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Journalism pioneer, icon dies

Katharine Graham, who transformed the Washington Post from a mediocre newspaper into an American institution, and, in the process, transformed herself from a lonely widow into a publishing legend, died Tuesday. She was 84.

Her death resulted from head injuries suffered when she fell on a concrete sidewalk Saturday in Sun Valley, Idaho, where she was attending a business conference. Mrs. Graham's family was at her bedside when she died at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, where she had been taken for surgery on Saturday.

Mrs. Graham was one of the most powerful figures in American journalism and, for the last decades of her life, at the pinnacle of Washington's political and social establishments, a position this shy, diffident insecure wife and mother never imagined she would, or could, occupy.

It was only after she succeeded her father and her husband as publisher that the Washington Post, a newspaper in the nation's capital with a modest circulation and more modest reputation, moved into the front rank of American newspapers.

Mrs. Graham guided the newspaper through two of the most celebrated episodes in journalism: the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the war in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal, which led to Richard Nixon's resignation from the presidency in 1974 under the threat of impeachment.

Mrs. Graham capped her career when she was 80 years old in 1998 by winning a Pulitzer Prize for biography for her often painful reminiscence, Personal History.

Mrs. Graham was a car-pooling, socialite mother of four when her husband, Philip Graham, committed suicide in 1963 while suffering from manic depression. Her father had given Philip Graham control of the Post, and with his death at age 48, his widow found herself in a mysterious thicket of corporate politics dominated by men unaccustomed to a woman in the boardroom and highly skeptical of her ability to run a newspaper.

Yet three days after her husband's death, Mrs. Graham told the board of directors that the Washington Post Co., which then included the newspaper, Newsweek magazine and two TV stations, would stay in the family. On Sept. 20, 1963, she assumed the presidency of the company.

"What I essentially did," she said, "was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes and step off the ledge. The surprise was that I landed on my feet."

Under Mrs. Graham's stewardship, the company's revenues grew nearly twenty-fold and it acquired numerous new businesses. Mrs. Graham stepped down as chief executive officer in 1991 and as chairman in 1993. Her son, Donald Graham, succeeded her in both jobs. She remained as chairman of the executive committee of the board.

She was the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company and the first to serve as a director of the Associated Press, the news service owned by member newspapers, and of the American Newspaper Publishers Association. She also served as chairman of the newspaper publishers group.

Non-traditional entry into business

Katharine Meyer, born in New York City on June 16, 1917, grew up in New York and Washington. After graduating from Madeira School, she went to Vassar, arriving at college an unquestioning Republican, like her parents. By the end of her freshman year, she was a left-wing Democrat. After two years, she transferred to the University of Chicago and joined the liberal wing of the American Student Union.

After graduating in 1938, she got a job at the San Francisco News for $24 a week. Soon she was covering labor news and the waterfront.

In 1939, at the behest of her father, Eugene Meyer, she returned to Washington to edit the letters to the editor of the Washington Post.

Washington, in 1939, was full of young people converging on the capital to work for the New Deal. Among them was Philip Graham of Florida, a brilliant lawyer and a clerk at the Supreme Court. Shy and insecure, Katharine Meyer could not believe her luck when he asked her to marry him.

Philip Graham soon accepted his father-in-law's invitation to join the Post. He became associate publisher at 30 and publisher at 31. Meyer also arranged for him to hold more stock in the company than his daughter because, he explained to her, "no man should be in the position of working for his wife."

"Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me," Mrs. Graham wrote in her autobiography. "In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper."

Their home life unraveled as Philip Graham's mental illness worsened. A downward spiral of erratic behavior, heavy drinking and marital infidelity eventually ended in his suicide. Stunned as she was by her husband's death, Mrs. Graham was determined to keep the paper in the family.

Going to work "seemed to be the only sensible step," she wrote in her book.

Immediate, hard-hitting impact

Two years after taking over the Post, Mrs. Graham hired Ben Bradlee, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, to be deputy managing editor and then quickly moved him up to executive editor. They made a formidable team, propelling the Post into one of its most dynamic periods. With her backing, he forged a staff of reporters and editors and put out a breezy, gutsy paper that investigated government with gusto.

The Pentagon Papers was such a story. It pitted the First Amendment of the Constitution and its guarantee of the right to publish against the government's right to protect secrets. It also involved possible consequences for the Post that threatened its financial stability. Despite fears for her company, for example, Mrs. Graham approved Bradlee's June 17, 1971, plea for immediate publication of the Pentagon Papers, which the Post had obtained on the day that a government-won court order barred the New York Times from continuing its exclusive reports on the 7,000-page Vietnam history.

The 2{-week episode, ending with victory for the New York Times and Post in the U.S. Supreme Court, was a turning point for Mrs. Graham and the newspaper.

But it was to be overshadowed by the issues she began to confront a year later, after Post managing editor Howard Simons phoned her on June 17, 1972, to tell her, as was his habit, what stories the paper was working on. One that Simons described was about five men who had been arrested after breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building.

During the more than two years of the Watergate scandal that followed, the Washington Post was the target of unrelenting hostility from the White House and its friends.

The White House orchestrated intense attacks on articles by two young Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, that detailed White House involvement in the Watergate burglary and its cover-up. Nixon's campaign manager, John Mitchell, told Bernstein that if the Post printed a story about him sharing control, while he was attorney general, of a secret fund to gather intelligence on Democrats, "Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a wringer." A Wall Street friend with administration contacts ominously warned Mrs. Graham not to be alone.

But Mrs. Graham again stood behind Bradlee and his staff. And after President Nixon's resignation, the newspaper's role in unraveling the Watergate story produced worldwide acclaim for Mrs. Graham and the paper, a Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service, and a movie based on the Woodward and Bernstein book All the President's Men.

She prized a gift Woodward presented to her: a $10 antique washing machine wringer, signed by editors and reporters who played key roles in the Watergate coverage. She kept the wooden wringer in her corporate office, near her desk.

Influential, international friends

A leading figure in international political, business and social circles, Mrs. Graham was a personal friend of many of the most prominent leaders of her time, including American presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, presidents Valery Giscard D'Estaing of France, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Kenneth Kuanda of Zambia, chancellor Willy Brandt of the Federal Republic of Germany and prime minister Edward Heath of Britain. In the 1990s, her younger friends included Bill Gates, the co-founder and head of the Microsoft Corp., and Diana, Princess of Wales.

"Mrs. Graham became a legend in her own lifetime because 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," President Bush said in a statement.

"Her passion for the Post, her strength as a leader and her commitment to the highest standards of journalism, helped build her newspaper into her ideal. Many of the ideas that shaped the last 40 or 50 years in this nation were born, then argued over, deconstructed and reconstructed around her dining table," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., half-brother to Mrs. Graham's late husband.

"Mrs. Graham understood both journalism and the newspaper business as well as anyone I have ever known, and was remarkably generous with her help to the St. Petersburg Times, and to many of us who admired her as one of the great publishers," said Andrew Barnes, chairman and CEO of the Times and a former reporter and editor at the Post.

"Kay Graham was a hero _ for the way she met the challenge of taking over the Washington Post Co., for what she did with it, for what she stood for in journalism, and for the inspiration she provided to other women," said Louis D. Boccardi, president and chief executive of the Associated Press. "All of us who knew her were enriched, and the AP was enriched by her service on our board."

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, chairman emeritus of the New York Times Co., said: "She used her intelligence, her courage and her wit to transform the landscape of American journalism, and everyone who cares about a free and impartial press will greatly miss her. We certainly will."

Ben Bradlee, Graham's longtime executive editor, said he met with the Post newsroom staff Tuesday afternoon and reminisced about "how much she loved her job, what a good time we had when were at the top of our game."

"I just say, "Well done, fantastic job.' "

Mrs. Graham's funeral will be at 11 a.m. Monday at Washington National Cathedral.

_ Information from the Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.