Martha Mitchell: Washington Personality, Wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, and American Folk Hero

Richard Nixon told David Frost, “If it hadn’t been for Martha, there would have been no Watergate.”

Let that sink in. What Nixon meant was the time her husband John Mitchell spent on wife Martha, he was not tracking and making sure the various nefarious deeds of the Nixon re-election campaign and keeping them from discovery. Nixon always taking the low road.

Only people of a certain age remember Martha Mitchell. Her late night, booze-filled telephone conversations were all the rage during the Watergate era. There was a lot of strangeness surrounding Martha, not just things she said or did, but blowback from people protecting Richard Nixon.

Martha had the big hair, snarky commentary and Southern charm. She was popular with Middle America, but not always with the Washington crowd. Her brashness and tell-it-like-it-is attitude got her in a lot of trouble. Martha Mitchell is coming to the small screen in Starz’s Gaslit with Julia Roberts as Martha and Sean Penn as John Mitchell.

Martha Mitchell, Pat Nixon and Mamie Eisenhower

This blog is not about the Starz series, which premieres soon. I had been planning to write about Martha as a part of my Watergate series. There is a very good biography of Martha by Winzola McLendon published by Random House in 1979. McLendon was a Washington journalist and friend of Martha who witnessed first hand the turbulence of Martha’s Washington years and the aftermath of Watergate. Her book, Martha, The Life of Martha Mitchell, is a detailed and fascinating read, but it’s a sad tale of a woman consumed by her insecurities and the whitewater of high stakes Washington politics. Martha and McLendon were supposed to publish a book together on Martha, but it turned into McLendon’s book after Martha’s death. There was much sadness and disappointment in Martha’s life; particularly her last year, when she faced illness, financial problems and family estrangement.

Martha Elizabeth Beall was born and raised in the South, She was a Southern belle even after the family’s money ran out and her father killed himself. Martha did not let those things stop her, she would marry men of means and then did what wives of important men did – volunteering on the correct committees and causes. Martha was not a wallflower nor content to just look pretty and be a fine hostess. She got her feet in the work world, and later was a tenacious campaign worker during Nixon’s 1968 presidential run. She pushed herself to get a seat at the table, even when she wasn’t welcome there.

Martha’s second husband was John Mitchell, the Attorney General. She was of a generation and a culture that tended to live through their husbands, but Martha did not stop there. She had a voice and opinion and she let them be heard. At first, she was an asset to Mitchell and the GOP, she was ballsy and knew when to turn on the Southern charm to take control of a situation.

Martha loved the status that being married to Mitchell brought, and certainly the money. When they readied for the move to Washington after the 1968 election, Martha bought them a duplex in the Watergate complex (how fitting), undertook the expensive remodeling, and bought herself a new wardrobe, appropriate for the parties and events of a Cabinet member’s wife. A Cabinet wife had status.

She also loved the perks that came with Mitchell’s job, and the generosity of President Nixon, who had the government pay for their travel, entertainment, security (FBI protection for Mitchell, Martha and their young daughter), free long distance phone calls, frequent use of the Presidential yacht, and a government car and driver for her.

Martha was even encouraged (by the White House) to call Senate wives and her Southern friends to support Judge Clement Haynesworth who was nominated for a Supreme Court vacancy. This effort backfired as her strong-armed tactics offered many of the wives. Following Nixon’s cue to involve Cabinet secretary wives, Martha came up with a variety of activities and causes, which did not always help her popularity with them. Martha had a frosty relationship with First Lady Pat Nixon, who she called plastic.

I had forgotten until reading in McLendon’s book how much Martha did for Richard Nixon. She was sent all over the country during the 1972 campaign, talking up Nixon and his agenda. She received so much fan mail that she an office and staff at the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) after Nixon asked Mitchell to leave the Justice Department and head up the 1972 re-election campaign. Martha hated her husband’s resignation and repeatedly asked him to decline, but Mitchell was Nixon’s man, even after Nixon through him under the bus and drove over him a few times. McLendon wrote that Martha hated the demotion, she was no longer a Cabinet wife and the great government perks ended. Mitchell and Martha’s marriage began a swift decline, even though the Washington years had already taken its toll on them. Martha soured on Nixon during his first term and became convinced that Nixon was bad for the country and was up to no good. She witnessed his vindictiveness, paranoia and self-preservation. She was one of the first supporters that sounded the alarm on Nixon.

Mitchell was known to talk to Martha about government business, using her as an ear, but also seeking her opinion. It was known (and feared) that Martha listen in on her husband’s phone calls, and later revealed that she went through his briefcase at night, reading whatever files and documents Mitchell brought home. Martha saw nothing wrong with this practice. On the campaign trail, Martha had been used in various roles and seemed to cherish the spotlight. While she had no official role as a Cabinet wife, this did not stop her from maintaining visibility and talking to the press. One particular interview she gave, criticizing protesters, talking about violence and communism drew the ire of the White House, but not Nixon, who wrote her a note telling her to keep it up.

As Nixon’s 1968 election committee chairman, Mitchell wielded great influence with the President and may have been a closer advisor as A.G. than anyone in recent history except Bobby Kennedy. Martha’s public persona, known to voice her opinion and enjoy the spotlight, at first was a great GOP resource. Like Vice President Spiro Agnew, she could carry the water for the White House without it splashing on Nixon. Naturally, she was booked on talk shows and sent on campaign appearances. Later, both Nixon (in the Nixon-Frost interviews) and H.R. Haldeman (Nixon’s chief of staff) blamed Martha for Watergate. Not that she planned the break-in or engaged in the cover-up, but she took Mitchell’s valuable time. He (Mitchell) took his eye off the ball, they said.

The question people were asking was whether Martha was a loose cannon who on her own was speaking to reporters, or whether she was a guided missile aimed by the White House to deliver their talking points, but disavow any knowledge of her actions. She said that Mitchell and others encouraged her. In the beginning, her outspokenness and charm made her so popular that it was her photographed and asked for autographs.

Martha and the news media had a symbiotic relationship. She formed relationships with several journalists who got inside information from her, listened to her ramblings, and attended her parties and other events. The media helped to create Martha’s public image and popularity. While her husband was A.G., she was provided a Justice Department employee to help with her fan mail, arranged to have reporters at her events and kept track of her print stories and photographs. Martha was pretty shrewd in building and utilizing her media contacts. Outside of Washington, she was seen as a sort of folk hero, especially as Watergate brought down Nixon’s team.

Martha had problems with alcohol, McLendon said it fueled her insecurities, and underscore the growing friction with her husband. Mitchell eventually grew tired of it, and Martha’s trips to the hospital and facilities to dry out were not lasting. Her drinking and outspokenness were easy to label as personal problems or mental illness in an effort to discredit her.

A disturbing incident opens the book, something this seems more fictional than truth, but it did happen. The weekend of June 17, 1972, while the Mitchells were in California for re-election business, Martha was drugged and physically restrained by security working for the re-election committee that her husband was the chairman. She was prevented from leaving, denied food or access to a telephone and roughed up causing bruises on her arms and face.

Martha at that point was a liability, and it was feared she would telephone the media with information highly damaging to Nixon’s re-election campaign. That California weekend was life-changing for Martha. First, it hastened the breakup of her marriage to Mitchell. Second, it accelerated her insecurities and problems with alcohol. Third, even though her and Mitchell would leave politics and move to New York, her ear with Nixon and the inner circle escalated. Martha had a telephone call to White House reporter Helen Thomas and railed about Nixon’s Watergate guilt. That phone call would drive Mitchell away from Martha.

Martha died in September, 1977, and had not seen her estranged husband for two and a half years. Their relationship was beyond repair and he would take his revenge against Martha in many ways during her terminal illnesses and after her death. Certainly, his life with Martha was “challenging”, and after being sentenced to prison for his part in Watergate, Mitchell remarked, “It could have been a hell of a lot worse. I could have been sentenced to spend the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell.”

At her funeral, someone had send a large flower arrangement that said “Martha Was Right”. Martha was also one of a kind.

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