Tuesday, December 2, 2008

#22 - "Personal History" by Katharine Graham

If I'm going to be reading and learning about history, I think the biography or autobiography is one of the best ways to do it. Sure, you only get a narrow view of the time period, but you also get a more personal view of history, which is infinitely more relatable and interesting. Also, looking at a person's entire life, including where they came from, how they grew up, what influenced them, what hardships they faced, and where they ended up is fascinating. Add to that a truly interesting person and a good writer, and you have the formula for books I'd like to read.

Not surprisingly, I found Personal History (1997) in the bookstore. I probably wouldn't have even noticed it, but it was on the "award winners" shelf, having won itself a Pulitzer. I may as well admit that I had never even heard of Katharine Graham, but the book jacket mentioned the Washington Post and Watergate and the presence of the shiny award on the cover convinced me to give it a try.

So I dug into this book. It's pretty long and involved, and I ended up reading just a chapter a day in order to continue reading other books at the same time. Personal History is an autobiography of Katharine Graham. She discusses her entire life, beginning with the background of each of her parents and ending in 1997 when she is 80 years old. This book is a glimpse of history through a privileged and well-connected woman living in Washington, D.C. through some of the most exciting and turbulent decades in our country's recent history. From her early years in New York and her adolescence and adulthood in Washington, D.C., she grew up unimaginably wealthy and in a social circle that is hard for me to even fathom. She casually mentions a summer trip to Europe where she met Einstein. In fact, many of the names of friends and acquaintances she mentions I know only as institutions, such as Getty and Fulbright. The Washington Post also plays a large role, both in Katharine's life as well as in the book. Her father buys the failing newspaper in the early 1930's at an auction and devotes a lot of time and resources to its improvement.

In her early 20's, Katharine Graham marries a brilliant young man, Philip Graham, who was clerking for Felix Frankfurter of the U.S. Supreme Court, and after World War II Phil Graham takes over the leadership at the Washington Post and Katharine Graham becomes a supportive wife and mother to her kids. After Philip Graham's death, Katharine inherits leadership of the Post, and even with her lack of experience, she is determined to keep the company in order to pass onto her sons. Graham faces problems of entrenched sexism and her own inexperience as well as the constant issues of development and growth of the newspaper. She details such notable historical incidents as: The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the Pressmen's Strike from her unique perspective. In addition, Graham was always a part of the elite Washington social circle where important business and political leaders apparently often gather together at dinner parties.

This book was a surprisingly fascinating read. There are so many interesting aspects to the story of Graham's life that from the second chapter on, I was completely drawn in. (The first chapter only talks about Graham's parents, which is necessary foundation, but not as interesting as when she talks about her own life). First, there was the growing up and living in the ultra-rich and ultra-powerful circles where Graham found herself her entire life. It was commonplace for her to be friends with and spend time with various Presidents and other V.I.P.'s. She talks about throwing dinner parties, hanging out on yachts with the rich and famous, and traveling around the world as if money is no hindrance to her (which it is not). But then she also tells of how she had to go to dance class when she was young with an ill-fitted hand-me-down dress of one of her sisters, not because they couldn't afford a new one, but probably because her mother had not bothered to buy her one. I found myself sometimes jealous of her easy life, lack of monetary worries, and high social connections. I wish I could say, "Daddy, I like San Francisco, can you get me a job there?" However, Graham is not a spoiled socialite, but comes across as a likeable person and a hard worker, so even though I envied some aspects of her life, it didn't keep me from relating to her.

The second aspect of Graham's life that I really enjoyed reading about was her personal life. Graham talks frankly and honestly about her sometimes difficult and distanced relationship with her mother. She even writes that she thinks her mother never really loved her children, which must have been hard for her to face, not to mention print. She also talks incredibly honestly and openly about her relationship with her husband, who suffered from manic-depression. It was almost heartbreaking to read how she struggled through this time of her life. And even writing about it decades later, I am surprised by how forgiving and objective she can be. Yet Graham still managed to be circumspect when it came to details about her love life, especially later in life. In discussing a friendship with Jean Monnet, Graham wrote, "The thrill for me of being with him never disappeared as long as he lived. He was energetic and interesting, and I can testify to his virility." This is the most explicit she gets about any man in this book. I found myself saying, "Wait. Virility??? Does that mean you two were an item? Come on, give the details if you're going to tease me like that!"

The third aspect of the book that I really enjoyed, of course, was Graham's discussion of the paper and its growth and development through the years. Sometimes it was a little hard to keep track of all the executives and who did what well and who had to be replaced, but on the whole the account was absorbing. Graham's account of Watergate was especially nailbiting. Without ever being melodramatic, I felt the tension and worry that was reverberating throughout the paper as they battled a popular President Nixon, not even imagining how it all would end. Along with these stories is how Graham managed to become a leader at the paper with very little experience, and how the woman's movement affected her as she got older. Having picked up this book with little knowledge of the person or its contents, I found a woman's life story that is well-written and engaging on many different levels.

No comments: