Outspoken and frank, Martha Elizabeth Beall Mitchell (1918-1976) earned worldwide recognition – and infamy – as a whistleblower during the Watergate Scandal. A renowned character in Washington DC during President Nixon’s first term, Mitchell was the wife of attorney general John Mitchell, which gave her inside information about, in her words, the ‘dirty tricks’ of the Republican party.
However, her whistleblowing over the Watergate Scandal – which eventually led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974 – cost her dearly. At the time, she was kidnapped and drugged by Republican aides in an attempt to suppress what she knew, and her character was widely slandered in the press to the extent that even her family discredited and abandoned her for years afterwards.
However, she has been largely vindicated posthumously, with the psychological term ‘the Martha Mitchell effect’ arising as a result of her experiences with mental health professionals doubting her claims which later turned out to be true. Indeed, Nixon himself once said, ‘If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.’
So who was Martha Mitchell?
1. She wanted to be an actor
Martha Beall was born in 1918 in Pine Bluff, Jefferson County. Her father was a cotton broker, and her mother a speech and drama teacher. Beall was described as friendly and extremely talkative, though struggled to read aloud as she was dyslexic. As a child, she sang in the church choir, and her mother hoped she would become an opera singer. She loved the arts and dreamed of becoming an actress, so studied acting at Stephens College in Columbia. However, her family were against her pursuing it further.
2. Her work as a secretary took her to Washington DC
Mitchell received a BA from the University of Miami in history, then became a school teacher for a year in Alabama before deciding it wasn’t for her. She moved home, and in 1945 was hired as a secretary at the Pine Bluff Arsenal, and, after 6 weeks, transferred to Washington DC with her boss.
3. She married an army officer
In Washington, Mitchell met US army officer Clyde Jennings. They were married in 1946 in Pine Bluff, then moved to New York. Soon after their marriage, Jennings was honourably discharged and became a travelling handbag salesman. The couple had a son, Clyde Jay Jennings. However, Jennings spent a lot of time away from home, a fact which, according to Mitchell, led to the couple’s separation and eventual divorce in 1957.
4. She remarried a New York attorney
In 1957, Mitchell met and married John N. Mitchell, a high-earning New York attorney, who she described as impressive because of his ‘suaveness and intellect.’ In 1961, they had a daughter, Martha (Marty) Elizabeth Mitchell Jr. John Mitchell managed Nixon’s successful presidential campaign in 1968, and was then appointed his Attorney General when he took up his post as President. To accommodate his position, the family moved to Washington DC, where they lived in the ‘fashionable’ Watergate complex.
5. She was nicknamed ‘Martha the Mouth’
Martha became well known for having strong views about politics and her husband’s work. In particular, she commented upon the Vietnam War, nominations to the US Supreme Court, and more. She was known for having an evening drink and then calling reporters with political gossip or information she had gleaned from looking through her husband’s papers, with particular emphasis on information about Nixon’s corrupt activities.
She first came to national attention after she remarked to a television reporter that the Washington DC peace demonstrations in 1969 had reminded her of the Russian Revolution. Her notoriety increased, and she appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, made appearances on talk shows and earned the nicknames ‘Martha the Mouth’ and ‘The Mouth of the South’.
6. She threatened to leave her husband if he didn’t resign
Nixon selected John to head the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP) in 1972, during which time Mitchell complained to the media that her husband had begun to engage in ‘dirty tricks’ to win the election. In 1972 while at a series of fundraising events in California, John Mitchell received a phone call about the burglary of the DNC headquarters in the Watergate office building. He immediately held a press conference denying CRP involvement.
John returned to Washington DC, and had Mitchell remain in California. John enlisted their security agent, former FBI agent Steve King, to prevent Martha from learning about the break-in or talking to reporters. However, Martha learned of what had happened, and made several unsuccessful attempts to contact her husband. She eventually told one of her aides that her next call would be to the press.
The following week, Mitchell called United Press International, and told them that she would leave her husband if he didn’t resign from the CRP. The phone call abruptly ended, and hotel staff reported to the journalist that Mitchell was ‘indisposed’. The journalist later reported that it seemed as if the phone was forcibly taken out of Mitchell’s hand.
7. She was drugged and kidnapped
A few days later, a crime reporter tracked Mitchell down and found a ‘beaten woman’ who had ‘incredible’ black and blue marks on her arms. Mitchell held many interviews that stated she had been held captive in a hotel in California, and that it was King who pulled the phone from the wall. She made several attempts to escape from the balcony, but was accosted and held down by five men, with the injuries inflicted requiring five stitches. Nixon’s personal lawyer made a call that a doctor come and inject her with tranquilliser. Mitchell reported that she feared for her life.
Nixon aides then attempted to discredit her, suggesting that she had a ‘drinking problem’ and that she was in psychiatric hospital. It wasn’t until 1975 that the CRP security director James McCord corroborated her story, stating that Mitchell had been ‘basically kidnapped’.
8. Her husband left her without warning
In September 1973, John Mitchell left his wife without any warning, and without giving her any financial support. To support herself, Mitchell took a job at a TV host for Washington’s WTTG television program Panorama; however, the job only lasted a week.
However, on 1 January, 1975, John Mitchell was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and conspiracy for his involvement in the Watergate break-in, then served 19 months in federal prison. The couple never saw each other again.
9. She died without friends or money
In 1975, Mitchell fell ill with multiple myeloma. In an ongoing alimony dispute at the time, Mitchell’s lawyer described her as ‘desperately ill, without funds and without friends’. Her son, who was one of few family members who spoke to her, cared for her and served as her spokesperson. In her final days, she survived on donations from sympathetic supporters.
In 1976, Mitchell died. Her children, Jay and Marty, attended the funeral with their father John. A large floral tribute at the service spelled ‘Martha was right’ in white chrysanthemums. It was never ascertained who sent them.
10. She has been vindicated
The term ‘the Martha Mitchell effect’ was coined as a result of Mitchell’s experiences with mental health professionals who believed her to be delusional. The former Pine Bluff home of Mitchell’s maternal grandparents was turned into the Martha Beall Mitchell Home and Museum, and on the second anniversary of her death, the section of the US Highway 65 that ran through northern Pine Bluff was renamed the Martha Mitchell Expressway.
On the fifth anniversary of her death, a bust on the Civic Center grounds between east 10th and 11th streets was dedicated to Mitchell, and is accompanied by the quote ‘Ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.’ In April 2022, a television series about Mitchell named Gaslit was released.