Martha Mitchell's Revenge: The Bombshell Truth About the Prolific Watergate Tea Spiller

From Julia Roberts' humanizing turn in Gaslit to Netflix's The Martha Mitchell Effect, the irrepressible socialite who antagonized the crumbling Nixon administration is having a moment.

By Natalie Finn Jun 17, 2022 12:00 PMTags

Fifty years ago, the Watergate scandal chewed up and spit out a lot of men in Richard Nixon's orbit.

But there was also a woman who was unceremoniously thrown to the wolves as the walls started to close in around the 37th president of the United States.

Martha Mitchell was the wife of former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, who left the Justice Department to manage Nixon's re-election campaign. Stylish, charming and more in demand for magazine covers and talk shows than first lady Pat Nixon, Martha was the irrepressible life of the party—until the outspokenness that made her a favorite of Washington society proved a little too unpredictable for Nixon and his cronies.

"She would have been really popular today," Julia Roberts, who plays Martha in the Starz series Gaslit, quipped on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in April. "She was a woman who, in that time, in the position that she held—which was the position of wife—she should have been glamorous and quiet."

Instead, the Oscar winner added, "she was glamorous and loud."

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The Nixon administration "really took advantage" of how popular Martha was with the American people, Roberts said. "They really put her out in the forefront as much as they could...Until they didn't."

And the way in which she was relegated to the background as a delusional drunken gadfly became the stuff of reputation-trashing nightmares. (And psychological malpractice, the "Martha Mitchell effect" becoming synonymous with gaslighting—treating someone who sees things perfectly clearly like they're the crazy one.)


But now, amid the myriad 50th anniversary retrospectives on Watergate, Martha is having a moment. The stranger-than-fiction saga told in Gaslit was aided and abetted by the first season of Slate's Slow Burn podcast, which kicked off its 2017 deep dive into Watergate with an episode exploring Martha's role in blowing the lid off the scandal that ultimately resulted in Nixon's resignation and the indictment of 14 people, including her husband.

How the lady crowned "The Mouth of the South" affected the course of history—and how she was treated while doing so—is also being explored in the new Netflix documentary The Martha Mitchell Effect

Because in the annals of history's countless misunderstood women, here's one who has quite rightly benefited from the passage of time.

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Mr. and Mrs. John Mitchell

Martha had a prickly relationship with her husband's time-consuming, stressful work in Washington. She was his devoted (second) wife and a plucky Nixon advocate, but she was always quick with a pithy remark and showed no interest in towing any line.

"It's quite a comedown in many ways," Martha told TIME in 1969 of life in Washington. "We're not living on the same means that we had in Rye, N.Y. I had to sell my stock, and now we are having to dip into the till. I think the government should give us free housing. We'll be happy to go back and make some money."

But she had known John, her second husband, for 15 years and, from the minute she first saw him, "I knew he was an extremely outstanding person," Martha said. "He loves to sit with me and work. Most women, when their husbands walk in the door, start complaining about their chores and children. But I don't think any woman should burden her husband in that way. No matter what my husband is doing, he's dedicated."

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When news broke on June 17, 1972, that five men had been arrested for breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex to bug the offices earlier that morning, it was front page news in Washington the next day, though not yet the kind that bumped the latest on the Vietnam War from the top spot.

At the time, John and Martha were in California attending campaign events.

What Happened to Martha Mitchell in California?

As the story goes, after issuing a statement denying that the Nixon campaign was in any way involved with the break-in at the DNC, John flew back to Washington. But he left Martha at the Newporter Inn in Newport Beach under very bizarre circumstances. 

He was reportedly so concerned that Martha would find out that James McCord Jr.—the head of security for Nixon's re-election committee whom she knew because he'd previously served as a bodyguard for the Mitchells—had been arrested and loudly connect the dots, he ordered campaign security staff to keep his wife entirely away from the news. 

Or the news away from Martha, at least, which meant confining her to her room.

But Martha managed to acquire a copy of the Los Angeles Times and entered the narrative in an indisputably splashy way, calling veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas from the Newporter Inn on June 22, 1972. 

"I gave him an ultimatum," Martha told the journalist, referring to her husband. "I'm going to leave him unless he gets out of the campaign. I'm sick and tired of politics. Politics is a dirty business."

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Thomas wrote for UPI that she heard Martha say to someone on her end, "You just get away," and then the call abruptly ended.

She called back, but the hotel operator told her, "Mrs. Mitchell is indisposed and cannot talk."

Reached for comment, John told Thomas that his wife was doing great. "That little sweetheart," he said. "I love her so much. She gets a little upset about politics, but she loves me and I love her and that's what counts."

Sure, Martha wanted him out of the game, he added. "Martha has never been happy with me in politics. We have a compact. We have agreed were going to get the hell out of this gambit. We aren't going to be in Washington after Nov. 7. Were going to leave lock, stock and barrel. We have that understanding. Were going to get out of this rat race. We have no interest."

Martha was in California with her secretary and their daughter, Marty, and it was probably one of them who hung up the phone, John offered.

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Nixon, perusing the news of the day in the Oval Office, wrote in his diary, "Good answer by John."

The day after she called politics a "dirty business," an unnamed associate from the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (aka CRP—or CREEP, as it would later be spelled out) was quoted saying, "Everyone knows that Mrs. Mitchell has her private, personal problems. These are something only her husband can solve. She can be perfectly charming and then at other times—especially at night—she is not herself."

The polite character assassination had begun.

Martha Mitchell, "Political Prisoner"

Martha maintained that Thomas had not just been hung up on.

Rather, as was recounted by numerous publications who got plenty of scoop from the woman herself, Martha alleged that a member of the Republican National Committee's security team, a former FBI agent named Steve King, had taken it out of her hand and later ripped the cord from the wall. (When the events were recounted on Slow Burn, King, who had no comment, had been appointed U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic under President Trump.) 

She was locked in her room, Martha told the New York Daily News, and cut her hand breaking the glass of the patio door.

Martha also said that, after the phone incident, she was forcibly tranquilized, a doctor giving her an injection in her rear end while security held her down.

On June 25, Martha—by then back on the East Coast—phoned Thomas again and told her she was "a political prisoner."

"I'm not going to stand for all those dirty things that go on," the Pine Bluff, Ark., native said. "If you could see me, you wouldn't believe it. I'm black and blue."

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The Washington Post Takes on Watergate

John resigned as Nixon's campaign manager on July 1, 1972, citing his "one obligation which must come first: the happiness and welfare of my wife and daughter."

Talking to reporters before they left Washington, Martha sought to prove that rumors of her so-called breakdown had been greatly exaggerated. "I want to be sure that my side is revealed in that people know I'm not sitting here a mental case
or an alcoholic," she said.

This was in a time when current events could actually be buried within the pages of a newspaper and swiftly forgotten, and even Thomas' dispatches from those curious phone calls were relegated to the "lifestyle" sections.

But Bob Woodward, who along with Carl Bernstein was heading up the Washington Post's coverage of Watergate, wanted to know more about the woman who was "becoming the Greek chorus of the Watergate drama—sounding her warnings to all who would hear," as the journalists' 1974 book on the scandal, All the President's Men, described her.

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On Sept. 21, 1972, Woodward flew to New York, where the Mitchells had since relocated and were staying at the Essex House while waiting to move into their grand new apartment on Fifth Avenue.

When Woodward called their hotel the next morning, he was initially told Martha wasn't available. Waiting in the hallway, he saw a security guard leave so he ran downstairs and called again, and this time Martha answered. When the operator broke in to say another 5 cents was needed to extend the call, she quipped, "I wouldn't want Katie Graham to spend another nickel on me."

(That would be Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. When, days later, Woodward and Bernstein contacted John Mitchell for comment on the story they were planning to run about John having controlled a secret Republican fund used to finance digs for dirt on Democrats while he was attorney general, he told them, "All that crap, you're putting it in the paper? It's all been denied. Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's published. Good Christ! That's the most sickening thing I ever heard.")

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But Woodward persevered and, when a few maids knocked and were let into the Mitchells' suite, he knocked right after and Martha herself opened the door.

During their 15-minute chat, Woodward reported in the book, Martha was "visibly nervous" when the subject of Watergate came up and didn't have anything to say about it or her previous comments about "dirty politics" and the sordid situation she'd been in that June. She told him she was writing a book about her life in Washington—and that Nixon was going to win re-election in a landslide.

"I think there shouldn't be an election," she said. "If you ask me, the President should have a seven-year term and, boom, then put him out. They start running again after they're in office two years. I don't care which party you're talking about."

Woodward's account of their interview ended up in the Post's "Style" section as well.

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On Sept. 29, 1972, the Washington Post broke the news of John's control of the secret fund.

"Why do they keep asking me about the Watergate affair?" Martha joked at a $1,000-a-plate Republican fundraising dinner she attended with John just weeks before Election Day. "I never had any Watergate affair!"

But though Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, it was all downhill for those who planned the Watergate break-in—and the men who tried to sweep it under the rug.

G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the CRP; former CIA agent and White House aide Howard Hunt, whose phone number was in the address books of two Watergate burglars; James McCord, the security coordinator who Martha happened to know, and the rest of the more easily sniffed out participants known as the Watergate Seven were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping. (All pleaded guilty except McCord and Liddy, who went to trial and after 90 minutes of jury deliberation were found guilty in January 1973.)

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Yet the hunt continued into who knew what, and whether there was meat to be found higher up in the food chain.

"I fear for my husband. I'm really scared," Martha said during a late-night call to the The New York Times on March 27, 1973, as another grand jury was convened in the Watergate investigation. "I have a definite reason. I can't tell you why. But they're not going to pin anything on him. I won't let them, and I don't give a damn who gets hurt."

During that time, Nixon told Secretary of State William Rogers (per Richard Reeves' President Nixon: Alone in the White House), "I think Mitchell authorized it. I don't think he did it perhaps in a very conscious way... Mitchell was all tied up in his Martha problems."

Before John was due to appear before the grand jury, an associate of his told Carl Bernstein, "For a ruined man, he's holding up very well...He hits the sauce every once in awhile. He's still got all his marbles. Martha yells at him all day long that he ought to take every damn one of them down, including Nixon."

After testifying in April 1973, John told reporters that he had attended meetings when he was attorney general at which the idea of bugging Democrats was discussed, but maintained that he had never approved any intelligence-gathering by way of wiretaps. "We certainly were not authorizing any illegal activities," he said.

He had told the grand jury that he authorized payments to the conspirators known as the Watergate Seven, but to cover their legal fees, not buy silence.

"I've Been Right, Haven't I?"

In early May 1973, giving a deposition in a civil lawsuit filed by the DNC against CRP officials, Martha testified that her husband had always assured her he had nothing to do with the Watergate break-in. If he was, "I didn't know it," she said. "I hope and pray to God" he wasn't.

As for the president, she "just couldn't say" if he had known about the plan to bug the DNC.

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Asked by a reporter on her way out of her lawyer's office if she felt her husband was being scapegoated, Martha replied, "He's not a scapegoat anymore. We've got all the crooks out."

"You know I've never really known anything about the Watergate case," she told the New York Times after testifying. "But I'm glad its all coming out. It's like a breath of relief—a breath of fresh air."

"I guess I'm exonerated," she added. "I've been right, haven't I?" 

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Talking to Helen Thomas again that month, Martha said she thought Nixon should resign

"I don't like [Vice President Spiro] Agnew, but my God, I think he's better than Nixon," she said. "I've told my husband repeatedly that I may not be here many years, but Marty will be, and his grandchildren."

"I have been at the mercy of the White House for four years," she also said in May, per McCall's. The administration "has treated me abominably, half-crucified me, have sent out lies through the press."

Winzola McLendon, Martha's close friend since college and author of the 1979 biography Martha, told McCall's in the summer of 1973 that it wasn't John who decided his wife needed to be silenced and discredited. As a rule, John "thoroughly enjoys her pronouncements," McLendon said. "Or he did enjoy them—let's put it that way."

In another candid moment in July 1973, this one with the Associated Press, Martha declared that no one in the South cared about the ongoing Watergate hearings, which she deemed "as much rehearsed as any play on Broadway."

"What they did to me in California was a heck of a lot worse than anybody breaking into Democratic headquarters," she added. "They didn't steal anything, they didn't hurt anybody, they didn't kidnap anybody. I was kidnapped in California."

"Please Nail Him"

Seven more of the president's men, including John Mitchell, former White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and former special counsel to the president Chuck Colson, were indicted on conspiracy charges in March 1974. 

John and Martha separated not long after. That spring, she called up Bob Woodward and invited him to come on over and have a look at her estranged husband's office. "He walked out and left me with $945," she told the Post at the time.

"She's the angry wife," Woodward remembered thinking, talking to the Washington Post Magazine for a June 7 story. "But she's a reliable angry wife."

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Talking to the Post's lawyer before he went to New York to go through John's things, they arrived at the conclusion that John having left Martha meant he had abandoned his paperwork as well.

"Have at it, boys," Martha, martini in hand, told Woodward and Bernstein when they arrived. "Please nail him. I hope you get the bastard." She ordered in Chinese food.

Later threatened with legal action by John's attorney, Bill Hundley, Woodward—who said he never confirmed the lawyer's assumption that Martha had given him documents, citing his right not to reveal sources—copied the documents they gathered from that day and then returned the originals. He told the Post in 2022 that he didn't tell Bernstein or editor Ben Bradlee about his decision until afterward, and they supported him. 

The Prescient Martha Mitchell

Martha sat down with the BBC's David Frost in 1974, telling the journalist she was onto the shady behavior of Nixon's men as far back as 1968, when her husband first served as his campaign manager before becoming attorney general. 

"But you see, I was brainwashed," she explained. "I was told that this is what goes on in campaigns."

She agreed with Frost's take that her story about being kidnapped in 1972 was incredible. "The whole thing is incredible!" Martha exclaimed, throwing her hands up. "It's like reading a James Bond novel. You can't believe it. I can't believe what's happened to me."

Martha had nothing to say about Nixon, but "as far as John Mitchell is concerned, as I said the other night in the States, he's dead. Absolutely dead. He doesn't exist."

Before he could be impeached, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.

On Jan. 1, 1975, John Mitchell was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. Sentenced to a maximum of eight years in prison, later reduced to one to four years, he ended up serving 19 months—not starting until June 2, 1977—in a minimum-security facility before being paroled due to health concerns.

"It could have been a hell of a lot worse," he said at first. "They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell."

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Martha died of multiple myeloma, cancer of the bone marrow, on May 31, 1976, at the age of 57. She was laid to rest in her hometown of Pine Bluff.

She and John, who died in 1988, were still married but had never reconciled. The NY Times reported that he was "very concerned" about her condition but not at the hospital when Martha died.

"I'm convinced that if it hadn't been for Martha, and God rest her soul, because she, in her heart, was a good person," Nixon later rambled to David Frost in his infamous 1977 interview with the British journalist. "She just had a mental and emotional problem that nobody knew about. If it hadn't been for Martha, there'd have been no Watergate, because John wasn't minding that store."

Sure, Dick.

Ironically, Martha only knew so much about Watergate—it's not as if G. Gordon Liddy himself apprised her of all the details—and she could never say for sure what, exactly, her husband's role was. But as Carl Bernstein told the Post 50 years later, "what she was so right about from the beginning was the cover-up."

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