Katharine Graham is known as the most powerful woman in America. Her autobiography reveals the turmoil within.
You may envy Katharine Graham, and resent or despise the riches and privileges which have cloaked her life. But say at least one thing for the former owner and publisher of the Washington Post newspaper. In an age of instant celebrity, shameless self-pity and rampant braggadocio, she has restored the debased art of American autobiography.

Of late, the coinage has been especially devalued. Dick Morris scoops up $2.5m for a self-serving account of his spell as political adviser to Bill Clinton, abruptly ended by revelation of his affair with a prostitute. The tiniest connection to the OJ Simpson case guarantees an author vast sums, their precise size depending on the sleaziness of the claims and the speed with which they can be rushed into print. Not so, however, The Personal History of Katharine Graham. The lady has paid her dues, both to literature and to life.

The project has been in the making for two decades. To refresh her memory she interviewed 250 people, pored through countless records and personal documents, and even wrote the book herself. The result is what autobiography was meant to be - a considered and honest reflection on a life of almost 80 years, populated by the famous, studded with great events, yet suffused with modesty and self-doubt. Personal History is wrenchingly frank, yet extraordinarily discreet. Katharine Graham has been called the most powerful woman in Washington, indeed America. But strip away the money and fame, and it is a tale with which almost anyone can identify: a woman's struggle to overcome the demons of anxiety, insecurity and low self-esteem, capped by achievements that even now seem to almost bewilder her.

Katharine Graham was born, the fourth of five children, on 16 June 1917. Her father was the wealthy New York banker Eugene Meyer, her mother the beautiful, talented but impecunious Agnes Ernst. She grew up in material comfort but in an emotional desert, a world of nannies and governesses where her parents barely featured. Her mother especially, was a stranger, "dutiful but not very loving", the daughter now admits. "Honestly, I was scared of her. She had high aspirations for me: if you did something, you had to do it very well - and that undermined my ability to do it adequately."

With her father, her relations were at first no less remote, but grew closer after he bought the Post in 1933, at auction for the pittance of $825,000. The paper was a pygmy then, almost bankrupt, the fifth of five in Washington, with a circulation of 50,000, barely a twentieth of today's. But from then on the paper was the family business, into which the daughter was increasingly, albeit timidly, drawn.

But it was in 1939 that the second chapter of her life began, when she met the dazzling young clerk to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter who would become her husband. Clever, handsome and scintillating, Philip Graham overwhelmed Katharine Graham. The book in part is a tribute to him.

"I adored Phil, and I wanted to say how really great he was. He was funny, irreverent, brilliant like the Pied Piper. He lived in an atmosphere of arguing about everything."

Quickly the son-in-law turned into Eugene Meyer's favourite son, and when President Truman gave him a high post in government in 1948, Philip Graham was the natural successor at the helm of the Post. Katharine might have been the heir by blood, but, "as my father told me, `No man should ever be in the position of working for his wife.' "

In those days, home and family were a woman's lot, but for Ms Graham that life would darken. In 1957 her husband suffered his first nervous breakdown, and his disdain for his wife's abilities grew steadily more apparent.

"Subliminally, he would tear me down, he would make me the butt of family jokes, and I'd laugh, without realising I was being made fun of, the butt of family humour. It sounds dim-witted, but that's the way it was."

Soon her life would disintegrate. Phil Graham's descent into the abyss of manic depression accelerated, and on 24 December 1962 she discovered that he was embroiled in an affair with a Newsweek stringer, Robin Webb. That Christmas Eve afternoon, "the world I had known and loved ended for me".

Phil first promised to end the liaison, then asked for a divorce, then sought reconciliation. His behaviour became ever more erratic, stays in mental hospitals ever more frequent. On Saturday 3 August 1963, he talked himself into being allowed a weekend home, and the Grahams drove to the family farm in Virginia. That afternoon, he shot himself to death.

"The illness was basically untreated," she explains today. Back then, lithium didn't exist and doctors did not favour drugs. In retrospect, it wasn't surprising he killed himself, those kind of suicides happened a lot in those days."

But nothing diminished the blame she heaped on herself. "There's no way you can escape guilt with a suicide, and I was riddled with it. How could I have not seen what was happening? How could I have been taken in to believe that he was well enough to be allowed out?"

And so her life had to be rebuilt. Of her later personal liaisons, Personal History vouchsafes only hints. Henry Kissinger was an occasional escort, as was the European visionary Jean Monnet ("energetic and interesting and I can testify to his virility"). She admits to "a passing flirtation with an attractive Italian journalist" in Rome in 1965, at the end of her first foreign trip as the Post's proprietor, rather than the proprietor's wife. And, just maybe, she had an affair with Adlai Stevenson.

"I was always fond of him," but, she writes, "not at all enamoured" of the man she calls her "principal suitor". But what, then, of his sojourn in her room at the US Ambassador's residence in London late on the night of 13 July 1965? The former Democratic presidential candidate, she confides, stayed "at least an hour", and left behind his tie and his glasses.

In a tell-all age, such discretion is positively heroic. Even classier still is her attitude to Robin Webb. Ms Graham displays no vindictiveness or scorn. "She was carried away by Phil, and only slowly must have come to understand his illness. She never gave an interview about her relationship with Phil. She must be a very decent person."

And so, at last, the daughter who became a wife and then a widow finally grew into a woman. Phil Graham's death was a tragedy, but for Katharine a liberation. She had intended to pass the paper to her children, but discovered she loved the job. Initially, the going was rocky. "I seemed to be carrying inadequacy as baggage, I felt I was always taking an exam and would fail if I missed a single question.

"The problem was, I was learning from the top. The best way is to work your way up, assuming more responsibility, but I never had that chance. My insecurity added to the problem - and I was right to be insecure. I didn't know anything."

Crucially, however, she knew enough to appoint Ben Bradlee as editor in 1965, to form the partnership that transformed the Post from an unremarkable local paper into the equal of the New York Times. Today she admits to a sense of achievement, but little more. The real credit belonged to Bradlee and others. "I was lucky enough to stay with it, to keep going, and the thing worked. If I have one quality it's doggedness, just hanging in there."

But her ascent would change the role of women in Washington. On her pedestal of wealth and privilege, Ms Graham was none the less a feminist. The breakdown of barriers against women in the Post newsroom was in part her doing, and smaller rites of male supremacy crumbled before her.

In those days, at any self-respecting Georgetown dinner party, women were expected to leave the table after the meal, to allow the men to discuss the great issues of the time. At one such occasion at the house of the columnist Joe Alsop, when she had been running the Post for several years, "something snapped". She refused to be banished to chatter about children and cooking. Never again were women dismissed from the Alsop table, and within months Washington society had scrapped the archaism entirely. Such are the unsung revolutions in the capital of the free world.

Such obscurity however did not surround the three great events of the Graham reign at the Post. Two are world famous - Ms Graham's decision to sanction publication in June 1971 of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam war, and exactly a year later the break-in at Democratic party headquarters in the Watergate building that would make the Post the most famous newspaper on the planet. Most enthralling, however, is her account of the Strike of 1975, as much of a watershed for the US newspaper industry as would be Rupert Murdoch's rout of the print unions a decade later in Britain.

For the Fleet Street of yesteryear, read 15th Street NW in Washington in the early 1970s. The Post was then burdened with 13 craft unions, and absurd enshrined practices such as "reproduce", whereby ready-set advertising copy had to be reset by in-house printers. In reality, it wasn't - but the mere existence of the agreement meant jobs for life for any printer who wished.

In the production rooms, it was virtual anarchy. "One man went around sucking an orange full of vodka, another regularly wore a Nazi uniform," Ms Graham remembers. "When the (Washington) Star bought the Daily News in 1972, 400 printers came over to the Post demanding work - which they got because of `reproduce'. Overnight we went from 400 to 800 printers."

Ms Graham knew a showdown was inevitable. First came a wildcat strike in late 1973, then a journalists' union dispute a year later, before the climactic confrontation with the craft unions in autumn 1975. On the night the strike began, the print workers smashed the presses, but only one day's publication was missed. After two months of futile negotiation, the Post began to hire replacement workers, and by March 1976 the war was over.

Ms Graham and the Post management had prevailed, but with a heavy heart. "The union killed the goose and its golden eggs by their unbending determination to keep it all," she wrote at the time to a friend. More than two decades later, her memories are no less vivid. "It was the most traumatic thing, a terrible thing. I felt as if I were pregnant with a rock, for I knew the Post's very survival was at stake. But we had to do it."

Today the Washington Post thrives, a veritable licence to print money. Some would say the paper is complacent and stodgy, but its position is unassailable. That perhaps is the greatest legacy of an extraordinary personal journeyn