Jill Abramson: Our Lady of Gray

The climb to Valhalla is treacherous—but lawyers, babies, Howell Raines and a barreling truck couldn’t keep Jill Abramson down.

She is risen. Illo: Fred Harper

LAST THURSDAY, Jill Abramson compared her appointment to executive editor of The New York Times to “ascending to Valhalla,” the blissful banquet hall of the Viking afterlife.

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In Norse mythology, admission to Odin’s golden palace required a mortal to perform feats of strength and acts of bravery in battlewhich Ms. Abramson’s biography does not lack. She’s taken on hostile lawyers, conniving editors and a refrigerated truck on her way to becoming the first female executive editor in the paper’s 160-year saga.

“I think she has a lot of plate metal in her,” said New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, Ms. Abramson’s friend since high school, recalling Ms. Abramson’s long recovery from a broken leg and foot after being struck by a truck in Manhattan in 2007.

“She is bionic in many ways, even literally.”

Still, Ms. Abramson’s appointment was no foregone conclusion. For one thing, she is not a Times lifer, as Bill Keller and Howell Raines were. Washington bureau chief and assistant managing editor Dean Baquet was a formidable opponent, having already served as the top editor at the Los Angeles Times and successfully subbed for Ms. Abramson while she took a sabbatical to study digital media. Other rivals included Larry Ingrassia, who had revitalized the business section, and Andy Rosenthal, the longtime Op-Ed editor.

The news was certainly a surprise to her family.

“I was squealing, on the street, on my phone, when she called to tell me she got it,” her daughter, Cornelia Griggs, told The Observer.

Ms. Abramson’s former colleagues credit Steve Brill with first putting her through the trials that would make her a warrior worthy of the Times. In 1979, Mr. Brill launched The American Lawyer and filled its masthead with a class of bright, young journalists. Among them were future Mad Money host Jim Cramer, Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler, New Yorker writer James B. Stewart, and Businessweek editor Ellen Pollock.

No slouches, to be sure, but Ms. Abramson is now the trade magazine’s star alumna.

Mr. Brill was famously demanding of his cub reporters. He assigned a list of the most powerful law firms to Ms. Abramson and others and insisted they report the firms’ financial data. Private practice attorneys, unaccustomed to press scrutiny, didn’t appreciate the attention and were anything but forthcoming.

On the plus side, corporate lawyers were as dismissive of male reporters as female ones, which made for a level playing field.

When Ms. Abramson’s husband, Henry Griggs Iii, a consultant to nonprofit groups, took a job in D.C., she expressed interest in transferring. Mr. Brill put the 32-year-old journalist in charge of his latest acquisition, a D.C. legal trade publication called The Legal Times.

Following the birth of Cornelia, she downshifted to working part-time. Mr. Brill told her, “Let’s assume you’re going to work three-quarters time or half time, and you tell me if you’ve worked less or more.”

“With someone like Jill, there’s no way I wasn’t going to get more than my money’s worth,” he said. But no bargain lasts long. The next year, she was snagged by The Wall Street Journal.

“Anyone who could survive a year with Brill I’d be interested in looking at,” Bloomberg chief content officer Norman Pearlstine told The Observer. Ms. Abramson had thrived for many more than that. Mr. Pearlstine recommended Ms. Abramson to Al Hunt, then Washington editor of the Journal, who hired her to do investigative pieces on the intersection between politics and business.

Quickly recognized as someone with a knack for management, she was later named Washington bureau chief.

Throughout, she remained close with Ms. Mayer, who was the first female White House correspondent at the Journal. They were gym buddies, whose locker-room talk mostly involved the machinations of power in D.C.

Jill Abramson: Our Lady of Gray