Katharine Graham was sound asleep when the riot began.
Though union contracts at her paper — this paper, The Washington Post — had expired at midnight, the woman everyone called Mrs. Graham had been assured that everything would be OK, that negotiations would continue.
The phone rang at 4:45 a.m.
“I looked at the clock as I reached for the phone, and was mystified,” she later wrote. “What could it mean?”
An executive at the paper delivered the news. The presses had run at full steam well past the midnight deadline on Oct. 1, 1975. And then they were “Pearl Harbored.” The pressmen set one press on fire and dismantled others. They beat up the foreman, holding a screwdriver to his throat.
The first decision Graham made in a crisis that lasted more than four months was to let her chauffeur keep sleeping. Graham drove herself to The Post, toward the firetrucks and smoke on 15th Street in northwest Washington, to yet another battle in which she was badly underestimated and victorious.
The Pentagon Papers. Watergate. Now the pressmen’s strike.
Graham, who would have turned 100 on Friday, did not seek out or anticipate the remarkable life she ultimately lived — powerful press baron, shrewd executive, Pulitzer Prize winner. The Washington Post was a family business. Her father bought it and her husband, Philip, ran it until he shot himself to death in 1963. His widow kept the store open.
On her centennial, Katharine Graham — Kay to friends, Graham to everyone else even now — will be remembered as the publisher who stood up for freedom of the press, took down a president, and built one of the world’s great media companies, now owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. But her fierce leadership during the pressmen strike — stuffing newspapers, commanding helicopters, playing hardball at the negotiating table — is perhaps the most gripping, resolute moment in her life.
Picketers burned her in effigy. One held a sign that said this: “Phil shot the wrong Graham.” Others physically attacked Post employees, including reporters Jules Witcover, whose teeth were chipped, and Kathy Sawyer, who was hit over the head with a wood board.
Graham feared for her safety.
“This was very personally aimed at Katharine Graham,” said her son, Donald E. Graham, who ran the paper during the strike and later became chief executive officer. “She stood up against people who literally thought they could push her around.”
In her autobiography “Personal History,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, Graham writes of her support for organized labor throughout her life. But relations between management and The Post’s unions, particularly the pressmen, became strained as she expressed concern about rising costs and decreased productivity.
In 1974, a year after famed and folksy investor Warren Buffett bought a large stake in the company, Graham told Wall Street analysts she had set a 15 percent profit goal. The unions thought the Grahams had become greedy. Graham strongly disputed that, telling then Post-reporter Robert G. Kaiser, in a lengthy recounting of the strike in 1976, that “this whole business has been overblown.”
The tension increased. Though labor leaders would later accuse her of trying to the break the union, she insisted before, during and after the strike that it was not her intention. She instructed her management team to, as she put it, “not get us into a situation where we risked a strike.”
Graham assumed she would wake up the morning after the contracts expired and get back to work trying to finalize a contract. Instead, she parked her green Mercedes on the street outside The Post, making her way inside past firemen, picketers and TV crews. She went directly to the press room.
“What I saw shocked and saddened me,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Clearly there had been a riot of sorts. A foot of water covered the floor. The smell of smoke was everywhere.”
Graham and her team got to work trying to find nearby printing plants to produce The Post while the presses were being repaired. There was a massive logistical problem: How would they get the page plates past the picketers? Post executive Roger Parkinson, a Green Beret in Vietnam, had an idea: Helicopters could land on the roof and whisk the plates away.
The executives decided to run a test flight. Because The Post headquarters was in restricted air space, they asked for permission from the White House. “Permission was granted,” she wrote, “though with the stipulation that since Emperor Hirohito was in town we couldn’t fly south of K Street, just one block away from our building, which would take us too close to the White House.”
At the time, the Soviet Union’s embassy was behind The Post’s building. Executives notified the State Department, which said no to the idea. But Graham would not be pushed around by State. She called the secretary of transportation. She won, of course. The test helicopter landed and took off, and The Post now had a way to publish.
That was the biggest problem, but not the only one. There were classified ads to sell and set in type. And when The Post was finally able to print on its own presses five days after the riot, executives had to put together the more than 10,000 papers that went out by mail across the country, a problem the internet would later solve.
Graham — feted by Truman Capote, hostess of salons, grand dame of Washington — was right there working, her hands messy with ink.
“It was a tough job that left us filthy, sweaty, and covered with paste.” she wrote. “We had to roll up each individual paper in a brown wrapper, paste on an address label, seal the whole thing shut, and throw the finished, wrapped package into the big, smelly, heavy, and unwieldy canvas bags at the side of the work-table, which we then dragged over to another station from which they were finally hauled off to the post office.”
Buffett joined Graham some Saturday nights to help with the Sunday paper.
“It made him rethink the price of the Sunday paper — no price was sufficient,” she wrote.
Employees were sleeping at the paper, taking showers in Graham’s private bathroom. Elizabeth Hylton, her longtime assistant, remembers Buffett sending chocolates from See’s Candies, a company he owned. She also remembers (but did not identify) several romances developing.
“You didn’t leave,” Hylton said. “Everybody just did what they had to do.”
Eventually, Graham hired caterers to serve dinner and drinks. They wore tuxedos.
“There was always a large gathering at which those who had produced the paper could get rehabilitated,” she wrote. “We had a piano, and several people played. Jake Lester, one of the electricians, often played his banjo while people sang along.”
Amid all the singing, Graham worried.
“The only way I can describe the extent of my anxiety is to say that I felt as if I were pregnant with a rock,” she wrote. “Yet, despite my inner turmoil, I had to appear calm and determined and to come across as optimistic in order to convey that attitude to others.”
The negotiations dragged on. The pressmen’s union wanted The Post to hire back the employees who had damaged the presses, which Graham vehemently opposed. They neared agreement on wages and work rules several times, only for talks to break down. Eventually, Graham decided to make a final offer. It was declined.
Three days later, The Post announced it was hiring replacement workers. The union was wiped out. Graham went to the newsroom to deliver the news.
“It is a sober moment for this place and for all of us,” she said. “The consequences of what we have been forced to do have been thought about hard.”
Seven hundred people lined up for job interviews the next day, including many African-Americans, whose skin color was not previously represented in the pressroom. “Our first hire,” Graham wrote, “was a black man who had stood on the line in silver platform shoes dressed in a long fur coat.”
Don Graham said his mother did not view the episode as something to be celebrated or that she had even won. The experience had been brutal for everyone involved. During the strike, one pressman committed suicide. Graham was accused of having blood on her hands — a charge she flatly rejected.
If the crisis wasn’t exactly a win for Graham, perhaps it was something more profound.
“It is ironic that I, who have never liked confrontations, should have been faced with this major one,” she wrote. “I hated fights, which I always found unpleasant and invariably feared losing.”
But she had been cornered — again.
“I had no choice,” she wrote, “but to become embattled.” And to refuse to be intimidated.