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Journey from 'doormat wife' to journalistic icon

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- From "doormat wife" to legendary Washington Post publisher, from Georgetown matron to first female head of a Fortune 500 business, from shy retiring woman to friend of presidents and celebrities, Katharine Graham covered a lot of ground during her 84 years.

She chronicled that journey in her autobiography "Personal History," which won a Pulitzer Prize.

The public part of her life began with a crisis -- the 1963 suicide of her husband, Philip, who had suffered from manic depression at a time when medication was not available to control mood swings.

Sixteen years earlier, Graham's father, Eugene Meyer, said he was giving control of The Washington Post to Philip because "no man should be in the position of working for his wife."

The only role left for Graham, she wrote, was "doormat wife ... tail to his kite."

But after her husband's death, Graham was determined to keep the paper in the family and reluctantly took control of the Post.

Graham's appearance on CNN's Larry King Live in 1997, and peers lauding her Tuesday (July 17)

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Former First Lady Nancy Reagan remembers Katharine Graham on CNN's Larry King Live

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Pillar of the Post and the press A woman of substance  
REACTION: Colleagues remember Kay Graham The best of the best part of Washington  
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"I didn't want to run it because I didn't think I could," she told CNN's Larry King. "I really knew that I owned the controlling shares, and that therefore responsibly, I should try to learn about it."

Graham recounted in her book how much she hated confrontations and often burst into tears after taking control of the paper.

"She was set out on such a difficult voyage," recalls editor Ben Bradlee. "I mean to take command of this newspaper under the circumstances involved in her husband's death, when she'd had no training for it . . .

"She learned very well and very fast and you know, she learned the way the rest of us learned -- by making mistakes and not being scared of saying so," Bradlee said.

One of her first big journalistic tests was in 1971, when the federal government warned the Post not to print the Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents on the U.S. role in the Vietnam War. She published the information, despite the threat of penalties.

Making decisions and weathering criticism grew easier.

By the time of Watergate, Graham was ready to face down the big gun barrels of the White House and publish the allegations against President Richard Nixon and his top aides.

Sally Quinn reported in the Post this week that she'd never seen Graham "so gleeful as when Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, remarked that 'Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's published.'"

Graham's growth did not go unnoticed.

"Her triumphs over her own self doubts and demons were every bit as impressive as her public triumphs," the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt remembers his former publisher Warren Phillips saying of Graham.

Feminist Gloria Steinem recounted in The New York Times that Graham got so angry at a male Post executive for refusing to allow papergirls as well as paperboys to sell the paper that she threw a paperweight at his head.

Graham also became supportive of women in business and news reporting, acutely conscious of how few women there were in either field. She made it a point to reach out to female journalists, encouraging and prodding them to "hang in there."

Graham would never tell women that they deserved a break, but it was clear that she understood the difficult dual -- even triple -- roles they play as wives, mothers and professionals.

Leadership and journalistic coups were not all Graham brought to the paper. Under her control, the Post became a megamedia conglomerate. Newsweek magazine, broadcasting, cable and educational services became part of the Fortune 500 company.

Despite all the accomplishments, Quinn said if she was limited to one word to describe Graham, it would be "fun."

"She was so much fun. She had a great sense of humor," said Quinn.

Even after handing the job of publisher over to her son, Donald, in 1979, Graham was still a very powerful force in Washington. Invitations to her home went out to celebrities, politicians, Princess Diana and both Democratic and Republican presidents.

"People always have thought that the White House was the center of Washington, but it was Kay's house," Quinn said. "It seems really unthinkable that she's not there anymore, that that big house on the hill will be empty."

President George W. Bush and wife Laura attended one of Graham's parties after moving into the White House.

"The beloved first lady of Washington journalism," recalled Bush. "She was a true leader and a true lady, steely yet shy, powerful yet humble, known for her integrity and always gracious and generous to others."

-- CNN's Judy Woodruff, Wolf Blitzer and Bruce Morton contributed to this report.

• Pentagon Papers (from Find Law)
• The Watergate scandal
• The Washington Post

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