A Winning Biography
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner for biography: Katharine Graham. Author of Personal History, not “A Personal History,” as I said at the opening of the program, she’s the former publisher of the Washington Post and the present chairman of the Post executive committee. I spoke to her a short while ago from the Post newsroom.
JIM LEHRER: Congratulations, Mrs. Graham.
KATHARINE GRAHAM, Pulitzer Prize for Biography Winner: Thank you so much, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Tell us how it feels to have won the Pulitzer Prize today.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: I can’t. It’s so exciting. It’s a real thrill and beyond my imagination. It isn’t that my hopes are fulfilled or my dreams are fulfilled. This never occurred to me.
JIM LEHRER: Did it occur to you when you were–your first job was a newspaper reporter covering a labor beat in San Francisco–did it occur to you, hey, if everything goes right for me, someday I’m going to win the Pulitzer Prize?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: I was just thinking about getting from one block to the other.
JIM LEHRER: It never occurred to you this was going to happen even when the book–what about when you started the book? A lot of writers, when they put that first–write those first words, they say, ah, ha, I’m going to win the Pulitzer Prize. You didn’t think about that when you started this book seven, eight years ago?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: I just thought, is the book ever going to get finished and is it going to appear and will it be all right? I mean, I wasn’t dreaming about prizes.
JIM LEHRER: Many–this, of course, is a terrific thing, but there have been many other terrific things that have happened to you in this past few years since this book was published. Tell us about that. Have you been overwhelmed, in a way, by the response this book has gotten?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Yes, I honestly have been. I think in the beginning the reviews really surprised me because they were so favorable. Later on, when it sold well, of course, that was wonderfully satisfying. But I still never thought–because this is the one book I’d written and I had a lot of help from my researcher at Small and from Bob Gotlieb at Knopf–but I just thought, was it all right? It never occurred to me that it would win a prize if you write one book in your life. You don’t think about prizes, do you?
JIM LEHRER: No. You’re batting a thousand, though. One time out, one big, huge prize. But in addition to the book being successful as a piece of–in terms of the critics and in terms of sales–it was also successful, was it not, in terms of the response it received from individuals, from people that nowhere–did not live lives anywhere–closely resembling the kind of live you lived. Explain that.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Well, you know, in a way it’s still hard for me to understand. It rang bells of certain kinds with various people but especially with women in the work force who wrote me that it helped them because I describe all the feminine baggage I brought to work and how it got in my way. And they say that they still have some of this, although obviously less, and that it helped them to know that I went through this and eventually got over these things.
And some people just said this changed my life and really helped me so much. And, you know, that has to be really wonderfully satisfying, and I’m still incredibly getting those letters, of course, not in the amount that I got them at first. But to feel that you are of help to people with something just by writing what happened to you is surprising and wonderful.
JIM LEHRER: And that wasn’t what you set out to do, was it?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: No. I was just writing what happened. I thought people might be interested in the fact that I’d led what I thought of as two separate lives, wife and mother for 23 years, and then working person for 30. And so I hoped that that would interest people.
JIM LEHRER: Where does winning the Pulitzer rate on your list of great things that have happened to you? You’ve had a lot of time to think about your life up till now because you had to when you wrote the book. Where does winning the Pulitzer go on the list?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: I think it very top because it’s so wonderful and so unexpected and such a thrill.
JIM LEHRER: Are you tempted to try again for another book, to kind of continue the dialogue that you’ve begun with so many people?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: I have a motto, which I didn’t originate, which is “Quit while you’re ahead.”
JIM LEHRER: So I take it that’s a “no?”
KATHARINE GRAHAM: That’s a “no.”
JIM LEHRER: That’s a “no.”
KATHARINE GRAHAM: There are a couple of things that I’m playing with that tempt me but I’m not ready to even formulate them yet.
JIM LEHRER: Have you given any thought to the fact, whether you follow up on it or not, that there are so many people out there who want to be talked to at a kind of a straight, let me tell you what happened to me level, the way you did?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Well, I feel that I’d done that, and that I can’t add to what I said, as far as I’m concerned. There are a few other things I might pick up on.
JIM LEHRER: But were you impressed by the need people had, the way they identified with you, and that maybe there is–I’m not suggesting you do it–but that there is a need to talk about these kinds of things that you talked about based on your experience more than we’re doing it in our society maybe?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Well, there were various things that interested different people. Part of it was learning business from the beginning, part of it was the women’s issues, and then part of it was mental illness, which I talked about at rather great length, because I thought that in my day the one thing we wanted to do was hide it. And to some extent I think people are still unwilling to talk about that. And I got amazing and somewhat distressing numbers of letters saying that people related to this in one way or another. Either they were ill, or they had a spouse who was ill or a parent who was ill. And so they really liked the fact that I said we’ve got to talk about it.
JIM LEHRER: And that, of course, was in reference to your husband.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Yes, who had manic depression.
JIM LEHRER: Manic depression. Do you–how are you planning to celebrate the winning of this award?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Well, I don’t exactly know. I haven’t had time to plan ahead, and Don and I are giving a speech tonight in Northern Virginia.
JIM LEHRER: That’s your son, Donald.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: How are your colleagues there on the Washington Post? I mean, the Pulitzer, I mean, that is the biggest thing that happens in the world of journalism and in that newsroom there behind you. How have your colleagues received this news today that Mrs. Graham won the Pulitzer Prize?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: They were wonderful, supportive. All turned out and were–applauded and came and shook my hand. I feel that the book talked about this place and talked about the company and about the Post, and, indeed, to my satisfaction, some of the younger people said, we’re so happy that you told the story of what preceded us. And I feel that they’re really behind me, and they know I’m behind them.
JIM LEHRER: And this prize is–is a personal prize, but it’s also a Washington Post prize. Is that how you feel about it?
KATHARINE GRAHAM: It is because I told my story, but I told the story of the company and the paper and how it developed and what preceded me, and I talked about my parents and about my husband, Phil Graham, and so I felt that I told a whole lot of stories, although I call–it’s called “Personal History.” It’s really the history of a lot of other things.
JIM LEHRER: Well, look, I know you’ve got–as you said, you have to go make a speech with your son and you need to celebrate, but, again, congratulations, and more power to you.
KATHARINE GRAHAM: Thank you, Jim. And thank you for letting me be here.