Everyone knows the story of the Watergate scandal: the botched break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters 50 years ago this June, the White House cover-up and President Nixon’s resignation. But who remembers the scandal’s most extraordinary subplot, the kidnapping and public trashing of Martha Mitchell, the feisty and outspoken wife of Nixon’s attorney general, by White House henchmen intent on silencing her?
Martha sensed very early that Nixon and his aides were engaged in “dirty tricks” to secure the president’s re-election in 1972. She sought to alert journalists to what would become the 20th century’s greatest political scandal. Had she been taken seriously, the cover-up might never have happened and Nixon might have survived. But she was not.
The media swallowed the White House line that she was mentally unstable and an alcoholic. Her marriage broke up. Her life unraveled. Within four years she had died of cancer – alone, impoverished and aged just 57.
Martha soon became a forgotten victim of the Watergate scandal, and of the misogyny of that era. But not any longer. The tragic story of Watergate’s first whistleblower, the forerunner of the much better-known “Deep Throat”, is about to be resurrected in Gaslit, a television series that retells the scandal using her as the central character. She is played by Julia Roberts, her husband by Sean Penn.
It has taken half a century, but this flawed but brave and honest woman can finally, posthumously, expect a degree of rehabilitation.
Nothing about Martha’s upbringing suggested future celebrity. She was born in 1918 in Pine Bluff, a small town in Arkansas. Her father was a cotton broker, her mother was an elocution coach.
A teacher at Pine Bluff High School, perhaps unaware that Martha was dyslexic, said she had “a good mind when she used it – but she never used it. She was a pretty, happy, empty-headed little girl.”
She graduated from the University of Miami. Her parents refused to let her become an actress. She taught briefly before returning to Pine Bluff to work as a secretary at an army base. In 1945 her boss transferred to Washington DC and took her with him.
Had she been taken seriously, the cover-up might never have happened and Nixon might have survived.
There she met and married Clyde Jennings, an army officer who became a traveling salesman after the war. They moved to New York and had a son, Jay, before divorcing in 1957. Soon afterward, she met John Mitchell, a former torpedo boat commander who was by then a wealthy lawyer. They married, settled in the affluent New York suburb of Rye, and had a daughter, Marty.
Nine years later, John Mitchell met Nixon, a former US vice president, when their law firms merged. They became close friends. In 1968 Mitchell chaired Nixon’s successful presidential campaign and was appointed attorney general. The family moved to Washington where Martha soon became well known as a feisty, fun-loving, tart-tongued, attention-seeking socialite who made gossipy late-night telephone calls to reporters from her swanky Watergate apartment.
She called anti-Vietnam demonstrators “communists”. She lobbied senators’ wives to persuade their husbands to support a controversial Supreme Court nominee. She refused to curtsy to the Queen, saying “an American citizen should not bow to foreign monarchs”. She appeared on talk shows, gave interviews and was a sought-after speaker at Republican events.
With her beehive hairdo and southern drawl, she was dubbed “the Mouth of the South”. The New York Times called her “the most talked about, talkative woman” in Washington. Time magazine wrote, “Martha’s trademark is her mouth… Agape with laughter and framed in dimples, it dominates the Washington social scene – cocktail parties, state dinners, White House functions, ladies’ luncheons – and shoots off for appreciative newsmen, telling it as Martha thinks it is.”
She certainly enlivened Nixon’s starchy, buttoned-down, male-dominated Washington, but she dealt not just in social gossip. Much of it was political and she kept herself informed by eavesdropping on her husband’s telephone calls or rifling through his papers.
Neither he nor Nixon seemed concerned. The attorney general smiled at his wife’s indiscretions, fondly describing her as his “unguided missile”. He protested, “What else can I do but let her speak? She has no inclination to be quiet. She’s not politically motivated; she’s just saying what she feels.”
The president called her “spunky” and – as long as she targeted liberals – told her to “give ’em hell”. J Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, said, “She is one of the most loveable girls I’ve ever met. She says what she thinks and lets the chips fall where they may.”
Then, in March 1972, Mitchell resigned as attorney general to head the Committee to Re-Elect the President – later known by the derisive acronym Creep – ahead of that November’s election.
He was by then Nixon’s most trusted friend and adviser, nicknamed “the heavyweight”. As attorney general, he had taken a tough line on law and order, but he now controlled a secret slush fund to finance various forms of political skullduggery, including bugging and bribery. He also approved the Watergate break-in by five dubious characters, dubbed “the plumbers”, allocating $250,000 for the operation.
When the “plumbers” were arrested in the small hours of Saturday, June 17, the Mitchells were in California for a weekend of fundraising events with people such as First Lady Pat Nixon, the state governor Ronald Reagan and his wife, and the actors Zsa Zsa Gabor, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne.
Mitchell swiftly denied any White House involvement in the break-in. One of those arrested, James McCord, had been publicly identified as a member of Creep, but Mitchell claimed he was merely a private consultant whom the committee had employed months earlier to install a security system.
Mitchell’s problem was that his famously indiscreet wife would know that was a lie. Martha knew McCord was Creep’s security chief. He therefore sought to prevent her from learning of his arrest.
He persuaded her to remain in their hotel and enjoy the sunshine while he returned to Washington. He told a former FBI agent named Steve King to stop her seeing any newspaper or television coverage of the burglary. “They had me at a brunch. They had me at a cocktail party. They had me at a reception and a dinner all day Sunday. They kept me going all that day,” she recalled. But on the Monday morning she spotted McCord’s picture on the front of the Los Angeles Times and her suspicions were aroused.
From then on she became, she said, a “political prisoner”. She tried in vain to speak to her husband on the telephone. That Thursday she managed to call her favorite journalist, Helen Thomas of the UPI wire service, and said she had “given John an ultimatum”. She would leave him unless he quit the “dirty business” of politics. She was “sick and tired of the whole operation”.
Before Thomas could quiz her further, she heard Martha shout, “You just get away – get away.” Then the phone went dead. When Thomas called the hotel operator, she was told Martha was “indisposed”. When she called Mitchell, he dismissed her concerns. “That little sweetheart,” he said. “She gets a little upset about politics, but she loves me and I love her and that’s what counts.”
Martha soon became well known as a feisty, fun-loving, tart-tongued, attention-seeking socialite.
Martha was not seen again until she appeared at a New York country club the following weekend with severe bruising on her arms. She told Thomas, “I’m not going to stand for all the dirty things that go on. If you could see me, you wouldn’t believe it. I’m black and blue… They don’t want me to talk.”
She said King (whom President Trump appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic in 2017) had yanked the phone cord from its socket. She was then locked in her room and physically restrained when she tried to escape from her balcony. The following day, she sought to escape again, put her hand through a glass door during a scuffle, and required six stitches. Finally, she was pinned to her bed by five men as a doctor forcibly sedated her.
Martha’s story should have caused uproar. It did not. New York’s Daily News ran the story under the headline “I’m a prisoner of the GOP”, but The New York Times relegated it to page 25 without mentioning Watergate. Other publications put it on their women’s or social pages. “Editors thought it was just another case of Martha being Martha and newsworthy only because it revealed a rift in a very public marriage,” Thomas wrote in her memoirs.
Nixon loyalists simultaneously launched a vicious smear campaign to discredit Mitchell, portraying her as a mentally fragile woman who drank too much.
“Everyone knows that Mrs Mitchell has her private, personal problems… She can be perfectly charming and then at other times – especially at night – she is not herself,” said one anonymous official. Another claimed that “the pressure has taken a toll on Martha’s nerves, that she has a severe personal problem”. The Washington Star reported, “Republicans, in the highest places, have been inferring that Mrs Mitchell has had a nervous breakdown.”
Mitchell complained that the White House “treated me abominably, half-crucified me”. But the dirt stuck, not least because she did drink and was a bit zany.
Two weeks after the Watergate break-in, John Mitchell accepted his wife’s ultimatum. He resigned from Creep and the Mitchells moved into a 14-room apartment on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue that he dubbed the “Taj Mahal”.
That November, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, but by then The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had learned of Mitchell’s slush fund. When Bernstein asked him about it, Mitchell famously told him, “Katie Graham [the Post’s owner] is gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s ever published.”
As the scandal deepened in early 1973 and Mitchell’s role came under increasing scrutiny from congressional and federal investigators, Martha staunchly defended her husband.
She complained to The New York Times that he was being made “the goat” for the whole affair, and she was “not going to let that happen”.
Long before other public figures, she demanded Nixon resign, telling an impromptu news conference on Fifth Avenue, “John Mitchell was the honest one in the whole lousy bunch. And who do you think he’s been protecting?” Asked to clarify, she replied, “Mr President.”
She told UPI that her husband was deeply depressed and reclusive. Of Nixon she said, “He bleeds people. He draws every drop of blood and then drops them from a cliff. He’ll blame any person he can put his foot on.”
Bob Woodward described her as “the Greek chorus of the Watergate drama – sounding her warnings to all who would hear”.
But Martha was also learning the extent of her husband’s complicity in Watergate, and within their vast apartment their marriage was collapsing. According to the Slow Burn podcast that inspired Gaslit, “Martha told John that he had to choose between his family and his president – which is to say, he had to turn on Nixon and save himself, or else.”
A source told Woodward and Bernstein, “Martha yells at him all day long that he ought to take every damn one of them down, including Nixon. Anything he knows about the president being involved, though, he’s keeping to himself.”
She kept herself informed by eavesdropping on her husband’s telephone calls or rifling through his papers.
Mitchell was indicted but refused to plea bargain. Testifying before the Senate Watergate committee, he refused to incriminate Nixon. That September, he left Martha without even saying goodbye. She told People magazine that he took with him not only their 13-year-old daughter, but also their maid, chauffeur and her Rolodex file of telephone numbers.
She said he was “a fool for choosing to shield the president”, and that her marital problems had begun when he “fell into the clutches of the king [Nixon]”. According to Winzola McLendon, her biographer, she took down his portrait and using “turpentine and such kitchen supplies as cleaning pads, Ajax, Clorox… erased John Mitchell’s face from the canvas”.
They never spoke again, although she sued him (successfully) for alimony and (unsuccessfully) for custody of their daughter. He was later convicted of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice, and served 19 months in prison. “It could have been a lot worse,” he quipped. “They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell.”
Martha enjoyed some vindication when Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974. Six months later, she enjoyed more when McCord, by then convicted for the Watergate break-in, confirmed that she had been held against her will.
“Martha’s story is true. Basically the woman was kidnapped… They kept her locked up,” he told an interviewer. There had been “a great effort in the White House to discredit Martha Mitchell… They were extremely jealous of her and feared her because she was very candid.”
But by then her life was imploding. She was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. She was alienated from her family. She was broke. She was “drunk almost as often as she was sober”, The Washington Post reported, and her few remaining friends had to dissuade her from suicide. She died alone in a New York hospital in May 1976.
The following year, Nixon, who had been pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, blamed her for his fall from grace.
“If it hadn’t been for Martha, there would have been no Watergate because John wasn’t minding the store,” he told David Frost. “He was practically out of his mind about Martha in the spring of 1972. He was letting Magruder [Jeb Stuart Magruder, Creep’s deputy director] and all these boys, these kids, these nuts run this thing. The point of the matter is that if John had been watching that store, Watergate would never have happened.”
Martha Mitchell was buried in Pine Bluff. An anonymous well-wisher sent an arrangement of white chrysanthemums to her funeral that spelled the words “Martha was right”. Within a few years, her sad tale was almost forgotten except, curiously, in the psychiatric world. There, the process whereby a patient’s truthful description of a bizarre event is dismissed as delusional became known as the Martha Mitchell effect.
Gaslit is available to stream on Starz in the U.S. and on Starzplay in the U.K. beginning April 24, 2022
Martin Fletcher is a London-based freelance journalist specializing in foreign affairs and domestic politics. He is also the author of Almost Heaven: Travels Through the Backwoods of America