Martha Mitchell

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Martha Mitchell
Martha Mitchell 1969 - NARA - 194649 (cropped).jpg
Martha Elizabeth Beall

(1918-09-02)September 2, 1918
DiedMay 31, 1976(1976-05-31) (aged 57)
New York City, New York, U.S.
EducationStephens College, Missouri
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
University of Miami (BA)
Known forWatergate scandal
The Martha Mitchell effect
Clyde Jennings, Jr.
(m. 1946⁠–⁠1957)

(m. 1957⁠–⁠1973)

Martha Elizabeth Beall Mitchell (September 2, 1918 – May 31, 1976) was the wife of John N. Mitchell, United States Attorney General under President Richard Nixon. She became an embarrassment to Richard M. Nixon because of her comments to the media about the government at the time of the Watergate scandal. Just prior to the complete unravelling of the Watergate cover-up, she accompanied John Mitchell to California on a campaign visit. While there, and after her husband left her to return to Washington, she was kept in her hotel room by a security guard. When she tried to escape she was physically abused.

Early education and family life[edit]

Martha Elizabeth Beall Jennings Mitchell was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on September 2, 1918.[1] She grew up the only child of cotton broker George V. Beall and drama teacher Arie Beall (née Ferguson).[1][2] Living in a rural area, Mitchell's friends lived far away, and she recalled in a Saturday Evening Post interview that she mostly grew up playing with the children of her "mammy," or African-American domestic worker, who lived with the family on the farm.[2] As a little girl, she liked to sing, particularly as a member of her church choir. Her mother hoped she would become an opera singer.[2] As a child, she studied singing around the country and, at Northwestern, she studied piano.[citation needed]

For the first six years of her education, she attended a private school, switching to a public one during the Great Depression.[1] She graduated from Pine Bluff High School in 1937.[3] Under her high school yearbook picture was the quote, "Love its gentle warble, I love its gentle flow, I love to wind my tongue up, And I love to let it go."[4] Her biographer noted that she was dyslexic, and struggled to read aloud.[5] She attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, with hopes of studying premed;[citation needed] she had wanted to be a pediatrician when she grew up, but blamed her Southern accent for difficulty with learning Greek and Latin.[2] Instead, she became a Red Cross Nurse's Aide in one of the organization's very first chapters, and claimed that, at one time, she had given more hours to the service than anyone else in the country.[2] She eventually transferred to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and finally the University of Miami,[1] At college, she joined Chi Omega and was president of Sigma Iota Chi.[2] She was fascinated by the arts, and had dreams of becoming an actress, but her family would not allow it.[2] She ultimately received a BA in history.[citation needed] After graduation, she worked for about a year as a seventh-grade teacher in Mobile, Alabama, before leaving the profession,[1] saying she "despised" it.[4] She returned to Pine Bluff in 1945 and, after World War II, she began work as a secretary at the Pine Bluff Arsenal.[1] She was soon transferred (along with her boss, Brigadier General Augustin Mitchell Prentiss) to Washington, D.C.[3]

In Washington, she met Clyde Jennings, Jr., a US Army officer from Lynchburg, Virginia.[3] They married on October 5, 1946 in Pine Bluff and moved to Rye, New York.[3] Soon after they wed, he was honorably discharged,[3] and he took up work as a traveling handbag salesman.[1] By Jennings, she had a son, Clyde Jay Jennings, on November 2, 1947.[citation needed] Jennings, however, spent a lot of time away from home, and (according to Mitchell)[1] it led to the couple's separation on May 18, 1956 and eventual divorce on August 1, 1957.

She once said as soon as she met John N. Mitchell, she was "impressed with his suaveness and intellect,"[4] and the couple married on December 30, 1957,[citation needed] settling in Rye, New York.[4] John worked as a lawyer in Manhattan, earning US$250,000 a year,[4] and the couple purchased a home on the grounds of the Apawamis Club.[1] On January 10, 1961, the couple had a daughter, Martha Elizabeth, whom they nicknamed Marty.[3] They enrolled their daughter in Stone Ridge Country Day School in Bethesda, Maryland, despite not being Roman Catholics, because of Mitchell's belief that "the Roman Catholic schools are about the only ones that have discipline."[4]

Move to Washington and the Watergate scandal[edit]

John Mitchell and Richard Nixon's professional careers converged when, on New Year's Eve 1966, their law offices combined to become Nixon Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander and Mitchell.[6] Although their status as friends is debated,[7] when Nixon was elected president in 1968, he appointed John Mitchell as his Attorney General.[8] The position necessitated that the family move to Washington, D.C., and their home in the "fashionable" Watergate complex, at the time, was estimated to be worth US$140,000.[4] Mitchell first came to national attention after she remarked to a television reporter that Washington DC peace demonstrations held in November 1969 reminded her husband of the Russian Revolution.[1] The statement, widely viewed as indiscreet, increased her notoriety and coverage in the media.[1] She had the custom of having an evening drink, and then calling reporters with political gossip or information she had gleaned while rifling through her husband's papers or eavesdropping on his conversations.[9] During this time, Mitchell's renown as an outspoken socialite grew, and she made regular appearances on talk shows and variety shows, such as Laugh-In.[10][note 1] By the following year, in November 1970, a Gallup poll indicated that 76 percent of Americans recognized who she was, and she made the cover of Time in an issue about the most influential women of Washington.[1] Her reputation for frank and uncensored talk, generally in support of Republican issues, led to her being nicknamed "Martha the Mouth" or "The Mouth of the South".[11]

Nixon selected John to head the Committee to Re-Elect the President (commonly abbreviated to CRP, or deridingly, CREEP) for the 1972 campaign.[10] During the campaign, however, Mitchell had begun to complain to her media contacts that the campaign had engaged in "dirty tricks" to win the election.[12] A week before the June 1972 burglary of the DNC headquarters in the Watergate office building, the Mitchells had traveled to Newport Beach, California to attend a series of fundraising events.[13] While there, John received a phone call about the incident and immediately held a press conference denying any CRP involvement.[13] John then returned to Washington, encouraging his wife to remain in California to enjoy the sunny weather.[13] Meanwhile, however, he enlisted their security agent Steve King (a former FBI agent) to prevent her from learning about the break-in or contacting reporters.[12] Despite these efforts, the following Monday, Martha acquired a copy of the Los Angeles Times.[10] Martha learned that James W. McCord Jr., the security director of the CRP and her daughter's bodyguard and driver, was among those arrested.[12] This detail conflicted with the White House's official story that the break-in was unrelated to the CRP, and raised her suspicion.[12] Martha unsuccessfully made attempts to contact her husband by phone, eventually telling one of his aides that her next call would be to the press.[10]

June 1972 kidnapping, aftermath and vindication[edit]

The following Thursday, June 22,[10] Mitchell made a late-night phone call to Helen Thomas of United Press International, reportedly Mitchell's favorite reporter.[13] Mitchell informed Thomas of her intention to leave her husband until he resigned from the CRP.[13] The phone call, however, abruptly ended. When Thomas called back, the hotel operator told her that Mitchell was "indisposed" and would not be able to talk.[12] Thomas then called John, who seemed unconcerned and said, "[Martha] gets a little upset about politics, but she loves me and I love her and that’s what counts."[10] In her subsequent report of the incident, Thomas said that it was apparent someone had taken the phone from Mitchell's hand and the woman could be heard saying "You just get away." Thomas's account was widely covered in the news, and many media outlets made efforts to find Mitchell for an interview. A few days later, Marcia Kramer, a veteran crime reporter of the New York Daily News, tracked Mitchell to the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York. Kramer found "a beaten woman" who had "incredible" black and blue marks on her arms.[12] In what turned out to be the first of many interviews, Mitchell related how in the week following the Watergate burglary, she had been held captive in that California hotel and that it was King that had pulled the phone cord from the wall.[12][13] After several attempts to escape from the balcony, she was physically accosted by five men, which had left her needing stitches.[14][15] Herbert W. Kalmbach, Nixon's personal lawyer, was summoned to the hotel and he decided to call for a doctor to inject her with a tranquilizer.[10] The incident left her fearing for her life.[16]

They were extremely jealous of her and feared her because she was very candid.[16]

James W. McCord, referencing Nixon and his advisors

Although the Watergate burglary was the leading story across all news formats, her reports were relegated to human-interest stories in major newspapers, including The Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Daily News.[13] Nixon aides, in an effort to discredit Mitchell, told the press that she had a "drinking problem",[17][page needed] which was not entirely untrue.[18] They also suggested that she was convalescing in Silver Hill Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Connecticut.[19]

Initially, Mitchell began contacting reporters when her husband's role in the scandal became known in an effort to defend him.[20] She believed him to be a "fall guy" and encouraged him to turn against the President.[10] Soon after the burglary, John resigned, citing his desire to spend more time with his family as the reason.[10] In the meantime, corruption in the GOP had moved sharply into focus for the outspoken Martha.[13] In May 1973, she provided sworn testimony in a deposition at the offices of attorney Henry B. Rothblatt in connection with the Democratic Party's US$6.4 million civil suit against the CRP.[21] The Mitchells would ultimately separate in September 1973, with John suddenly moving out of the family home with their daughter, Marty.[22][3] On January 1, 1975, he was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy for his involvement in the Watergate break-in; he served 19 months in a federal prison.[3] They never saw each other again.[18]

Because of her involvement in the scandal, she was discredited and abandoned by most of her family, except for her son Jay.[citation needed] It was not until February 1975 that McCord, after having been convicted for his role in the Watergate burglary, admitted that Mitchell was, in his words, "basically kidnapped", and corroborated her story.[16] He further asserted that H. R. Haldeman, as well as other top aides of President Nixon, had been "jealous" of her popularity in the media and had sought out ways to embarrass her.[16] Nixon was later to tell interviewer David Frost in 1977 that Martha was a distraction to John Mitchell, such that no one was minding the store, and "If it hadn't been for Martha Mitchell, there'd have been no Watergate."[10]

Personal life[edit]

Mitchell was Presbyterian and, while in New York, attended Marble Collegiate Church.[21] She began to write her memoirs in 1973, but fearing it would mean she would get no money from her husband, never signed a contract.[5] In April 1974, she got a short-lived job as the guest host of the program Panorama on Washington's WTTG; it only lasted a week.[3]

In 1975, Mitchell fell sick.[10] As her health declined, she was called on by a small circle of friends that included her reporter friend, and eventual biographer, Winzola McLendon.[18] McLendon reports that Mitchell was suicidal and without any income.[18] Her lawyer, in an ongoing alimony dispute, described her as "desperately ill, without funds and without friends."[23] Even so, her son, who was working as a researcher for the United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security,[24] was said to have cared for her and served as her occasional spokesperson.[25] In her final days, she subsisted on donations sent by sympathetic supporters.[18] On May 31, 1976,[3] in the advanced stages of multiple myeloma, Mitchell slipped into a coma and died at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City at age 57.[23] Her son, her estranged husband, and daughter arrived at her funeral in Pine Bluff shortly after it began.[3] The service was held at First Presbyterian Church.[3] An anonymous supporter (a California admiral, according to the family)[24] had sent a floral arrangement of white chrysanthemums that spelled "Martha was right."[3] She is buried in the Bellwood Cemetery in Pine Bluff with her mother and grandparents.[3]

Public image[edit]

To many she was a brazen and bombastic woman, to others she was a heroine who attacked a liberal permissiveness they felt had brought chaos to the land.

Myra MacPherson, The Washington Post[24]

A November 1970 Gallup poll placed the public's opinion of her at 33% unfavorable to 43% favorable.[1] She was known for her glamorous but "girly" fashion.[10] Despite her fame as an outsized personality, those who knew her said she was often anxious before attending parties or public events, clutching her friend's arm, trembling, or even weeping.[5][24]

She refused to curtsy to Queen Elizabeth II at a garden party in July 1971, saying, "I feel that an American citizen should not bow to foreign monarchs." Scotland's Earl of Lindsay, a member of the Queen's Body Guard for Scotland, wrote Mitchell a letter of reprimand, and in a statement to the press said, "There is always hope she may learn some manners. She is a stupid woman. If she is going to shout her mouth off like that, she is bound to get shouted at."[26]


Martha Mitchell brought to [the Nixon Administration] a welcome touch of zaniness and genuine good humor. Seizing on a rare good thing, the press tended to exploit her. What originally had been innocent japes became media events. During the Watergate furor, her abortive TV career proved to be another and finally pitiable example of the capacity of the media to exploit and consume the vulnerable.[27]

Three years after her death, Washington newswoman and Mitchell-collaborator Winzola McLendon released a book called Martha.[5]

The birthplace and childhood home of Martha Beall Mitchell, now the Martha Beall Mitchell Home and Museum, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in January 1978.[28] On the second anniversary of her death, Martha Mitchell Expressway in Pine Bluff was named for her.[28] Three years later to the day, a bust was erected in her honor at the Pine Bluff Civic Center with a plaque that reads "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."[28]

Martha Mitchell was portrayed in the 1995 film Nixon by actress Madeline Kahn who, like Mitchell, died at the age of 57 of cancer.

In 2004, a three-act play, This is Martha Speaking..., by Thomas Doran premiered in Pine Bluff, Arkansas starring Lee Anne Moore as Martha Mitchell and Michael Childers as John Mitchell. That same year, a one-woman play about Mitchell, Dirty Tricks by John Jeter, appeared off-Broadway.[29] The first episode of the podcast Slow Burn, entitled "Martha", chronicled her role in the Watergate scandal.[11] Mitchell was portrayed by Vanessa Bayer in the July 16, 2019 episode of the Comedy Central show Drunk History.[30] Gaslit, a political thriller television series based on the Slow Burn podcast, began airing in 2022, with Julia Roberts portraying Martha and Sean Penn playing John Mitchell.[31]

The "Martha Mitchell effect", in which a psychiatrist mistakenly or willfully identifies a patient's true but extraordinary claims as delusions, was named after her.[32]


  • Panorama (1974) – Guest host[3]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Fischer, Dean (November 30, 1970). "Martha Mitchell's View From The Top". Time. Vol. 96, no. 22. p. 43. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Martha Mitchell". Saturday Evening Post. Vol. 243, no. 2. Fall 1971. pp. 50–53.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Lancaster 2014, p. 46.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "The Warbler of Watergate". Time. Vol. 94, no. 23. December 5, 1969. p. 43. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  5. ^ a b c d Smilgis, Martha (July 4, 1979). "A Martha Mitchell Biography Raps John, But Confirms That She Loved Him Until She Died". People. Vol. 12, no. 2. p. 49. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  6. ^ Rosen 2008, p. 30.
  7. ^ Rosen 2008, pp. 30–31.
  8. ^ Brockell, Gillian (March 21, 2019). "George Conway and Martha Mitchell: Spouses who infuriated Trump and Nixon". Washington Post. Retrieved September 13, 2019.
  9. ^ McCarter, Jenemy (October 21, 2004). "Southern Exposure". The New York Sun. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Neyfakh, Leon (November 30, 2017). "Martha". Slow Burn (Podcast). The Slate Group. Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  11. ^ a b Neyfakh, Leon (November 28, 2017). "Watergate Was Way Stranger Than You Realized. Slate's New Podcast Shows What It Was Like to Live Through It". Slate Magazine. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Stein, Jeff (December 11, 2017). "Trump Ambassador Beat and 'Kidnapped' Woman in Watergate Cover-Up: Reports". Newsweek. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Cadden, Vivian (July 1973). "Martha Mitchell: the Day the Laughing Stopped" (PDF). The Harold Weisberg Archive. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  14. ^ Reeves 2002, pp. 511.
  15. ^ McLendon, Winzola (1979). Martha: The Life of Martha Mitchell.
  16. ^ a b c d "McCord Declares That Mrs. Mitchell Was Forcibly Held". The New York Times. February 19, 1975. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  17. ^ Olson & Holland 2016.
  18. ^ a b c d e Winton Evans, Katherine (June 17, 1979). "Washington's Other Martha". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 3, 2019.
  19. ^ Lukas 1976, p. 220.
  20. ^ Kennerly, David Hume (May–June 2015). "I Want to Be With the Circus". Politico Magazine.
  21. ^ a b Curtis, Charlotte (May 4, 1973). "Martha Mitchell Testifies in Civil Suit". The New York Times. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  22. ^ Crawford, Clare (March 11, 1974). "A Fiery Martha Mitchell Gives Her Side Of The Split-Up With John". People. Vol. 1, no. 2. p. 2. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  23. ^ a b "Martha Mitchell dies of rare bone cancer". Eugene Register-Guard. New York. UPI. May 31, 1976. p. 1A.
  24. ^ a b c d MacPherson, Myra (June 4, 1976). "Martha Mitchell Buried" (PDF). The Washington Post. Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  25. ^ McQuiston, John T. (June 1, 1976). "Martha Mitchell, 57, Dies Of Bone‐Marrow Cancer". The New York Times. Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  26. ^ "People". Time. Vol. 98, no. 22. November 29, 1971. p. 68. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  27. ^ "Martha Mitchell, R I P". National Review. Vol. 28, no. 23. June 25, 1976. p. 667.
  28. ^ a b c Lancaster 2014, p. 47.
  29. ^ Brantley, Ben (October 21, 2004). "Mrs. Mitchell on Line 3, Something About Watergate". The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  30. ^ "Whistleblowers". Drunk History. Season 6. Episode 13. July 16, 2019. Comedy Central. Retrieved November 3, 2019.
  31. ^ "'Gaslit' Teaser: Sean Penn and Julia Roberts Transform Into John and Martha Mitchell for Starz Watergate Series" Jennifer Maas, Variety, February 2, 2022. Retrieved February 3, 2022.
  32. ^ Bell, Vaughn; Halligan, Peter W.; Ellis, Hayden D. (August 2003). "Beliefs About Delusions". The Psychologist. 6 (8): 418–422. Sometimes improbable patient reports are erroneously assumed to be symptoms of mental illness (Maher, 1988). The 'Martha Mitchell effect' referred to the tendency of mental health practitioners not to believe the experience of the wife of the American attorney general, whose persistent reports of corruption in the Nixon White House were initially dismissed as evidence of delusional thinking, until later proved correct by the Watergate investigation. Such examples demonstrate that delusional pathology can often lie in the failure or inability to verify whether the events have actually taken place, no matter how improbable intuitively they might appear to the busy clinician.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)

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