How Martha Mitchell Lost Everything
She was once one of the most influential and talked about women in Washington, DC, but in the end her life was destroyed as an innocent bystander in one of the most serious political scandals of all. time.
Martha Mitchell went from Pine Bluff to the halls of power, creating controversy along the way, and saw it all fall apart with the infamous Watergate scandal.
She was born Martha Beall in Pine Bluff in September 1918. She grew up on the family farm outside of town and attended a mix of public private schools as a child. Her father was a cotton broker and her mother a teacher. She graduated from Pine Bluff High School in 1937.
After graduation, she briefly attended Stephens College, a Missouri women’s college, hoping to become a pediatrician. Instead, she started volunteering as a nurse’s aide for the Red Cross. She transferred to the University of Arkansas and then to the University of Miami, where she eventually earned a degree in history. She taught seventh grade in Alabama for a year before working at the Pine Bluff Arsenal.
She married Clyde Jennings, a veteran, in 1946, and the two moved to New York City. The marriage lasted 11 years and produced a son before a divorce in 1957. Subsequently, she met lawyer John Mitchell, and the two later married in 1957 and had a daughter in 1961.
In 1966, Mitchell and former Vice President Richard Nixon combined their law firms as Nixon prepared for another presidential race. This immediately put Martha Mitchell in the spotlight and at the heart of national politics. She and her husband actively campaigned for Nixon, and John Mitchell was awarded the post of attorney general after Nixon’s victory in 1968.
The Mitchell’s have moved to the upscale Watergate complex in Washington, DC, a small center of luxury apartments and business offices nestled along the Potomac River. Martha was an outspoken personality and her comments were appreciated by political allies but viewed as obnoxious by others. After a series of anti-war protests in Washington in 1969, she remarked that the protests reminded her of Russia’s Communist revolution. At one point, she claimed that her service with the Red Cross had done her more public service than anyone in the country.
She created a storm of controversy for not curtsying Queen Elizabeth II on a visit in 1971 and for her noisy defenses from the Vietnam War and Nixon’s bombing campaigns in northern Vietnam. Journalists called it “the mouth of the south”. This led to numerous interviews and television appearances in the early 1970s.
In 1972, her husband was appointed by Nixon to head the President’s Re-Election Committee. Nixon, despite significant advances in the polls, was desperate to win re-election at any cost. As a result, the committee (known as CREEP) began to engage in all kinds of “dirty tricks” to sabotage opponents’ campaigns, often with Nixon’s direct knowledge and support. These tactics began to trouble Martha Mitchell, even though she was a staunch supporter of Nixon.
In June 1972, Nixon ordered the break-in of the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate compound. The extent of his involvement was unknown to the public for years, but in the meantime five men working for CREEP have been arrested for the break-in, including James McCord, a bodyguard for Mitchell’s daughter. Her husband immediately returned to Washington and began conspiring with Nixon to cover up the break-in, thus undermining the FBI investigation.
Martha Mitchell read the incident and realized Nixon’s involvement. She decided the line needed to be drawn and contacted White House reporter Helen Thomas from her hotel room in California and told her everything she knew.
But her husband had left the order for their bodyguard not to contact anyone and not to leave. While on the phone with Thomas, she was accosted by her bodyguard, screamed and the line was cut. She was taken by five men to a New York hotel where she was beaten, tied up and injected with tranquilizers over the following week.
Her husband has denied having his wife kidnapped. And as Nixon’s White House deepened the cover-up, she was dismissed as an alcoholic despite her passionate attempts to alert the world.
She divorced Mitchell in 1973.
Throughout 1973 and until 1974, reporters uncovered evidence of the cover-up, and Senate hearings learned just how deep the scandal was. Each new revelation showed that she was right from the start about the cover-up and obstruction.
Nixon resigned in August 1974 to avoid impeachment.
Nixon was saved from a criminal trial thanks to a pardon from President Gerald Ford. In January 1975, her ex-husband, the former attorney general, was sentenced to eight years in prison for conspiracy, obstructing justice and perjury. More than two dozen people have been convicted in connection with Watergate.
None of this, however, was any consolation for Martha Mitchell. She could never find a job, had few friends and was without money. Her health deteriorated and she was diagnosed with cancer. In May 1976, she died in a New York hospital at the age of 57.
For her funeral, she was brought back to Pine Bluff where she was buried. An admirer sent a floral arrangement with white flowers that read “Martha was right”.
Dr Ken Bridges is Professor of History and Geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and Resident Historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be contacted by email at [email protected] southark.edu.