Katharine Graham and The Washington Post hold a special place and in my own “Personal History” (as she titled her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography).
It was on a very warm June afternoon, 35 years ago, when I invited my wife to be, Meme Sweets, to a luncheon date. Mrs. Graham was in town, and she was speaking to a group of journalists at Kunz’s the Dutchman, a now-gone—but never forgotten—restaurant on Fourth Street near Chestnut. At that event, when some of the most memorable figures in Louisville journalism of the time gathered, Mrs. Graham was introduced by Barry Bingham Sr., who described her historic courage as a publisher and a journalist.
Her talk that day was very powerful. She discussed what it was like to be put in the “sight” (gunsight) of the President of the United States. Only a few years earlier, she and her newspaper brought an end to Richard Nixon’s poisonous reign at the White House. It was on this date, Aug. 8, 1974, that the embattled president announced his resignation. On Aug. 9, he left the White House for exile in San Clemente, Calif.
This memory is one of the lesser points of interest in the litany of links between the Meyer/Graham family, Louisville and Kentucky, and The Washington Post, which was sold earlier this week to Amazon.com wizard Jeff Bezos. There are other notable ties as well.
The most important link between the Grahams and Kentucky came their long friendship with the sage of the Bluegrass, Edward F. Prichard Jr. (1915-1984). Back in the yeasty days of the New Deal, Ed Prichard, a native of Paris, Ky., via Harvard Law School, was among President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most brilliant brain trusters. His best friend at law school was a brilliant Floridian named Philip Leslie Graham, who, in 1940, would marry Katharine Graham, daughter of the proprietor of The Washington Post, Eugene Meyer.
Phil and Prich, as their friends knew them, lived in a bachelor “pad” in suburban Virginia in the years leading up to World War II. Prich was law clerk to Justice Felix Frankfurter, upon whose recommendation he became an adviser to President Roosevelt. As the years passed, the Graham-Prichard alliance would remain a close one, even after Prich went to prison in 1946 for a youthful prank of stuffing ballot boxes in a long-forgotten Kentucky election. In 1940, most people in the know thought Ed Prichard would one day be chief justice of the United States. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
The Graham story is marked by unhappy chapters. On Aug. 3, 1963, 50 years ago this week, Philip Graham, who was suffering from acute depression, took his life at his home while Kay was in another room. She heard the gunshot, rushed to him, but it was too late. The first person she called for advice and consolation was Lorraine Cooper, wife of Kentucky’s Sen. John Sherman Cooper and one of the doyennes of Washington Society. Mrs. Cooper, utterly brave, gave her excellent advice about how to handle the situation.
But the friendship between the Grahams and Prich meant a special link by their newspaper and The Courier-Journal in Louisville, where the owners, Barry and Mary Bingham, were contemporaries and friends. In the 1930s and 1940s, when the Post was a bankrupt newspaper struggling to survive in Depression Washington, the Binghams’ media group in Louisville was the envy of the nation. President Roosevelt himself had proposed that Mark Ethridge, a liberal Southerner, be named editor in 1935, and as the years progressed, the Post and The Courier-Journal thrived as progressive voices in Jim Crow America.
The Post’s ascendancy began in the McCarthy era, as the newspaper, like The Courier-Journal, The Boston Globe, The New York Times and a few others, stood up to the lies and distortions of Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. In time, reporters who excelled at The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times were invited to join the staff of The Post or the Post’s weekly newsmagazine. Among those who followed that path were Ward Sinclair, Bill Peterson, Charles R. Babcock, Peter Milius. Richard Harwood, Howard Fineman and Ian Shapira. Clara Bingham, Barry and Mary’s granddaughter, spent some of her early years in journalism at Newsweek.
Katharine Graham often returned to Kentucky to visit friends and to pay respect to them. She came to Prich’s funeral at Christ Church in Lexington in 1984.
In her autobiography, Mrs. Graham remembered that when the Post wanted to create a “news service,” back in the early 1960s, the first person who signed on was Barry Bingham, in Louisville. And I am pleased to say that the relationship continues to this day.
Well, back to the beginning of this piece. Twenty years passed, and Mrs. Graham came back to Louisville to discuss her new memoir at The Kentucky Author Forum, of which I am the host. We gave a luncheon for her at The Courier-Journal. Over pasta salad, Mrs. Graham was quite frank: “Keith, you must know. It was better that we did not buy The Courier-Journal.” Why, I asked, “Well, we always milked our subsidiaries for cash,” she continued, with a look of sadness.
Then the shifted the conversation to Prich: “He was one of the most marvelous people I ever know.”
I miss the Grahams, I respect the changes, and I am grateful to be a tiny footnote in their very grand and important story.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. He’ll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. Thursday on Here & Now.