It was during her sophomore year at Harvard that Abramson met her future husband, Henry Griggs, a preppy musician with a hank of dark hair falling over his forehead. They appeared together in a Noël Coward play, with Abramson, whose favorite book is The Great Gatsby, portraying a flapper. “She was pretty, clearly smart as hell, funny and a bit exotic, being a native New Yorker,” recalls Griggs, who grew up in Connecticut. “When I asked her if she had been in many plays, she said she had not. But since she was reviewing plays for the Independent, she thought it only right to see how it feels to be reviewed! It’s a remark that has stuck with me for nearly 40 years.” Her performance earned her less than stellar notices, but Griggs says her stage gambit was memorable to him because it “revealed great empathy, remarkable intellectual honesty and a courageous willingness to take a risk and perhaps even fail in a very public way.”
Griggs proposed to her in 1980, on a ferry ride from Nantucket, upwind, he says, of the diesel fumes, and they married the following year. The pair have been together ever since, a longevity Griggs chalks up to “complementary personalities. For example, I don’t eat pizza crust, and she loves it.”
After graduation, Abramson continued working for Time’s Boston bureau, where she counts herself fortunate for having had a “young, dynamic female,” the late Sandra Burton, as her first boss. She then did stints as an advertising copywriter in South Carolina and a TV-news election researcher in New York before landing a reporting job at the American Lawyer, where she worked for the notoriously hard-to-please publisher Steven Brill. In 1986, Brill made her editor of his D.C.-based newspaper Legal Times. That same year she also published her first book, Where Are They Now, an examination of the difficulties facing the first class of female Harvard Law School graduates. Pegged as a rising star, she was recruited by the Wall Street Journal’s D.C. bureau in 1988, despite a hiring freeze at the paper.
As his wife was moving up in journalism, Griggs, a writer, editor and public affairs consultant, worked for unions and nonprofits, making hers the career with the greater flash. But despite her success, she insists she has never plotted a path to the top. “I don’t have a strategic approach,” she says with a laugh. “I would say it’s the opposite of strategic. It’s opportunist.”
What she reveled in, during those D.C. years, was her growing reputation as someone unafraid to expose skulduggery and scandal. When Washingtonian magazine put her on a 1992 list of “Women Who Scare Men,” she was flattered. At home, however, Abramson kicked off her pumps and took pleasure in her role as suburban mother of two. She and Griggs bought what she describes as a sturdy “Sears bungalow” on Garfield Street in Arlington, Virginia. They filled it with furniture and children—daughter Cornelia and son Will—but didn’t do much else to improve it. She jokingly called the house Garfield Acres and once took her good friend, Times columnist Maureen Dowd, to the county fair pig races. (The two became chummy during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings—their eyes locked across the Senate caucus room when the word penis was uttered.)
Arlington neighbor Diane Duston, then a journalist with the Associated Press and still a close friend, says Abramson was the kind of working mom who could be counted on to lend a hand in a child-care emergency. “One night my husband was out of the country, and our son was one,” she says. A late-evening vote on legislation that Duston was covering required her to go back to the Capitol. “I had a baby and no babysitter! I called Jill, and she came to my rescue.”