Personal History is the autobiography of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. It was published in 1997 and
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won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, receiving widespread critical acclaim for its candor in dealing with her husband's mental illness and the challenges she faced in a male-dominated working environment.
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LibraryThing member nmele
As someone who lived in a suburb of Washington, DC; at times, worked in the city; and spent three decades working with the press, I should probably have read this book a long time ago, but now seems like a very good moment, as the late Katharine Graham wrote down her entire life story, not just
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what she did and didn't do at the Washington Post, and it is a tale of her awakening to her own abilities over decades of an extraordinary life. Her chapters on the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and the pressman's strike give an inside look at those crises, but the strength of this book is indeed Graham's personal story as she emerges from the shadow of her parents and then her husband, the talented but tortured Phil Graham.
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LibraryThing member breic
An interesting perspective on the management of the Post, from her husband (who wasn't shy to use the paper to promote his politics) to herself. Graham herself grows quite a lot as she assumes responsibility for the paper. There's also lots of history, and I liked seeing these familiar events
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described concatenated and from a single perspective.

The book gets substantially worse in the last third. After the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, we are treated to a blow-by-blow of a printers' strike (which is actually more interesting than it sounds), but then the story just turns into a weirdly impersonal business story. She doesn't seem to want to talk more about herself or her relationships, except that with Warren Buffett.

Her privileged perspective sticks out from the beginning, when she has a tête-à-tête with her best friend with only three servants in attendance, to the end, when she is flying around the world on her private jet and hosting parties for hundreds of her closest friends, while she puts down a printer who commits suicide after she breaks the strike.

> I can't say I think Mother genuinely loved us. Toward the end of her life, I was a success in her eyes, and perhaps that is what she loved. Yet, with all her complexity, I felt closer throughout my early childhood to my mother than to the very distant and rather difficult figure of my father.

> In those days, the people in Washington often found out what was happening at the ballpark by watching the big scoreboard in front of the Post's E Street building, where the scores were posted in chalk. Occasionally my father himself carried the scores from the telegraph man to the man at the scoreboard. Once, when Goose Goslin hit a home run to win a big game, he asked that the scores not be posted until he could get there and see the pleasure of the large crowds that always gathered to watch.
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LibraryThing member bederson
An amazing woman.
LibraryThing member Library_Lin
I knew very little about Katharine Graham when I picked up this book. I've never watched the movie that was based on it. But I loved it.

In spite of her privileged life (her parents were incredibly wealthy), her life was not easy. While early on, she came to appreciate her father, her relationship
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with her mother remained difficult. She married a man she dearly loved, but that ended in tragedy. After her husband's death, she bravely began running one of the most important newspapers in the world. And she struggled with controversy and sexism in a male-dominated arena.

In her memoir, she was honest about herself and others. She proved herself to be a scrappy woman who cared about doing the right thing above all else. When she made mistakes, she admitted them. Honestly, I started reading the book to get the inside scoop on the famous and powerful people she rubbed shoulders with. I wanted to know more about Watergate. The book didn't disappoint in those areas, but I came away with something more. Graham proved herself worthy of respect. While I'm not young, she also taught me some life lessons I'd do well to remember.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
She took a chance. She made it work. A tale of one woman's journey into publishing. Interesting anecdotes about her relationships with Warren Buffet, Truman Capote, JFK, and LBJ, and her experiences as she learned the ropes of running a communications empire. She pushed herself through various
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struggles in some very difficult years, but then she was very wealthy too so I guess "struggle" becomes rather relative. Nevertheless, it makes for a fascinating read.
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LibraryThing member erwinkennythomas
Katharine Graham’s Personal History is an extraordinary autobiography that won the Pulitzer Prize. It spanned the ownership of the Washington Post as a family business. Started with Eugene Myer, the Post was inherited by Phil Graham - his son-in-law, passed on to Kay, Myer’s daughter, and ended
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up in the hands of Don, Myer’s grandson.
Eugene laid the foundation of the Post. Throughout his leadership as publisher, the paper was competing with four other newspapers in Washington DC. His venture was losing money, but as publisher he held on to it, and set its editorial standards. Eventually, he transferred its reigns to Phil – a Harvard graduate who had just wrapped up his service in the military. He became the publisher, and with Kay they controlled most of the shares.
During this period Phil made acquisitions that included Newsweek, WTOP-TV in Washington DC, and WJXT-TV in Jacksonville, Florida. He became active politically, and was responsible for Lyndon B. Johnson becoming vice president to John F. Kennedy. Phil was also a member of numerous boards, and was nominated chairman of COMSAT. His work load was phenomenal, and he broke down under pressure suffering from manic depression. As Phil was recuperating from this illness, he committed suicide at their country home Glen Welby.
The Post therefore fell into the hands of Kay who later became its president and publisher. In her memoir she expressed self-doubt in her ability about running the Washington Post Company. But as the years passed, she grew in confidence. The Post chief competitor was the Star, but there were other major problems she had to grapple with. She made an outstanding pick in Ben Bradley as editor. She confronted the difficulties incurred with the Pentagon Papers, steered the Post through the Water Gate years, witnessed the resignation of president Richard M. Nixon, and dealt with the debilitating pressmen strike - all the time wondering if the company would fold.
In the 1970’s her son Don was at the reigns of the Post. By then it had become public. The Post was making money and its rival the Star was no longer publishing. However, Don’s tenure was marred by the Janet Cooke’s incident who had won the Pulitzer Prize. The only problem was that her story about drugs and a child was false. The Post had to return this prize and Cooke was fired.
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