The Key to Kay’s Revolving Door
By Rich Thomas
Katharine Graham grew famous for her quick trigger firing most of the top editors that she herself had picked.
Managing editor Osborn Elliott, along with Ben Bradlee, the Washington bureau chief, had both helped The Washington Post buy Newsweek from the Astor Foundation in 1961. Post president Philip Graham rewarded Elliott by making him editor in chief. Katharine Graham stuck with Elliott for 6 years in the wake of her husband’s death, then moved him to the business side as president in 1969. Six editors revolved through the door in the next dozen years: Kermit Lansner (1969-72), Oz Elliott again (1972-74), Edward Kosner (1975-79), Lester Bernstein (1979-82), William “Bill” Broyles (1982-84), and Rick Smith, who ended the parade.
The turnstile had also spun on many of Mrs. Graham’s business executives at the parent Washington Post Company. Speculation varied. Most observers put it down to callow inexperience. Mrs. Graham herself confessed in her memoire, Personal History, that for years she was learning on the job. But the changes kept coming, extending the puzzle. The parent company and Newsweek were booming, circulation was thriving and the magazine was taking down whole shelves’ full of editorial awards each year.
Rough, Tough: One fact seems clear. All of those fired built their careers in the chauvinist, pre-1970 world where women didn’t count. They seem to have been unable to stop patronizing
Mrs. Graham after she had earned her spurs. On a visit to the San Franscisco bureau even in the mid 1970s, Mrs. Graham told staffers that the New York editors usually just ignored her suggestions at story conferences she attended. “They all look at me as if I had dropped a wet fish in their laps,” she said.
One Washington reporter in the 1970s shared a cab with Mrs. Graham from LaGuardia Airport to Newsweek’s then headquarters on 444 Madison Avenue. They had no sooner settled in than Mrs. Graham began an intermittent monologue, falling silent sometimes for minutes after every sentence. “You know,” she said, “these little fellows up here like to think of themselves as rough and tough and snotty…Really big bad guys who can handle anything and anyone anyway they like… Well, you know…one of these days…I’m going to show them what rough and tough is really like.” She then provided some examples of imperious behavior without naming names. The reporter listened, dumbstruck. She was talking about a whole pack of his superiors.
Between Us: As the cab pulled up to the building, Mrs. Graham leaned over and put her hand on the reporter’s arm. “You know,” she said, “I fear I have been a trifle indiscrete. I do hope you will consider this little conversation that we have had strictly entre nous.”
"Conversation? What conversation," the reporter thought. He hadn’t said a word.
“Oh Mrs. Graham,” he heard himself saying, “don’t worry at all on that account.”
The housecleaning came a few months later: Lester Bernstein was out as editor, an assistant managing editor was gone as well, and two or three of the older senior editors of the magazine’s editorial sections were fired too.
The Key: Richard (Rick) Smith, editor of the international editions, finally turned Newsweek’s crown of thorns into laurel. Smith ascended to editor in chief in 1984 and prospered for more than two decades, picking up the titles as president, CEO and chairman before he retired in the late 2000s.
I congratulated Rick in 1988 for managing his relationship with Mrs. Graham so wonderfully, where everyone else had failed. What was his secret?
“It’s real simple,” said Smith. “The others ran the magazine as if it was theirs. They rarely discussed stories and covers with her when they were in preparation. When I got the job, I figured that Mrs. Graham not only was CEO of Newsweek but she owned the place. So I thought she had every right to be involved in Newsweek as much as she wanted. And she did want to be involved. So I consulted with her early and late each week, letting her comment, even change things if she wanted. She rarely did change anything. All she wanted was to be in on the take offs as well as the landings.”
Note: Most of the top editors who got fired went on to fine careers elsewhere. Oz Elliott became deputy mayor of New York, then dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, and wrote a biography, The World of Oz, in 1980. Lester Bernstein, well into his sixties, also wrote a book or two. William Broyles has authored bestselling novels, several TV series, and scripts for half a dozen or so blockbuster movies. Edward Kosner went on to be editor of Esquire, New York magazine, and the New York Daily News. He then wrote a memoire, It’s News to Me: The Making and Unmaking of an Editor, in 2006.
Copyright: Rich Thomas, 2012
Rich Thomas served as business writer in New York and chief economics correspondent in Washington from 1962 until 2002.