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Mrs. Graham

Jul 23, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Never could I bring myself to address her, or even refer to her, as “Kay.” To me she was always “Mrs. Graham.” And always will be.
The shock of her sudden death has not worn off. She was a force of nature, and it is horribly disruptive when such forces are stilled.
It’s been years since Mrs. Graham played an active role in the day-to-day operations of the Post, and she rarely showed up any more on the Fifth Floor, where the editorial operations are centered. And yet walking the hallways the other day, her absence could be felt, and it was painful and ominous.
Like being in a void, a black hole. Something was horribly wrong. You could sense it. Mrs. Graham was the Post, so how could the Post still be standing?
She was the nicest really-really-rich person I ever knew. And once she knew you, you stayed known. She’d give the impression she really cared about you, and she never asked you questions just to be polite or to make idle chit-chat. She knew the most famous and fascinating people in the world, and when she talked to you, she made you feel you were one of them.
Her wealth didn’t isolate her or make her aloof; she refused to let it get in the way. She was gracious and charming and all of that in social situations, and in business and journalism she was one tough babe, salty and blunt.
And yet there was also this endearing shyness about her, a sort of worldly innocence. People meeting her would feel less nervous than they thought they’d be because they sensed that she felt a bit of anxiety too. She wasn’t fragile-whoa no-but she did have this endearing vulnerability.
Many years ago, my mom came to visit me in Washington and I brought her down to the Post. On the front steps we bumped into Mrs. Graham. My mom saw a limousine waiting and jokingly asked if that were a new car for me. I blushed. Mrs. Graham laughed. She and my mother had about as much in common as Queen Elizabeth and Ma Joad, but Mrs. Graham put Mom at ease, and they chatted like old friends. I was proud as hell of both of them.
I am not trying to give the impression that Mrs. Graham and I were close friends. I went to, like, a handful of her famous dinner parties and luncheons. But I felt oddly close to her once I got to know her. For one thing, she was very kind to me. The high point came when she threw me a party at her Georgetown home to celebrate my 25th anniversary at the paper. It was one of the four or five greatest nights of my life.
The house obviously belongs in the mansion category, but there’s an unpretentiousness to it that reflects the personality of its owner. Even though china that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte is displayed in one of the cabinets, the place is homey and warm.
I stood with Mrs. Graham at the entrance to a huge tent erected in the back yard in an informal receiving line. Ted Koppel came, and Conan O’Brien, and Dan Rather. Mrs. Graham knew the journalists, of course, but not the show-bizzy people. At one point I wandered off to talk with Gene Siskel and his entertaining wife Marlene. Soon a secretary rushed up to me: “Mrs. Graham needs you.” I apologized to the Siskels and hurried back. Mrs. Graham took my hand. She wanted me there to give her moral support, especially when dealing with people she didn’t know.
It struck me as incredible and ingratiating-that Mrs. Graham would think she needed me, that I of all people could help her feel more at home-in her own house.
She had zero interest in intimidating people, no matter how easily she could have done that, no matter how often she was referred to as the most powerful woman in the world, or one of the most. I was always a little awkward around her, a little klutzy. Like every time I would kiss her cheek, my glasses would give her a poke in the face. I felt like such a fool, but she ignored it and smiled warmly.
What I remember is not a kiss but a hug. At an in-house awards ceremony a few years ago, I had to make a speech in front of virtually the whole company and, more important, in front of Mrs. Graham, who sat next to her son Donald on the dais. He had succeeded her as publisher by this time, but she still came to ceremonial things like this. We could tell she was still in love with the paper and with journalism and, we liked to think, with us.
I couldn’t see her as I spoke, but later a dear old friend told me Mrs. Graham was cracking up with laughter at the jokes in the speech. Laughing with gusto and abandon-big hearty laughs, not prissy dainty titters. That was the real award I got that day. Not the scroll and the trophy nor even the check, though God knows I clung to that check. But the award was learning I’d made Mrs. Graham laugh. That knocked me for a wonderful loop.
When I finished, I turned to her and tears welled up. Not just in my eyes but in hers too. It thrilled me she would care that much. I was not part of her inner circle. I was hardly in a class with the brain trust on the national staff-big boys who break big stories. I’d only had a handful of front-page bylines in all those years.
But Mrs. Graham got a kick out of my silly TV pieces. She liked my annual trashing of Kathie Lee Gifford’s Christmas specials, and at the party quoted a line I’d written, something about Kathie Lee opening one of her specials singing “O come let us adore me.”
Mrs. Graham reading my words aloud to a crowd of people and getting laughs-I couldn’t suppress the old lump in the throat.
I had many occasions to be near her, to admire her up close. I always wondered if this famous glamorous powerful woman could possibly have given a damn that I adored and admired her. I should have made a point of telling her, at least once. And then again, I am sure she saw it in my eyes that day, and felt it in that hug.
Look at the media moguls she leaves behind. Not a lofty lot. They don’t measure up to her standards, but then it would be awfully hard to measure up to those. Nobody measures up, and I wonder if anyone ever will. “Class” doesn’t seem to mean all that much to the new breed of media executives. They don’t really have time for that kind of thing.
It touched me that, on the day she died, friends left messages of sympathy on my answering machine. I was deep in denial. But here were all these messages, left for me as if Mrs. Graham and I had been bosom buddies, which we weren’t.
I should have been extending condolences, not receiving them. I should have been extending condolences to all the people whose lives she touched. Sure, I felt sorry for myself. I also felt sorry for the whole world. Incredibly, impossibly, unbelievably, Mrs. Graham had left it. And now it would have to fend for itself.