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Mitchell, Martha (1918–1976)

Mitchell, Martha (1918–1976)

Controversial and outspoken public figure and wife of John Mitchell, the former U.S. attorney general convicted in the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon administration. Name variations: Martha Elizabeth Beall Mitchell. Born Martha Elizabeth Beall on September 2, 1918, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas; died of multiple myeloma on May 31, 1976, in New York City; daughter of George Virgil Beall (a cotton broker) and Arie (Ferguson) Beall (a teacher); graduated from the University of Miami, 1942; married Clyde Jennings, Jr., in 1946 (divorced 1957); married John Newton Mitchell, in 1957; children: (first marriage) Clyde Jay Jennings (b. November 2, 1947); (second marriage) Martha Elizabeth, Jr., calledMarty Mitchell (b. January 10, 1961).

Awards and honors:

Distinguished Citizen's Award from Washington Host Lions Club (1972); hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, placed on National Register of Historic Places (1978); U.S. Highway Expressway renamed the Martha Mitchell Expressway (1978).

Perhaps one of the most controversial women in late 20th-century American politics, Martha Mitchell was the colorful, brassy wife of John Mitchell, the U.S. attorney general who was imprisoned for his part in the 1970s Watergate scandal. She was an upper-class Republican who wore flamboyant clothes and hairdos to get attention, smoked and drank with abandon, was keenly observant and loudly spoke her mind on everything; she also had a lifelong tendency to embellish facts. During Watergate, she considered herself the most persecuted woman in history; when a friend suggested that perhaps Joan of Arc had been more persecuted, Mitchell replied, "She only burned!"

Martha Mitchell was born in 1918 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, into a family that could trace its roots to genteel pre-revolutionary families. Her maternal grandparents were plantation owners and her mother Arie Ferguson Beall, called "Miss Arie," was a busy teacher of elocution. A pretty and bright child, Mitchell developed a stubborn streak as she resisted family efforts to break her of her left-handedness, which was then considered a flaw. She was probably dyslexic, and to compensate she collected quotes. Ironically, one of her favorites urged something she never could do: "Always behave as if nothing has happened, no matter what has happened." Her mother was, uncharacteristically for her day, "seldom home … always busy with her many civic clubs and her pupils," and Mitchell resented it. However, she idolized her father George Virgil Beall, who took her to the cotton and stock exchanges to teach her about trading. From him, she inherited a love of gambling with cards and in her adult years emulated him in liking to dress well, speak her mind, and smoke heavily. When she was about 11, a fire burned down the family home and they moved into apartments. This nearly coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, as a result of which her mother had to work more and her father lost his job. Shortly thereafter, he abruptly abandoned the family. Mitchell would not speak of him after that, having decided to consider him dead. When she was an adult and a celebrity, she often claimed that he had died before she could remember him, although in fact he shot himself in October 1943. She was 25 at the time, and was with him when he died two days later.

The caption under Mitchell's high-school yearbook picture read: "I love its gentle warble, I love its gentle flow, I love to wind my tongue up, and I love to let it go," and after graduating from high school she wanted to be an actress. She therefore attended Stephens College in Missouri, where she studied under actress Maude Adams . After a year there, she hoped to tour with an acting company, but her mother's belief that nice Southern girls should either get married or teach squelched that idea. Instead she transferred to the University of Arkansas, where she joined the Chi Omega sorority and concentrated on her active social life. An average student, she transferred the following year to the University of Miami (due to "allergies"), and met Al Capone while dating his son "Sonny" Capone before graduating in February 1942.

Mitchell worked that year as a teacher in Florida and in Mobile, Alabama, before returning home to Pine Bluff. There she worked as a receptionist at the Pine Bluff Arsenal. In July 1945, when the commanding officer of the arsenal was transferred to Washington, D.C., Mitchell arranged to transfer with him, a turning point she later claimed to regret, saying, "I would have been all right if I'd never left the South." In Washington, she met Army captain Clyde Jennings, whom she married on October 5, 1946. Jennings had by then left the military, and they moved to New York City, living first in Queens, where their son Jay was born in 1947, and then in Manhattan. The marriage was rocky; they separated in 1956 and were divorced the following year.

Sometime before May 1956, Martha had begun dating Wall Street lawyer John Mitchell. Eleven days after divorcing his first wife on December 19, 1957, he and Martha married. They were a wealthy couple who spent their evenings discussing his work and the state of the country over drinks, but early on, others observed John treating her "like a child," and this was to continue throughout their marriage. Mitchell also disliked the fact that he often left her to sit at home alone when he felt his job demanded it. Three years after their only child Martha, called Marty, was born in January 1961, they moved to affluent Rye, New York. There Mitchell frequently hosted big, expensive parties, one of which was for a man named Richard M. Nixon, who had joined a Wall Street law firm after a failed bid for governor of California in 1962. Although for most of her life she had been relatively apolitical, Mitchell became an avid believer in Nixon's abilities, and by the time his law firm merged with John's in 1967 she had turned her husband, an erstwhile backer of John F. Kennedy, into a Nixon admirer. He shortly became the campaign manager of Nixon's bid for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. Mitchell, elated, expected to be heavily involved in the campaign, but to her frustration and anger she was virtually excluded. Adding to her aggravation were her husband's frequent absences in service to the campaign and her dislike of Nixon's wife Patricia Nixon ; again Martha sat at home alone, often drinking. She regularly called John's campaign offices to complain and even threatened him with divorce, eventually being sent on the first of numerous trips to a psychiatric hospital to "dry out."

After he won the presidential election, Nixon appointed John Mitchell to the post of U.S. attorney general. In early 1969, Nixon told Mitchell that she would be taking "an active part in his plans to turn the country around." A staunch conservative, she believed the United States was being betrayed by liberals, and she greatly feared Communism. She therefore took her "active part" seriously, and continually tried to find purposeful ways for herself and other wives of Cabinet members to take part in government. While deploring the straitlaced protocol of Washington social life, she also frequently appeared at, and relished, charity events and embassy functions. Nixon, according to Mitchell, thought of government property and services as his own, and the people in his favor thus enjoyed many perks. The Mitchells flew on Air Force One, lounged at Camp David, and entertained for free both on board the presidential yacht Sequoia and in a staffed house in Key Biscayne. Mitchell basked in the lifestyle of a Cabinet wife, as she loved to entertain and to spend money. Nixon authorized round-the-clock FBI protection for the Mitchell family (because, as he told her, he intended to attack organized crime so forcefully that all their lives would be endangered). A first in history, this protection was unpopular with taxpayers who thought Mitchell abused the service by having FBI agents help her shop and carry her luggage; taxpayers also objected to her having a government car and chauffeur at her disposal 24 hours a day.

Mitchell's life was relatively private during her first ten months as a Cabinet wife. Nixon, she later said, saw the press as an enemy, and in keeping with his advice she kept her distance from them. With her need to be an insider, however, it was by this time common practice for her to eavesdrop on phone calls between John Mitchell and the president. Although she was later the most strident critic of Nixon and his administration's "dirty tricks," Mitchell remained silent during this period because she was becoming convinced that it was necessary for the government to deceive the people in order to "save the country." Her silence lasted only until November 1969, when she appeared on the "CBS Morning News" and talked about the "liberal Communists" whom she said were among the anti-Vietnam War demonstrators. She later denounced the war, but her fear of Communism and her need to speak her mind were powerful motivators.

Although her comments got her into "a heck of a mess" with the administration, she soon decided that the members of the press were not the enemies Nixon and her husband made them out to be, and continued making candid statements to reporters. In 1970, she was barred from flying on Air Force One after she told an on-board press pool that the Vietnam War "stinks!" Mitchell declared that she did not believe in "that no-comment business"—she felt public figures had a responsibility to the nation, and should not use that phrase unless they really had no opinions. She spoke vehemently, ingenuously, and frequently about almost everything: desegregation, education, politicians, the Supreme Court. She advocated wage, price, and rent controls when the Nixon administration was set against them. These forthright commentaries, often dispensed in late-night phone calls to reporters, made her the most talked-about, despised, and admired Cabinet wife in U.S. history. A free-speaking Cabinet wife who was also conservative was simply unprecedented, and soon 76% of the American people knew her name. She was called an enfant terrible, a heroine, a scatterbrain, and a loudmouth. American hairdressers voted her "worst-tressed." Middle America and the silent majority loved her for saying publicly the things they spoke of privately, young people valued her candidness and honesty even when they disagreed with her ideas, and many Republicans thought she might be "an anti-establishment plot by the press" designed to make the Nixon administration look bad. At one point she received up to 400 pieces of mail a day and insisted on answering them all. Having discovered publicity, she loved it, and she and the press used each other—as one commentator noted, "the press wrote about Martha because she couldn't be ignored. She was good copy."

For the most part her husband offered no objection, and Nixon at one time said to her, "Give 'em hell." However, John Mitchell did forbid her to work with one organization he felt was "too political," and would not let her visit college campuses because he thought they were too dangerous. By 1970, Mitchell had begun feeling disenchanted with the administration; she knew about and lamented what she called the White House's "dirty tricks" against Democrats and its other liberal "enemies," and she resented her husband's devotion to the job that took him away from her because she believed he had achieved his social status partly thanks to her. Mitchell had mixed feelings about the role women were then expected to fill in society; she wanted John to "take care of her," but she also wanted recognition for her dedication and effort as a public figure. Inside the administration, her outbursts were increasingly met with the question "what will we do about Martha?"

In March 1972, John resigned his post as attorney general to direct the Committee for Re-Election of the President (famously known by its acronym CREEP), in which Mitchell, despite her growing disenchantment, had been working since 1971. By the spring of 1972, she was keeping up a grueling campaign schedule, but she was not even listed on the committee's roster; considering herself a high-ranking member, she was infuriated by the lack of recognition. She soon became suspicious that Nixon officials were banishing her and spying on her. While still publicly supportive of his campaign, she started to "annoy the hell out of them the way they were annoying" her, making private demands and threats. Nixon and others would later maintain that she was suffering from severe mental and emotional problems during this time, and that John was too preoccupied with her problems to properly do his job.

The weekend of June 17, 1972, Mitchell went (reluctantly, because Pat Nixon was also going) with John, their daughter Marty, and a group of committee members and officials on a campaign fund-raising trip to California. Early Saturday morning, John Mitchell received a call in their hotel room reporting that five men, including the committee's security chief, had been caught breaking into and burglarizing the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. He said nothing to his wife. Throughout the rest of the weekend she thought people around her were acting strangely, and at its end John Mitchell suggested that she stay in California for a rest. He then flew back to Washington with most of the entourage; when Mitchell ultimately found a newspaper and discovered what was going on, she was furious at being excluded. Later, further enraged at her husband's evasiveness over the telephone, and medicated both by Scotch and painkillers she had been given for accidentally burning her hand while lighting a cigarette, she called her favorite reporter, UPI's Helen Thomas . As she spoke about being "sick and tired" of what was going on, committee security people who had remained with her in California entered her hotel room, threw her aside, and disconnected the phone. In a subsequent call, she told Thomas that the phone had gone dead during their last conversation because it had been ripped out, and that she had been drugged and beaten. "I'm black and blue," she said. "I'm a political prisoner." She revealed no administration secrets during that first call, but committee members feared that inevitably she would and, indeed, having eavesdropped and rummaged through her husband's papers, she possessed much inside information. Mitchell later alleged that while in California she was under constant surveillance and was attacked and beaten for telling the truth.

In later months, she talked frequently to reporters about wanting her husband away from the "outrageous and dirty campaign tricks … and dishonest deeds" of politics. She claimed that statements some officials had made were "goddamn lies" and hinted that she had more truth to tell, but would have to wait until "after the election." She often revealed to reporters that she was phoning from a bathroom, balcony, or other peculiar place. Administration officials told the press that her claims were the ravings of a sick woman who did not have any inside information anyway. At the time, most politicians and journalists deemed her stories to be exaggerations born of alcoholism. Women tended to believe her more than men, but the women's movement was then very new, and Mitchell had never allied herself with it, so no defense of her came from that quarter. Eventually she coerced John into resigning as Nixon's campaign manager, although it has since been speculated that in fact he resigned only to aid the Watergate cover-up (he later took a similar job, albeit an advisory one). At the time, Mitchell was living in a Washington apartment with a uniformed nurse to attend to her, but it was unclear whether she was a recluse or a virtual prisoner. Despite the Republicans' success in keeping her away from their national convention, she continued to make news. In the fall of 1972 the Mitchells moved to New York City, with Mitchell still saying she was afraid of the power of the president and his administration, and that they were trying to have her institutionalized to discredit and silence her.

After Nixon's re-election, the Mitchells were not asked to the regular events of the January 1973 inauguration. As the full Watergate story began playing out during 1973, Mitchell earned some sheepish respect from those who had dismissed her stories. Much of what she had said was proven true, but the press still treated her with skepticism and condescension. When the White House later "cut off" John Mitchell, Mitchell grew even more wrathful and wanted to clear his name. She tried to get him to enter a plea-bargain, but he refused, and they argued so much and so bitterly that he stopped speaking to her. In July she watched his testimony before the Senate Committee on television at a friend's house in Mississippi, angry and drinking and even talking about suicide. She returned to New York City later that month. In September, John Mitchell walked out on her without letting her know he was never coming back, much like her father had done. She filed a separation suit against him which was destined to be a long, drawn-out exercise. Still craving publicity, she made television appearances and gave interviews to newspapers and magazines throughout 1974. Having found in her husband's files a damaging 1972 private memo from Nixon to John Mitchell, she phoned many Republican senators and others to warn them that Nixon had deserted them, but none believed her. On August 9, 1974, knowing that otherwise he would be impeached, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. On January 1, 1975, John Mitchell and three others were found guilty in the Watergate conspiracy. After his sentencing he remarked, "It could have been … worse. They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell." (He began serving his time in prison in 1977, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused his appeal.)

Martha Mitchell was diagnosed with an advanced stage of multiple myeloma, an incurable blood disease, in October 1975. She lived long enough to see her son Jay married, but died at age 57 on May 31, 1976, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. At her funeral, there appeared an unsigned floral display which spelled out the phrase "Martha was right." The year after she died, in a famous television interview with David Frost, Nixon commented: "If it hadn't been for Martha, there would have been no Watergate." Some were outraged at his accusation, believing that if it were not for her the corruption would have continued. Others said his comment had "honored her beyond all expectations."


Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia. Compton's New-Media, 1996.

McLendon, Winzola. Martha: The Life of Martha Mitchell. NY: Random House, 1979.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Jacquie Maurice , Calgary, Alberta, Canada

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