Jill Went Up the Hill

No obstacle could keep Abramson from becoming the first female executive editor at The New York Times

After being appointed to executive editor of The New York Times in June, Jill Abramson compared the move to “ascending to Valhalla,” the blissful banquet hall of the Viking afterlife.

In Norse mythology, admission to Odin’s golden palace required a mortal to perform feats of strength and acts of bravery in battle—which 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, Abramson’s friend since high school, recalling 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, Abramson’s appointment, which takes effect Sept. 6, 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 Abramson while she took a sabbatical to study digital media.

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.

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, 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 Abramson is now the trade magazine’s star alumnus.

Brill was famously demanding of his cub reporters. He assigned a list of the most powerful law firms to 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 Abramson’s husband, Henry Griggs III, a consultant to nonprofit groups, took a job in D.C., she expressed interest in transferring. 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. 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. Abramson had thrived for six. Pearlstine recommended 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 Mayer, who was the first female White House correspondent at the Journal.

“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.

Abramson’s move from the Journal to The New York Times was a lateral one and, according to 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,” Steiger remembers her saying. “It’s my bible.”

It was a difficult period. 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 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’ Washington bureau.

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

The tale of Abramson’s Times redemption could be a sermon on the heavenly virtues of diligence and humility, but 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 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, Abramson grew up on the Upper West Side and attended the progressive, highly competitive Fieldston School.

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, Abramson’s small role received a less favorable review than Griggs’ piano accompaniment. (Abramson no longer acts, but Griggs continues to play piano, at parties.)

They raised two children, who are now in their early 20s. Cornelia graduated from Columbia Medical School last year and is now a surgery intern at New York University 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 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 Abramson’s rise: she accomplished it without fully accommodating herself to the institution’s still largely male culture. 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,” Abramson told The Observer.

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 Mayer when an issue of The New Yorker comes out without a single female byline.

“We don’t have to necessarily wear padded shoulders that make us look like men or be serious 24 hours a day about everything,” Mayer said. “She can both kick ass more than anyone as a news person and make a great salad dressing.

“That’s the ultimate liberation,” she said.

Keller saw the Times through the integration of the digital newsroom and the implementation of the pay wall, but it will be Abramson under whom the ventures’ success or failure will be determined.

“The customer is going to be looking at content across several platforms; the challenge is maintaining editorial standards across platforms,” Pearlstine said. “How do you encourage a different voice? How much do you demand a brand be consistent?”

Here, Abramson’s split editorial personalities—the three books she’s written are a feminist history, a nonfiction book of political and judicial analysis and a puppy memoir, after all—could give her the fluency to mesh the Times’ disparate operations.

The job also involves defending the Times’ expensive operations to the Sulzbergers, who have not seen a dividend on their Times shares since 2009. According to an Adweek report from the annual meeting in May, some shareholders are getting antsy.

This all still seemed a distant concern a few weeks ago, when The Observer bumped into Abramson in the winding cave of the 42nd Street-Port Authority subway station.

At that moment, Abramson was a national trending topic on Twitter, but she walked through the station unnoticed, accompanied by her predecessor, Keller.

They were on their way to dinner.