If there were a list of American personalities who are taken for granted, Katharine Graham would probably be on it.
The longtime Washington Post publisher was instrumental in ensuring that some of the biggest news stories of the 20th century — the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal — reached the public, but she rarely shares the credit lavished on the reporters and editors who worked for her.
But now Graham’s life and work are being celebrated by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in the new “One Life: Katharine Graham” exhibit. The exhibit chronicles Graham’s life, beginning with her privileged childhood and continuing to her Pulitzer Prize for her memoir in 1998.
To exhibit curator Amy Henderson, Graham’s life is one that took advantage of big changes.
“I’m interested in how people invent themselves,” Henderson said. Graham “led the life that she was expected to live until she didn’t.”
Graham’s early life made all the predictable stops for the era and her background, Henderson said. She got married, had children and entertained friends.
But when her husband, Phil Graham, committed suicide in 1963, she took over his position as the Post’s publisher.
“She became the key figure, and one who had enormous power and influence in American public life,” Henderson said in an e-mail.
The year Graham took over her husband’s position at the Post was a big one for news. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the civil rights movement was in full force. It was also a time when newspapers were a dominant form of communication, National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan said.
Under Graham’s leadership, the Post became a “primary guide” for news in Washington, he said.
Past “One Life” exhibits have featured the likes of Walt Whitman, Thomas Paine, Katharine Hepburn and others. But unlike many previous subjects of the series, Graham’s life is depicted primarily in photographs, rather than in traditional oil paintings.
“Photographs capture a more instant sensibility” of a character, Henderson said.
The gallery’s centerpiece is a photographic portrait by Richard Avedon of a stern-looking Graham flanked by front pages of the Post from after it resumed publication after the Pentagon Papers controversy and President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
But the exhibit shows more than just Graham’s hard-working side. “There’s humor,” Henderson said. “Mrs. Graham was not just steely and resilient.”
That facet of her personality can be seen early in her life, particularly in a photo from Graham’s days as a reporter in San Francisco that shows her joking with male journalists during her days as a “girl reporter,” as Graham put it.
One display case holds a pair of related objects: an antique wooden laundry wringer and a gold necklace with two charms — a laundry wringer and a bare breast. The items refer to a quote from Nixon-era Attorney General John Mitchell, when he learned from Carl Bernstein that the Post was planning to publish a story about the Watergate break-in.
“Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if it’s published,” he said.