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Within the grande dame was a girl

Published Sep. 10, 2005

At dinner with Kay Graham and some friends at Kinkead's, a Washington restaurant, a few months ago, I told Mrs. Graham that C-SPAN radio, which has been broadcasting Lyndon Johnson's phone tapes from the Oval Office on Saturdays, had just played the one where LBJ flirted with her.

The most powerful man in Washington was trying to get the most powerful woman in Washington to denounce his congressional enemies in her newspaper, the Washington Post. And he was dripping Southern honey.

"Hello, my sweetheart, how are you?" the Texas rancher drawled to the Widow Graham. "You know the only one thing I dislike about this job is that I'm married and I can't ever get to see you. I just hear that sweet voice and it's always on the telephone and I'd like to break out of here and be like one of these young animals down on my ranch. Jump a fence."

How did the classy, shy publisher react to that?

She laughed. He laughed.

"Now that's going to set me up for the month, Mr. President," she said, her proper lockjaw accent sounding positively saucy.

When I told Mrs. Graham it had been replayed, I thought she might blush and demur, as she often did when she was the subject. But instead she smiled, almost slyly. "Yes," she recalled. "Lyndon had a sneaker for me."

For four decades, until her death Tuesday at 84, she was The Man in the quintessential man's town. She was so imposing and respected that even though she told people to call her Kay, they always ended up calling her Mrs. Graham. On occasion even her son Don, who took her place as publisher, called her that behind her back.

But the really cool thing about America's most powerful woman was that she was a girl. Our grande dame was not at all stuffy. She loved ice cream and chocolate desserts. She loved to flirt with men and seek their counsel and chat about clothes and perfume with women. She was the little brown hen who blossomed into a swan, looking more glamorous every year, remaking herself in Oscar de la Renta and Armani, with the help of the Vogue editor Anna Wintour. She loved movies, even silly ones.

She and her best pal, Meg Greenfield, the fabulous editorial page editor of the Post who died two years ago, used to sneak off in the middle of the workday to see movies _ Police Academy movies, Ninja movies, teen romance movies, all sorts of movies.

One time, Meg called Kay and said, "Do you want to go see the French President?"

"Where's it playing?" Kay asked.

"I meant Pompidou," Meg replied dryly.

Once, in the '70s, after Kay had refused an invitation to attend the then all-male Gridiron Club, which put on an annual evening of skits for press and pols, she and Meg drove down to the Capital Hilton where the show was going on, just to watch the tuxedoed male guests and the female picketers outside, ducking down in their seats as they drove by.

With Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, she turned the Post into a world-class newspaper. She wrote an elegant and wrenching memoir about her metamorphosis from timorous housewife to gutsy mogul that won her a Pulitzer at 80. She had an arc that echoed the evolution of women: Raised to be a milquetoast, her confidence undermined by her domineering mother and philandering husband, she somehow made herself over into a figure of greatness.

She could stand up to presidents, but she never stopped looking shy at big black-tie Washington dinners. "I hate these things," she whispered to me at one a couple of years ago. "I never know what to say to anyone."

Mrs. Graham was always shocked when young women of all classes flocked to hear her speak. She told me how moving that was for her. She had inherited her position, and yet, emotionally, she had to start at the bottom and work her way up.

Washington will miss her. LBJ had it right. She was a woman worth jumping over a fence for.

Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service