NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY EXHIBITION CELEBRATES
TRAILBLAZING MEDIA ICON KATHARINE GRAHAM
Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO
On view May 21 – October 3, 202
1in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery
Exhibition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers
New York, NY, April 29, 2021 – The New-York Historical Society celebrates the extraordinary life and career of Katharine Graham (1917-2001), who made history leading the Washington Post at a turning point in modern American life. Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO charts how Graham’s life trajectory changed in the wake of her husband’s death, as she went on to become one of the most influential figures in 20th-century American journalism, business, and politics. The monumental publishing decisions Graham made at the helm of the Washington Post—helping to end a war and a corrupt U.S. presidency—are brought to life through a host of photographs, letters, costumes, and objects on view May 21 – October 3, 2021 in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery. The exhibition explores how—as writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron once remarked—Graham’s “journey from daughter to wife to widow to woman parallels to a surprising degree the history of women in this century.” Featured items include stylish outfits and ephemera from writer Truman Capote’s legendary 1966 Black and White masquerade ball, held in Graham’s honor at the Plaza Hotel and dubbed the “Party of the Century.”
“Though Katharine Graham is often associated with Washington, D.C., New York played an important role in her life—not only was she born in the city and spent her formative years here, but the spectacular Black and White Ball at the Plaza launched her onto the national stage and provided her with relationships that lasted a lifetime,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “A free press advocate, the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist, and, in her own discreet way, a feminist—Graham truly was a trailblazer, and we are proud to celebrate her legacy as part of our deep commitment to women’s history.”
Katharine Meyer Graham’s ties to journalism ran deep. Her father bought the Washington Post in 1933, and her mother was a former journalist; Graham herself began her career as a “copy boy” at the Post and later worked as a reporter with the San Francisco News. But she never expected to become the president, publisher, and CEO of the Washington Post, roles her husband filled until his untimely death in 1963. Grief-stricken, Graham promised the Post’s board of directors that she would keep the paper in the family and carry on in the spirit and principle of her father and husband.
At the time, women in journalism were usually relegated to newspapers’ “women’s sections” focused on society gossip and “the four F’s”—food, fashion, furnishings, and family. Under Graham’s leadership, the Washington Post became the first major paper to replace its old-fashioned women’s pages in 1969 with a new section called Style that examined “the way people live,” covering fashion, society, leisure, women’s “days and ways,” home, family, the arts, and entertainment. A spotlight section of the exhibition explores the evolution of women in journalism with biographical portraits of a number of notable writers, including investigative journalist–activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, LIFE magazine war correspondent Clare Booth Luce, Dorothy Butler Gilliam—the first Black woman hired by the Washington Post in 1961—and society columnist Charlotte Curtis, among others.
Relatively unknown outside D.C. circles, Graham was formally introduced to the national stage when In Cold Blood novelist Truman Capote honored her at the lavish Black and White masquerade ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966, which made headlines and brought Graham into contact with new networks of power and celebrity that helped consolidate her influence in journalism. Exhibition highlights include artifacts from the legendary event, including Graham’s evening gown and mask—“for one magic night, I was transformed”—Capote’s tuxedo; and designer gowns worn by guests like gossip columnist Aileen Mehle and philanthropist Brooke Astor.
Graham made media history in 1971, taking a principled stand for press freedom when she authorized the Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, a classified 7,000-page dissection of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Two years later, Graham backed the Post’s investigation of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, implicating the Nixon re-election campaign, the White House, and eventually Nixon himself, leading to the first-ever Presidential resignation.
Graham’s publications were, however, often charged with gender and racial workplace discrimination—including a 1970 class-action lawsuit by 46 women employees of Newsweek represented by ACLU attorney Eleanor Holmes Norton, and complaints in 1972 by the “Metro Seven” collective of Black Washington Post Metro section writers. Memos written by Graham and her team illustrate the various challenges Graham faced in her role as publisher, along with letters like the one signed by 39 women reporters expressing their dissatisfaction with reporting and working conditions at the Post. Graham’s annotated notes to a memo outlining proposals to systematically recruit, evaluate, and promote women is also on display as well as a letter of encouragement she received—“you have magnetism, and it shows through all the time”—a helpful reminder for Graham, who found public speaking a trial.
Years of being the only woman in the room had left Graham feeling “pretty well squelched”—a photograph on view of the 1975 Associated Press board has Graham prominently seated in a room amongst 22 men. In a video interview created especially for Cover Story, famed investor Warren Buffet, who became a major Post shareholder and close advisor to Graham, discusses the self-doubt she often felt due to the sexism she faced. But by 1991, when Graham stepped down from the Washington Post Company, its stock value had increased over 3,000 percent from the time it went public in 1971. Post editor Ben Bradlee wrote: “Katharine Graham, God bless her ballsy soul, was going to have the last laugh on all those establishment publishers and owners who had been so condescending to her.”
Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO is curated by Jeanne Gardner Gutierrez, curatorial scholar in women’s history; and Valerie Paley, senior vice president, chief historian, and director of the Center for Women’s History. New-York Historical’s Center for Women’s History is the first of its kind in the nation within the walls of a major museum, exploring the lives and legacies of women who have shaped and continue to shape the American experience. Guided by a committee of distinguished historians and informed by the latest research, the Center features permanent installations, temporary exhibitions, and a vibrant array of talks and programs, enriching the cultural landscape of New York City and creating new opportunities for historical discovery.
The 2021 Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History features a mix of pre-recorded keynote conversations and live panels held via Zoom exploring the complex history of women in journalism from the 19th century to the present day. Among the keynotes available for free online are a conversation with legendary broadcast journalist Lesley Stahl and Pulitzer Prize-winning political commentator Peggy Noonan as they discuss their careers with moderator Missie Rennie, former CBS News producer as well as a discussion between Megan Twohey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times, and New York magazine senior correspondent Irin Carmon about how to report on the global reckoning on sexual misconduct with sensitivity and fairness.
On New-York Historical’s Public Programs On-Demand channel, Graham’s children Lally Graham Weymouth and Donald Graham join David M. Rubenstein in a filmed conversation that premieres on April 27. Families can learn about investigative journalism, the Black press in the 19th century, and the life and career of Ida B. Wells during a special remote Living History session taking place during the exhibition’s run.
Major support for Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO is generously provided by Joyce B. Cowin and Roger and Susan Hertog. Additional support is provided by Dana Cowin and Barclay Palmer, Helen and Kenneth A. Cowin, Mary and Kenneth Edlow, and Craig and Dorothy Stapleton. Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Evelyn & Seymour Neuman Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
About New-York Historical Society
New York City’s oldest museum, the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library was founded in 1804. The Patricia D. Klingenstein Library—one of the most distinguished in the nation—fosters research through its outstanding collections, which include more than 10 million items. The Museum presents groundbreaking history and art exhibitions as well as public programs that convey the stories of New York and the nation’s diverse populations to the broadest possible public.
The New-York Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street), New York, NY 10024. Information: (212) 873-3400. Website: nyhistory.org. Follow the museum on social media at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr.
Image credit: Woman of the Year in Economy and Business: Katharine Graham, 1973, Bettmann/Getty Images