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.
Bernstein and fellow Watergate reporter Bob Woodward bought the wringer for $10 at an antique store and presented it to Graham after Nixon resigned. The necklace was a gift from a friend, and Graham wore it frequently.
Other items on display include the mask Graham wore to Truman Capote’s 1966 black-and-white ball, which was held in her honor, and a handwritten page from her memoir alongside her 1998 Pulitzer.
Visitors to the exhibit can hear Graham talk about her experience with the Pentagon Papers and Watergate in video excerpts from a “Living Self-Portrait” interview conducted through the National Portrait Gallery.
“Watergate was like wading into a stream into which you get deeper and deeper,” Graham says in the video. She goes on to describe how the scandal “seemed like a farce” because no other newspapers had jumped on it, as they did with other big stories. “If this is so great, where the hell is everybody else?” she said she asked herself.
Her decision to go with the story changed American history — and made her an important figure in it.
“One Life: Katharine Graham” will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery through May 30.