Katharine Graham was an unlikely figure in publishing. Following the tragic deaths of her father and then her husband, Graham was tasked with running the family business: helming the Washington Post as president, publisher, and CEO. Despite the hurdles she faced in an unprecedented position for a woman, she would go on to become one of the most influential figures in journalism, as well as the first female Fortune 500 CEO. The New York Historical Society’s latest exhibition, Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO celebrates the trailblazer’s life through photographs and ephemera that show her influence on the world of publishing, and her forays into Manhattan high society.
In Graham’s time, women who entered the field of journalism were limited to covering topics like fashion, society gossip, and home life, which was dubbed the “women’s sections”. As a publisher, Graham rebelled against this. In October 1988, a memo to editors demanded to know why coverage of the then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was relegated to the Style section when she was giving an address at the United Nations. “It has long been a sexist issue that if a woman makes a speech, or even if a government official makes an important talk to a women’s group, it goes to Style,” she wrote. “Should we change this ancient attitude?”
The crown jewel of the show, however, is photographs from Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball, which took place at New York City’s Plaza Hotel in 1966. One such photo, by Elliott Erwitt, reveals the crowd inside the main ballroom, capturing the height of 1960’s glamour in full masquerade. Capote dedicated his ball to Graham, a night that would cement her place in high society beyond the confines of Washington D.C.; photos of the two of them at the ball show her exuberance and delight.
Cover Story also spotlights important women in journalism from this period; in one photo, Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first Black woman to work as a reporter at the Post, sits at a typewriter in a white sheath dress. Another image shows Graham next to journalist and activist Gloria Steinem in 1974.
The exhibit also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers, a turbulent time for the Washington Post as they published classified government information under threat of retaliation by the United States government. Pressing forward, Graham helmed the Post’s subsequent investigation of the Watergate scandal, ultimately leading to the first-ever resignation by a sitting President, Richard Nixon.
Perhaps the most poignant image in the show depicts the 1975 Associated Press board convening, with Graham as the only woman in a room with 22 men, underscoring her aloneness as a woman in the world of publishing. In a sea of grey suits, she sits resolute in a corner wearing a cerulean dress: the image of a woman who not only endured, but prevailed.
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
“Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO” is on view at the New York Historical Society until October 3, 2021.