Steven Spielberg’s The Post fell short of Oscar nomination predictions but garnered two important ones—best picture and, for Meryl Streep, best actress in a leading role. Should victory come in either category during Sunday’s ceremony, acceptance speeches will likely pay tribute to Katharine Graham—or rather, to a Hollywood creation that is just a shadow of the real woman.
The Post is a celebration of Graham’s courage in publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, in the face of potential financial, professional and personal ruin. My guess is that Graham, who died in 2001, would have loved Streep’s sweet and heroic portrayal. Screenwriter Liz Hannah has said she relied on Graham’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Personal History, in writing The Post’s original script. “This movie is giving Kay her due,” she told the Washington Post. It does that for sure. But, in another sense, it gives Graham less than her due by ignoring much of the rich and fascinating context of her life. Of course, The Post is not meant to be a biopic, but the film’s depiction of Graham feels off to me.
The real Graham, who survived a poor-little-rich-girl childhood and an abusive marriage, was wracked for most of her life by self-doubt. Her actual life, which I wrote about in an unauthorized 1993 biography, oozed much more drama, and she lived through it with a mix of admirable qualities (guts, leadership) and ugly ones (insecurity, insensitivity). Had director-producer Spielberg, who made the movie in nine months, and his screenwriters dug a bit deeper, they could have delivered a much more complex and interesting portrayal than the saintly, sentimental, dutiful “Our Girl Kay” of The Post.
No argument here from me that Graham, as the Washington Post’s 54-year-old publisher, took a breathtaking risk when, in the immediate aftermath of a judge enjoining the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, she told the Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks), “Let’s go, let’s publish.” That same month and year, Graham had reluctantly agreed to take public the Washington Post Company, which she had inherited from her father and husband. As the plot of The Post shows, the sale of the company’s stock could have been canceled in the event of a catastrophic event such as a criminal indictment. Not only could publishing the classified material in the Pentagon Papers—which contained a history of America's decades-long involvement in Southeast Asia—have blown up her deal, but Graham herself could have been forcibly relocated from her Georgetown mansion to a prison cell.
Yet, The Post’s portrayal of Graham is incomplete—particularly in its neglect of the enormous impact her husband had on her. Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, had bought the paper out of bankruptcy in 1933, and found his successor in Phil Graham, whom Kay married in 1940. But as Phil led the paper, he was hiding, sometimes successfully and often not, untreated manic depression. In his down cycles, Phil feared that he was running the Post only because he had married the owner’s daughter. As he told friends and associates, he believed that if he had refused Eugene’s offer and returned to his home state of Florida to practice law and enter politics, he could have been elected a U.S. senator, and he—and not his friend John F. Kennedy—would be president.
As I and others have documented, the blame for those dashed expectations fell largely on Kay, whom Phil flagrantly ridiculed in front of their children and friends, making fun of her weight, her clothes, her intellect, her Jewish heritage and more. In his presence, she became almost mute; determined to avoid his withering gaze, she walked two steps behind him. “What he did to Kay to destroy her was awful,” Jean Friendly, a childhood friend of Kay’s,told me. “He was like a dentist’s drill [knowing] just where to hit the nerve. … She became like the abused child who lurks in the shadows for fear of getting hit.”
In August 1963, Phil, still suffering from manic depression, propped a .28-gauge shotgun against his head and pulled the trigger. Kay was devastated and shocked. Yet she recognized she would have to do something to keep away the “vultures,” as she later called the newspaper owners who were already circling the Post in hopes of buying it. Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts in the movie), the family’s trusted lawyer, friend and chairman of the Washington Post Company's board, persuaded Kay, who was neither emotionally nor intellectually prepared, to take Phil’s place and reassure the board that the Post would remain in the family. Tongue-tied, terrified, she mumbled that she would step in until her son Donny finished college and could take over, according to mine and others’ reporting. In the movie, Phil’s tragic character is little more than a newsroom photo that the widow gazes at for strength and inspiration. But in reality, almost every move that Kay made, every characteristic, good and bad, that informed her leadership of the Post, was guided by or in reaction to this larger-than-life figure she never stopped loving.
Then there’s Ben Bradlee, the other half of the movie’s star couple. Knowing how it happened that Ben was at Kay’s side is critical in watching the kind of close partnership the movie depicts between them. Early in his career, Bradlee had worked for Phil at the Post, before leaving for Newsweek, and in 1961, he used his social connections to help Phil beat the competition to acquire Newsweek. The two became fast friends, and Phil quickly named Ben Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief—giving him a front-row seat to his boss’s unraveling life and marriage. “There’s nothing wrong with Phil that a good divorce wouldn’t cure” was a favorite dining-out line of Bradlee’s, according to reporting in the Washington Star.
Kay Graham nonetheless put Bradlee in charge of her paper, recruiting him to the Post in 1965, two years after Phil’s death. Employees and friends told me that Kay was half in love with Bradlee—that, in many ways, he reminded her of Phil. But that’s not why she hired him. She worried, with reason, that she was running a second-, even third-rate, paper, that Phil had been a bad newspaperman, more of a politician and kingmaker than a journalist. Bradlee, she saw, had the energy and aggressiveness to push her paper up a rung or two and keep it there. You wouldn’t know it from The Post, but the fact that Kay set aside her personal pain and grudges in order to reach a goal seems worth noting—especially because that discipline is something her husband, for all his brilliance, lacked.
While Streep’s Graham is an approachable chief, the Graham that friends, colleagues and critics described to me was the bullied victim turned bully. At both Newsweek and the Post, she was known to turn on people, even fire them, for reasons not much better than that she didn’t like they way they looked, spoke or dressed. Paul Ignatius, the Post’s president at the time of the Pentagon Papers crisis—and a former secretary of the Navy—lasted two years before Graham pushed him aside. He told me that he was flabbergasted that she “bad-mouthed” him. She replaced Ignatius with John Prescott, then running the business side of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, who told me that he was reluctant to work for her because she was so indiscreet in disparaging Ignatius. “A trip through the composing room with Katharine,” Prescott told me, referring to the room where the typesetting was done, “was the most Lady Bountiful kind of experience.” He added that if he greeted a worker, she would glare.
Streep’s Graham is all fluttering hands and whispery high-pitched uncertainty: “Oh gosh, oh gosh,” or “Let’s go. Let’s do it. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s publish.” In fact, by 1971, Graham came close to matching Bradlee’s gruff profanity. Joe Latin, a former Post ombudsman, told me, “She talked like a truck driver. I was taken aback.” One example: The late Post columnist Nicholas von Hoffman recalled for me Graham’s response to a profile he wrote of her hairdresser: “If you dumped on him, I would have cut your nuts off.” Showing Kay’s rougher side in the movie would have made her a livelier character—not to mention one more closely matching who she really was.
Finally, on Graham’s elevation to First Amendment sainthood—that was not my experience. She dispatched her lawyers and tried to dampen, if not stop, the publication of my book, which her own newspaper reviewed positively. I was lucky. Previously, in 1979, she and Bradlee had managed to pressure a New York publisher into shredding more than 20,000 copies of another unauthorized biography.