‘One Life: Katharine Graham’ Opens at the Portrait Gallery

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In June of 1971, the Washington Post was in heated controversy over whether or not to publish the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret history of the United States' military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Would making such information public bring on a slew of government lawsuits? Would it jeopardize national security?

One phone call to Katharine Graham, the newspaper's CEO and publisher, resolved the controversy with two simple words: "Let's publish."

Graham (1917-2001) is the subject of the National Portrait Gallery's new "One Life" exhibition, a fittingly black-and-white tribute to a woman whose keen editorial judgment and leadership rose to the top of the then male-dominated field of journalism. The exhibit opens tomorrow, and will remain on display through May 30, 2011.

An illustration on view in the exhibit is by Washington Post cartoonist Herblock (1909-2001). It depicts the CEO as a child playing with building blocks on the floor. Her father, Eugene Meyer, a banker who purchased the Washington Post in 1933, stands over her looking at her creation: two towers of lettered blocks that read "WASH" and "POST," respectively. "I think she's trying to tell us something," Meyer says.

The cartoon is not far from the truth. Graham showed interest in journalism from an early age, working at her school newspapers, reporting for a San Francisco newspaper after college, and then winding up at the Post. Graham's father turned the Post over to her and her husband Philip in 1938, and when Philip died in 1963, Graham became president of the company.

"She was the right person, in the right place, at the right time," said Amy Henderson, lead curator of the exhibit, at a media preview yesterday.

Graham's career spanned an important era in the nation's capital. A few years after her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, Graham was also instrumental in making public the Watergate scandal that eventually led to former President Nixon's resignation. "Usually when you have a great story, everyone else jumps on it," says Graham in a video clip of her speaking at the Portrait Gallery in 1992. "This was such a great story, I thought, where was everyone else?"

Of course, the story's gravitas had much to do with the reporting of Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who gained exclusive access to officials such as Deep Throat, the informant later identified as former FBI associate director Mark Felt. "What we did," says Graham, "was keep the story alive." (Bernstein and Woodward presented Graham with an antique clothes wringer as a joke, which is on exhibit.)

In addition to news clippings and photos of Graham in the office, the exhibit also delves into her robust social life. Graham surrounded herself with the likes of Henry Kissinger, Truman Capote, Nancy Reagan and many other important figures of the 20th century. A costume mask designed by Halston, which Graham wore to a black and white ball Truman Capote put on in her honor, is on display. Other notable objects in the exhibit include Graham's Pulitzer Prize for her 1998 memoir, Personal History and a handwritten page from the memoir.

The most prominent portrait in the exhibition is a photograph of Graham gazing sharply into the camera, arms crossed, holding her glasses in one hand. Honesty and forthrightness—two of Grahams' finest virtues, according to Henderson—shine through in the publishing magnate's unwavering gaze.

One Life: Katharine Graham is on view at the National Portrait Gallery from October 1 through May 30, 2011.

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