Queen Katharine

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 19 1997 3:30 AM

Queen Katharine

From ugly duckling to hard-ass swan.

Personal History
By Katharine Graham
Knopf; 625 pages; $29.95

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The saga that unfolds in Personal History, Katharine Graham's 625-page autobiography, is worthy of a Joseph Campbell exegesis: A young Wall Street king, Eugene Meyer, marries his aggressive queen, Agnes, and they spawn a royal family of four princesses and a prince. Dominated by their overbearing literary mother and ignored by their dismissive multimillionaire father, these virtual orphans are raised by governesses and servants. Frumpy Princess Katharine shivers with inadequacy.

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But wait! Charismatic Philip appears from the South (by way of Harvard Law) to rescue the grown-up Katharine, enchant the queen, and seduce King Eugene with his magic. (Actually, the old monarch falls for Phil's flattery, which fools other powerful elders such as Justice Felix Frankfurter, for whom Phil clerks.) Phil marries Katharine, and the king gives them the ink-stained duchy of the Washington Post. The young couple bear progeny, and the duchy grows mighty--mighty enough for Prince Phil to anoint a king himself (LBJ).

Darkness descends: Worn out by his labors on Wall Street, the Federal Reserve Board, the Washington Post, and the World Bank, King Eugene dies. Phil, who dominates Katharine as her mother did, goes mad over the course of six years and then kills himself. The cruel queen's lights finally expire. Only then does the fairy tale begin. The self-doubting Katharine raises the queen's tiara to her head, slays Nixon the Awful, holds court in Georgetown and around the world, buries the Washington Star, and builds an empire as she prepares her son, Prince Donald, for the throne.

The story is irresistible, as is the telling. Just when you're ready to credit the copy to Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb, Graham quotes an old letter of hers, a sharp critique of the Post that she, aged 17, sent her parents in 1934, the year after her father bought the paper. The woman can write.

Most autobiographies are more about concealing than telling, but Graham ropes off relatively little. Her children's personal lives are deliberately excised from the book; the cowardly episode in which she and Ben Bradlee misused their inordinate power to scuttle a wretchedly flawed book about her (Katharine the Great by Deborah Davis, published in 1979) is not mentioned; and she only hints at her post-Phil romantic life. Adlai Stevenson? Robert McNamara? Henry Kissinger? Ted Heath? An Italian stallion? Warren Buffett? Watch Graham wink.

Oddly, Personal History largely echoes Carol Felsenthal's unauthorized biography, Power, Privilege, and the Post: The Katharine Graham Story--oddly, because its publication in 1993 incensed the Graham family. Graham's daughter Lally Weymouth compared Felsenthal to Joe McCarthy in the Post op-ed pages, and son Donald Graham excoriated the author on the New York TimesBook Review letters page. (The Post, to its credit, published a rave by Ronald Steel.) The Grahams were enraged by Felsenthal's cold and detailed charting of the psychotic free fall of Katharine's husband, New Deal/New Frontier bright-light Phil Graham. Felsenthal and Katharine both report that Phil assumed Agnes' role as bully and emotional abuser, but only the biographer writes that as Phil lost his mind, he taunted his half-Jewish wife with anti-Semitic slurs.

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G raham's aptly named book crosscuts between the engrossing social history of her life and times--populated by the likes of Marie Curie, Edward Steichen, Auguste Rodin, Thomas Mann, Bernard Baruch, Walter Lippmann, FDR, Truman Capote, LBJ, Jessica Mitford, Scotty Reston, Emperor Hirohito, Bill and Babe Paley, and Richard Nixon--and her agonizing personal history. Graham's portrait of her mother, the social-climbing, booze-hounding, domineering Agnes, makes a persuasive case for matricide. "[M]otherhood was not exactly Mother's first priority," she writes. Or again, "Mother set impossibly high standards for us." At the same time, Graham complains, she was taught little about "the practical aspects of life," like "how to dress, sew, cook, shop, and, rather more important, relate to people of any kind, let alone young men."

Married to Phil, Katharine comes to "enjoy the role of doormat wife." When the Graham children arrive, she becomes a self-described "drudge" who has "no idea how to organize a meal." Just when you think that the ugly duckling has snorkeled to the bottom of the Marianas Trench of her lowest self-esteem, she dives still deeper: "I ignored the fact that [Phil] was frequently using [his] wit at my expense. [He] was often critical or cutting in his remarks when things weren't just right--either about the house or my clothes, for example, which left lots of room for disparaging remarks."

Depleted of self-confidence? Not quite. Graham constantly discovers new reserves of emptiness. Seated next to President Kennedy at a party, she panics that she'll bore him to death. (She does fine.) Society people intimidate her--"Despite my own background and actually having been born there, I always felt like a country girl in New York"--no matter that her parents had introduced her to high society while she was still in diapers, and that she had frolicked with the Paleys, the Whitneys, and the Mellons as an adult. The business world spooks her, too. Following Phil's death, she assumes the Washington Post Co. helm with trepidation because she is "uneducated in even the basics of the working world."

Can't cook, can't sew, can't run a household, can't stand up to her imperious mom and husband, can't make small talk with celebrities or notables, can't run a Fortune 500 company. Kay, honey, what did you learn to do in your first 46 years on the planet?

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