Picks and Pans Review: Power, Privilege and the Post: the Katharine Graham Story

updated 03/22/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/22/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Carol Felsenthal

Just about anyone will enjoy this portrait of Katharine Graham more than she will. Felsenthal, author of a 1988 biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, portrays the chairman of the Washington Post Company in less than the glowing light accorded her since her newspaper broke the Watergate story in the early '70s.

Katharine (Kay) Meyer was born in 1917 into a home of wealth and influence, especially after her financier father, Eugene, bought the Washington Post in 1933. She was ridiculed or ignored by her mother, Agnes. (When Kay graduated from college, Agnes had her secretary send her a congratulatory note in which "Katherine" was misspelled.) In 1940 she married Philip Graham, a brilliant Harvard Law School graduate and JFK crony who succeeded her father as the Post's publisher in 1946. The couple had four children (son Donald is now the Post's publisher), but Philip was a manic-depressive who belittled Kay publicly, ran around on her and, in 1963, blew his brains out.

And that's exactly half—certainly the more enlightening half—of the book. Graham's subsequent career as publisher is well-known: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, her reputation as a ruthless boss and her hesitant embrace of feminism. Felsenthal leaves us with the feeling that Graham, who is writing a book of her own and did not talk to the author, is indecisive and heavily dependent upon the opinion of others. If Graham is, indeed, as influential as she is generally portrayed, Felsenthal seems to say the image is due more to luck than to smarts. The same might be said of this book. It's superficial, but it's fascinating. (Putnam, $29.95)

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