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.

“Jill and Jane weren’t the first women in the Washington bureau, but they were stars, and they were a force to be reckoned with,” former Journal editor Paul Steiger told The Observer. (They later formed a sort of triumvirate with Maureen Dowd.)

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Ms. Abramson’s move from the Journal to The New York Times was a lateral one and, according to Mr. Steiger, slightly lower paying.

But she was determined to work at the paper of record. “I don’t turn to the money and investment for comfort reading the way I turn to the culture coverage at The New York Times,” Mr. Steiger remembers her saying. “It’s my bible.”

It was a difficult period. Ms. Abramson battled constantly with then-executive editor Raines from her station in Washington. He reportedly tried to move her to the books section, in hopes, it was thought, of making space for his favorite reporter, Patrick E. Tyler.

But Ms. Abramson had earned the good will of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., whom she’d known as he trained to inherit the family business by doing a stint as a reporter in the Times’s Washington bureau.

When it became clear that Mr. Raines had put too much faith in his favorites, like Judith Miller and Jayson Blair, Ms. Abramson’s judgments were affirmed. In the aftermath of Mr. Raines and his deputy Gerald Boyd’s implosion, a new regime was left standing in the rubble, and Mr. Keller and Ms. Abramson were it.

THE TALE OF MS. ABRAMSON’s Times redemption could be a sermon on the heavenly virtues of diligence and humility, but Ms. Abramson is a devotee of a more secular faith.

The Times substituted for religion in my house,” she said in an interview with Times media reporter Jeremy W. Peters. And now it’s up to her to fulfill the holy covenant.

The second daughter of textiles importer Norman Abramson and his wife, Dovie, Ms. Abramson grew up on the Upper West Side and attended the progressive, highly competitive Fieldston School.

“She had great skirts,” remembered Ms. Mayer, her former schoolmate.

From there it was off to Harvard, where she studied history and worked as a stringer for Time. She met Henry Griggs Iii when they appeared together in a college production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. In the Crimson, Ms. Abramson’s small role received a less favorable review than Mr. Griggs’s piano accompaniment. (Ms. Abramson no longer acts, but Mr. Griggs continues to play piano, at parties.)

They raised two children, who are now in their early 20’s. Cornelia graduated from Columbia Medical School last year and is now a surgery intern at New York  Presbyterian Hospital. Will is a founder of Cantora Records, home of popular indie rock acts MGMT, Violens and Rifle Men. Will’s childhood friend William Woodson, who spent stints living with the Griggses, is an unofficial third sibling. He now works in hospitality and lives in New York. In Arlington, Va., the family’s Sears Roebuck-style bungalow was the kind of laid-back house where teenagers congregated and flopped on furniture, a Westie asked to be played with and something was cooking.

The crew now splits their time between Tribeca and Connecticut.

Times obsessives know that the family now has a new dog, Scout, a golden retriever. They also know Ms. Abramson feels bad about buying Scout from a breeder and not a shelter, worries about the nutritional content of Scout’s treats, arranges play dates for Scout and lets Scout up on the couch, because she wrote a column about Scout’s first year in the Garden section of the Times (it has been expanded into a book to be published by Times Books in October).

The puppy column illustrates what’s most groundbreaking about Ms. Abramson’s rise: she accomplished it without fully accommodating herself to the institution’s still largely male culture (especially at the managing editor level).She is stylishly dressed. She is proud to have played a crucial role in national security stories and is an unabashed fan of T Magazine.

“After 25 years of work as an investigative reporter and editor, I’m not too worried about being taken seriously,” Ms. Abramson told The Observer.

Ms. Abramson has a reputation for spotting and developing talent, especially among women. She lured star Washington reporter Helene Cooper from the Journal. She mentors younger female reporters and editors in the newsroom and offers casual guidance to her daughter’s friends in the industry. And she routinely pings Ms. Mayer when an issue of The New Yorker comes out without a single female byline.

Jill Abramson: Our Lady of Gray