The Incredible True Story Behind Meryl Streep's Movie 'The Post'

Here's the what the woman behind Meryl Streep's character was really like.

Meryl Streep just earned an Oscar nomination, her 21st to be exact, for her portrayal of legendary Washington Post publisher Katharine "Kay" Graham in Stephen Spielberg's The Post. The film depicts Graham's historic—and risky—legal battle to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Here's what the trailblazer was like in real life—and how the publication of a set of secret government documents changed American history forever.


In June of 1971, the New York Times began to publish classified defense department documents. Known as the Pentagon Papers, they were a secret history of America's involvement in the Vietnam War. The Times ran these stories for two days until the Nixon administration stepped in to block the paper. As the Times described it, "for the first time in American history, the Government sought—and won—a temporary court order barring a newspaper from publishing a news article."

Spielberg's film centers around the days that followed that court order, when Graham and her executive editor Ben Bradlee (played in the movie by Tom Hanks) wrestled with the decision to pick up where the Times left off, and continue to report on the documents in the Post. At stake were an expensive legal battle, as well as several of the company's lucrative television licenses, which the Graham family would lose if they were convicted under espionage laws.

Eventually, they published, a decision about which Graham had final say. "Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, 'Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let's go. Let's publish,'" she would later write.


In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers nobly did that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.

Just a few hours after that first story broke, the Post was asked to stop printing classified information by the attorney general's office. Alongside the New York Times, Graham and her paper fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court—and win. The court ruled that the paper's first amendment right to make information public trumped the government's right to keep secrets. "In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers nobly did that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do," wrote Justice Hugo L. Black.

Graham and Bradlee's decision had profound and far-reaching consequences—it revealed that the Johnson administration had lied not only to the public but to congress about the scope of the Vietnam War. It also made a powerful statement about the importance of investigative journalism as a check against the government.

Graham and Bradlee in 1971.

But as Streep sees it, Graham and Bradlee were just doing their jobs. They had no idea just how impactful their work would become.

"They had no idea that history was going to shift so profoundly by this,” Streep told People. "They were just trying to get their deadlines, to solve a mystery. To negotiate where this could fall out personally, how this could personally jeopardize careers. All those little decisions that go into anybody making the right civic decision. The right decision as a citizen. To stand up for something true."

Though Graham that her decision to publish would put her paper in mortal danger, the story ultimately raised the stature of the Washington Post and ensured her legacy. "It was just sort of the graduation of The Post into the highest ranks,'' Bradlee said. ''One of our unspoken goals was to get the world to refer to The Post and New York Times in the same breath, which they previously hadn't done. After the Pentagon Papers, they did."

The publication of the Pentagon Papers also directly led to both the Watergate scandal, and the Post's coverage of it. In response to the confidential leak, President Richard Nixon created a covert group of staffers called the White House Special Investigations Unit or "The Plumbers." Members of that group would go on to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.



Katherine Graham never expected to be the publisher of the Post, though she was born into the family that owned the paper. In June of 1933, when Graham was 16, her father, Eugene Meyer, bought the Washington Post at auction. Per the paper itself, he paid only $825,000 for the whole operation—the business had been in bankruptcy because of the Depression and "the extravagant mismanagement of its owner, Edward Beale (Ned) McLean."

Meyer, who had earned his money on Wall Street, poured funds into the paper, eventually buying one of its rivals, the Times-Herald. He ran the paper until 1946, and despite his daughter Kay's interest in publishing—she previously worked as a journalist in the newsroom—it was her husband, Philip Graham, who took over the Post when Meyer stepped away. ''In those days, of course, the only possible heir would have been a male,'' Graham wrote of that period. Two years later, Kay's father turned over ownership of the paper to his daughter and son-in-law.

Graham at a luncheon in her honor in 1974. Her grandchildren Pamela and Katherine are sitting in front of her chair.

But Phil Graham's tenure as the Post's publisher came to a sudden end in 1963 when he committed suicide. Traumatized by her husband's death and unsure of her ability to lead the enterprise, Kay Graham had a difficult decision to make: Sell the paper or run it herself.

“There were rumors all over Washington that we would sell the paper," Graham's daughter Lally Weymouth told People. “But she knew she was not going to do that. She knew she wanted to run it but she had no experience as a working woman."

"What I essentially did,"Graham said, "was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes and step off the ledge. The surprise was that I landed on my feet."

What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes and step off the ledge. The surprise was that I landed on my feet.

Just a few months after her husband's death, Katharine Graham took control of the company becoming its president. Truman Capote's famed black-and-white ball served as a sort of coming out party for the widow. The New York Times reports that initially, her plan was to simply hold on to the Post until her sons were old enough to run it.

Instead, she would go on become the Post's named publisher, chairman, and eventually, the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company in America. Under her tenure, the company grew and prospered, eventually going public.

Graham and Capote at the Black and White Ball.

In 1970, her son Donald succeeded her as publisher. She remained chairperson of the board until 1993. (The family sold the company to Jeff Bezos for $250 million in 2013.)


The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, is a full account of Graham's life from a privileged childhood and friendship with the Kennedys to her unexpected career as a media mogul. As Nora Ephron put it, her story "parallels to a surprising degree the history of women in this century. It's also a wonderful book."

Signing copies of her book in 1997.


She passed away in Boise, Idaho from head injuries sustained in a fall while attending a media industry conference. She was 84.

"She set the newspaper on a course that took it to the very top ranks of American journalism in principle and excellence and fairness," Bradlee said at the time. "That's a fantastic legacy."


At Katharine Graham's memorial service in 2001, her son Donald Graham and daughter Lally Weymouth, far left, are joined by Vice President Dick Cheney, Lynne Cheney, Liz Cheney Perry, Former President Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then Senator from New York, then-New York Governor George Pataki, Mrs. Pataki and then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Graham never remarried and was survived by her four children, daughter Lally Weymouth, a journalist, and three sons, Donald, then the Post's chairman and CEO; William, an investor; and Stephen, a historian. William Graham took his own life late last year in Los Angeles.

This story originally appeared on
* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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Caroline Hallemann
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