There are a lot of very interesting things in New York‘s latest profile of Joan Didion, pegged to her latest book about her daughter, an oft-glimpsed but little-explained presence in much of her work. But I’m most intrigued by the news that “Didion kept working, tirelessly. There were screenplays, which she had so often written with her husband: a movie on Katharine Graham and an adaptation of her novel The Last Thing He Wanted.”
A Katherine Graham movie is such a good idea. Obviously some of the relevant, exciting territory, namely the Washington Post’s reporting on Watergate, is covered masterfully in All the President’s Men. But as with the Pentagon Papers, which the Post ran after Attorney General John Mitchell got a federal injunction to keep the New York Times from publishing them, Graham had to make difficult decisions about publishing Watergate material and stand up to considerable federal pressure on her reporters. Mitchell’s threat that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published,” is a revealing — and immortal line that, delivered by the right actor, would be a marvelous encapsulation of the sexism Graham had to overcome as one of the first and most powerful female publishing executives.
And it’s a genuinely moving story. Hollywood tends to overdo it on the ladies-with-self-esteem-issues, but Graham had to genuinely overcome some psychological issues, from her husband’s affair and suicide, to a crushing lack of self-confidence fostered both by her upbringing and her marriage. Her growing confidence, her friendship with Truman Capote (who founded the Black and White Ball to cheer her up), and her triumphs as a publisher, all make for a powerful illustration of institutionalized sexism, and a story about how you move a big institution forward. Graham wasn’t a perfect progressive hero — she could be tough on her unions. But she’s a fascinating women. And good journalism movies rarely acknowledge the importance of executives.