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Remembering Laughter and Loyalty of Katharine Graham

Beneath the reserve, the publisher was 'so funny, so feisty' --and a true friend.

July 22, 2001|ANN GERHART and ROXANNE ROBERTS | WASHINGTON POST

In Washington she was an icon, like the Queen of England. Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post who died last week , had a compelling personal story and a bearing that could project hauteur, what with that power portrait in Vanity Fair and that tremendous social influence built over decades.

To her intimates, she was not a figure but a person. They loved her as a loyal and engaging friend. She was both shy and regal, they said last week, full of gestures small and grand, a bawdy sense of humor and an air of dignity, a sense of her station and an utter lack of pretension.

"I just loved her," said Ann Pincus, her friend of 30 years. "She had this kind of distant exterior--she seemed very reserved. Underneath it she was so funny, so feisty and irreverent."

"She was quite formal, and yet startlingly personal in the way she talked to one," said Mike Nichols, the stage and film director. "She had the gift of personalness--that was her gift." He marveled that during her recent dinner for the president and first lady, she managed to make time for each of her nearly 100 guests and introduce them to the Bushes.

She shared.

"The real thing was that she was so considerate," said Eden Rafshoon, the wife of Gerry Rafshoon, a political aide turned television writer. "If someone exciting was coming to town, she wanted to share them," and Graham's guest lists often pulled together people whom other hostesses might have been frightened to put into the same room.

Her range was great. Her taste in friends was based on intelligence and cleverness and fun rather than on social standing.

She would visit fashion designer Oscar de la Renta at his Dominican Republic villa at the Christmas holidays. His neighbor was a Latin romance singer who often gets a drubbing from the critics. "Now who would ever connect Kay Graham with Julio Iglesias?" de la Renta asked. But Iglesias "took a big, big fancy to Kay. He would sing to Kay. He'd sing the love songs. And she knew every word to every song."

She befriended Lauren Bacall, so supremely confident of her sexual appeal, and Princess Diana, so fragile despite the tiara. She had expected the princess to be a bit dotty when they started to work together on the 1996 Nina Hyde breast cancer charity event, Graham confided to her friends, but said she and the younger woman connected on a deep level.

She understood earlier than most what it was like to be a woman alone in the world, her friends said, and so she was kinder to other women than many other high-powered female executives. She was 46 when her husband killed himself. She had four children. She learned to run a large company. She tried to feel confident and openly admitted her vulnerabilities.

"I always thought she was a great role model for women because she really accomplished a tremendous amount," said Bacall, adding that Graham's decision to publish the Watergate story "was a gigantic thing that took guts."

"But she was very touching in a way, because I never felt she was self-confident personally."

And she was a good girlfriend. Some of Graham's first friends were her best. "I found her very interesting and very good company, and she got more interesting as the years went on," said Polly Fritchey, who knew her for more than 50 years.

When her best friend, Meg Greenfield, was diagnosed with cancer, Graham went to nearly every treatment with her at Johns Hopkins University. The former publisher and her editorial page editor would ride to Baltimore in the car and back, and in between, Graham would wait. When Greenfield's posthumous memoir was published this spring, Graham threw herself into publicity for her friend's work, just as her friend had heartily encouraged her in writing "Personal History," Graham's best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography.

"They appreciated each other's honesty," said Bob Gottlieb, the editor of Graham's book and a close friend of both women.

"There was just no bull to either of them. Meg said it as she saw it, and Kay did the same. They both had wicked senses of humor, and they were two women in a guys' world."

She was never confident enough to flirt, but Graham liked knowing and being with capable, strong men, counting Robert McNamara and financier Warren Buffett among her closest friends.

"I called her on Easter Sunday," said lawyer Vernon Jordan, who socialized with her regularly in Washington and on Martha's Vineyard, where they both had homes. "'Where have you been?' I said. 'I have not seen you. I'm calling to ask if you'll be my Easter Bunny,' I said."

"She said, 'Not only that, but I'll hop right over!"'

Like the best of the very wealthy, Graham savored the simple and worried about appearing unseemly rich.

A few years ago, as she chatted with friends at the Kennedy Center Honors brunch at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, the conversation turned to air travel and the convenience of private jets.

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