Former Post publisher, subject of new movie, 'knew Fargo'
FARGO — The late Katharine Graham, once publisher of the Washington Post, is becoming known to a new generation through Meryl Streep's portrayal of her in "The Post."
The movie, which stars Streep as Graham and Tom Hanks as her swashbuckling editor, Ben Bradlee, opens in theaters Friday, Jan. 12.
William C. Marcil, former longtime publisher of The Forum and chairman of Forum Communications Co., knew Graham as Kay. He found her somewhat reserved and "very businesslike" in her dealings, but said she became more open over time.
"She was quite a lady," Marcil said. "I liked Kay Graham. I really did. She was hard to get to know. It took her awhile to get to know people."
Besides being publisher of the influential newspaper, Graham was well connected with leading political figures, and luminaries regularly attended dinner parties at her Georgetown home.
"Once Henry Kissinger was there," said Marcil, who attended a couple of her dinner parties.
The two publishers got to know each other well after serving together for years on the board of the now-defunct American Newspaper Publishers Association beginning in the late 1970s.
That was after the dramatic events depicted in "The Post," when the Washington Post stepped in to resume publication in 1971 of what were known as the "Pentagon Papers" after rival The New York Times was barred by court order from continued publication of the classified documents that told a secret history of the Vietnam War.
In the 1980s, Graham even visited Fargo, where Marcil hosted a board meeting for publishers from around the country.
"She knew Fargo, she knew North Dakota," Marcil said. Among their get-acquainted activities, the visiting publishers toured Jack Dalrymple's farm near Casselton.
In 1984, Graham wrote Marcil a letter with word that the Washington Post had acquired half ownership of Cablecom, the cable television service.
"I'm also pleased we own half of Fargo's cable company," she wrote. "I hope we give good service." (The Washington Post, now owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, sold its stake in the cable firm years ago.)
At the time of the Pentagon Papers controversy, the Post had just become a publicly traded company, and Graham worried that the defiant move, putting the newspaper at odds with the federal government, would give investors the jitters.
The Pentagon Papers were a trove of leaked secret documents about the Vietnam War contradicting the official version of government officials' pronouncements. The documents revealed, among other matters, that four administrations had misled the public about the expanded scope of the war into neighboring countries.
An even more famous confrontation would come a few years later with The Post's coverage of the Watergate scandal, which led to President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974.
Graham, who died in 2001, abruptly became publisher after her husband, Philip Graham, a South Dakota native, died by suicide in 1963. She was also a native of South Dakota, and as a young couple the Grahams spent time during World War II in Sioux Falls, where there was an air base.
"She was thrust into a man's world," a time when professional opportunities for women were much more limited than today, Marcil said. "She was shy to start with," but became self-assured and commanding as she became seasoned.
"She had a lot of confidence in Ben Bradlee," he said. "He wanted to be the center of all activity whenever he was in a room. He was a damn good newspaper man."
Marcil was to learn firsthand the influence Graham had through her connections. As president of the newspaper publishers association, Marcil had extended an invitation to President Ronald Reagan to address the group at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
As the event drew near, Marcil hadn't heard from the White House, and was getting nervous. He decided to call Graham, who owed him a favor. Two weeks later, he got a call from the White House. Not only was Reagan willing to address the publishers, he would make himself available for a private reception.
"I said, 'Kay, how did you do that?'" Marcil said. "She looked at me and said, 'I play tennis with Michael Deaver,'" a senior White House official.