GREAT BARRINGTON – Robin Gerber’s new play The Shot, explores the aftermath of the turbulent marriage of former Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and her husband, Philip, who preceded her at the helm of the capitol’s newspaper of record. Phil Graham, who elevated the newspaper to national political prominence, suffered from bipolar disorder and ultimately took his own life in the family’s vacation home, leaving Katherine to find his body. Katherine took over as publisher days after the suicide, and ultimately guided the paper to the apex of its influence with coverage of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal and built its parent company into a billion-dollar media empire.
The Shot is a solo show featuring actress Sharon Lawrence, and is being presented by The Great Barrington Public Theater from Thursday, June 16 through Sunday, June 19, at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.
Half Jewish through her father’s line, Katherine Graham was born into the fantastically wealthy and influential Meyer family, among the prominent Jewish families originally from the Alsace region of France. Her grandfather was the American president of Lazard Freres investment bank and her father, Eugene, was a successful investor and speculator, and later chairman of the Federal Reserve, who purchased the then-bankrupt Washington Post in 1933. Katherine’s non-Jewish mother, Agnes Elizabeth Ernst Meyer, was a philanthropist, activist, and illustrious patron of the arts, and used the paper to advance her pet causes.
In her 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Personal History, Graham recounts: “Remarkably, the fact that we were half-Jewish was never mentioned any more than money was discussed. I was totally – incredibly – unaware of anti-Semitism.” She writes that religion was not a big part of her family’s life and while her father’s Judaism was not a source of shame, neither was it a source of pride.
In 1940, Katherine Meyer married Philip Graham, a Harvard-educated lawyer and scion of a prominent family from Miami, Florida. Her father bequeathed him more shares in The Washington Post than he did to her, explaining that “no man should be in the position of working for his wife.” She became a self-proclaimed “doormat wife,” writing in her memoir that “as [Phil] emerged more on the journalistic and political scenes, I saw my role as the tail to his kite – and the more I felt overshadowed, the more it became a reality.” As Phil’s mental illness advanced, he became more and more abusive of his wife, and derided her with cruel anti-Semitic insults both behind closed doors and publicly.
Robin Gerber’s play, a fictionalized version of Graham’s experiences, opens with Graham receiving an award, and then reflecting on her marriage and her own resilience and success in the aftermath of Phil’s suicide. In May, the playwright – who is a historian and novelist who presents talks on women’s leadership issues (visit robingerber.com for more info) – spoke with the BJV about the play and how a video reading of The Shot was offered during the pandemic to theaters and domestic violence organizations to use as a fundraiser. Those events raised more than $25,000 for the participating non-profits.
Katherine Graham was from a very wealthy family that was connected to a lot of other illustrious families – I don't know if Steven Birmingham might have called them “Our Crowd” Jews since they were from France, not Germany, but they definitely had that level of social prominence. Tell me about what being half Jewish might have meant to her.
Eugene Meyer built a financial empire and was also very socially conscious. He married a Lutheran woman whose family had had prominence but lost its money, and he bailed them out. He wasn't very physically attractive and it was always kind of implied that Agnes married him for doing that. Agnes was quite a character, very cultured, and this features prominently in the play. She was a real intellectual, friends with Thomas Mann, Auguste Rodin, and Einstein. Agnes had this exceptionalism and she expected her children to be exceptional, too, although she didn't have a whole lot of interest in mothering. We're talking about parents who were very absent. The kids were very much raised by nannies and she had to make an appointment to see her mother. I think she really did adore her father, though.
In one of the scenes, Katherine is very proud to tell her mother she read The Three Musketeers. Then her mother says, “You read it in French, of course.” And when she says no, her mother says, “Kid, you continue to be such a dull child.” Her mother was quite taken by Phil, though. There's a scene in play where she sort of says, “Just what are you doing with Katherine?” So, I think there she was set up to not think highly of herself the way sometimes women who are abused have been in childhood. So you describe yourself as a doormat wife. That she was also being abused and psychologically and physically is not really surprising.
You have a wonderful actress in Sharon Lawrence. How have you structured the play?
Katherine has just accepted an award. And in doing this, she says, ‘In truth, I don't dwell on all these achievements. I really have been thinking more about what happened before, before I took over the paper.’ And then it becomes a memory play explaining about Phil and their life. And parts of that life were wonderful. You see her become this happy housewife having children. But then the dark side starts gradually emerging, as she describes it, a descent into a tunnel that seems to have no end.
Was Phil a true S.O.B., the wrong man for her to marry, or was he more a guy who had this terrible problem, bipolar disorder?
He was a highflier. He was editor of the law review at Harvard and clerked for [Supreme Court justice] Felix Frankfurter. He was brilliant. He was good-looking. He had a kind of narcissism that we've seen in recent years in such an unfortunate way. He craved attention. He craved getting in with important people. He was a good friend of Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. But Katherine’s own brother told her at their engagement party that Phil had gotten dead drunk and passed out on the lawn. And her brother said to her she might want to rethink this. But the moment went by, and she got carried away with the planning for the wedding. So I think there were hints, but he was he seemed pretty spectacular to her as a catch.
Her dad felt good about giving Phil the paper. He was so smart. Unfortunately, Phil didn't really get that a publisher doesn't insert themselves into policymaking. He kind of wanted to do that, too. When she took over the paper, it was not a very good paper.
Does this story have a more universal message about women’s leadership issues that you've written about and given workshops about?
Hitting a place of tragedy, of incredible difficulty, and rising out of it s a very universal theme. People absolutely wanted Katherine to sell the paper, or bring in someone to run it until her son was old enough. They circled like vultures to try and get that paper from her. And the idea that she could walk in the office three days after her husband’s suicide and say, ‘I'm going to run this,’ even though she was wholly unprepared, truly unprepared [is remarkable]. She kind of ghosted around for seven years, but ended up being a terrific, amazing publisher, one of the greatest publishers probably in our history. Her style of leadership was one I really believe in – she listened first. She spent her time going to every department, getting out of her office, and seeing what people were doing.
I don't want to overshadow the issue of intimate partner violence and domestic violence, because that's really what the play is about. And it's not just her story. I interviewed many women who had been abused. There's an epidemic of it in our country, probably around the world, too.
We gave a video reading of the play to domestic violence groups around the country so they could raise money during COVID. Women who have been survivors of abuse found it inspirational. We can do something to help women in this situation no matter their circumstances – even if they’re rich, even if they grew up with a powerful family. There's a point in the play where Katherine asks the audience, ‘Why didn't I leave?’ That is the question that we want answered. That answer is, in some ways the hardest of the play for people can understand – how difficult it is for people to leave.
But it is possible. And in her case, she not only left, but had this great life.
The Shot, by Robin Gerber and directed by Michelle Joyner, runs from June 16 to June 19 at the Liebowitz Black Box Theater, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington. The play is being presented by The Great Barrington Public Theater. For more information, visit greatBarringtonpublictheater.org.