She was once one of the most talked-about and influential women in Washington, D.C. 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 crumble with the notorious Watergate scandal.
She was born Martha Beall in Pine Bluff in September 1918. She grew up on the family farm outside of the city and attended a mix of private public schools as a child. Her father was a cotton broker and her mother was a teacher. She graduated from Pine Bluff High School in 1937.
After graduation, she briefly attended Stephens College, a Missouri women’s college, in hopes of becoming a pediatrician. Instead, she began 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 graduated with a history degree. She taught seventh grade in Alabama for one year before taking a job at the Pine Bluff Arsenal.
She married Clyde Jennings, a veteran, in 1946, and the two moved to New York. The marriage lasted 11 years and produced a son before a 1957 divorce. Afterward, she met attorney John Mitchell, and the two married later 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 run. This immediately put Martha Mitchell in the spotlight and in the midst of national politics. She and her husband actively campaigned for Nixon, and John Mitchell was rewarded with the position of attorney general after Nixon’s victory in 1968.
The Mitchells moved to the upscale Watergate complex in Washington, DC, a small center of luxury apartments and business offices nestled along the Potomac River. She was an outspoken figure, and her comments were beloved by political allies but considered 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 her service with the Red Cross gave her more public service than anyone else in the country. She created a firestorm of controversy for not curtseying to Queen Elizabeth II at a visit in 1971 and for her loud defenses of the Vietnam War and Nixon’s bombing campaigns of North Vietnam. Reporters labeled her “The Mouth of the South.” This led to numerous interviews and TV appearances in the early 1970s.
In 1972, her husband was appointed by Nixon to head the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Nixon, in spite of significant leads in the polls, was desperate to win re-election at all costs. As a result, the committee (known as CREEP) began engaging in all sorts of “dirty tricks” to sabotage the campaigns of opponents, often with the direct knowledge and support of Nixon. These tactics began to trouble Martha Mitchell, even though she was an ardent supporter of Nixon.
In June 1972, Nixon ordered the break-in of the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate complex. The extent of his involvement was unknown to the public for years, but in the meantime, five men working for CREEP were 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, effectively undermining the FBI investigation.
Martha Mitchell read about the incident and realized Nixon’s involvement. She decided the line had to be drawn and contacted White House reporter Helen Thomas from her California hotel room and told everything she knew. But her husband had left orders with their bodyguard that she was not to contact anyone and not to leave.
While she was on the phone with Thomas, she was accosted by her bodyguard, screamed, and the line was disconnected. She was taken by five men to a hotel in New York where she was beaten, tied up, and injected with tranquilizers over the course of the next week. Her husband denied that he had his wife kidnapped. And as the Nixon White House deepened the cover-up, she was dismissed as an alcoholic in spite of her passionate attempts to alert the world. She divorced Mitchell in 1973.
Throughout the rest of 1973 and into 1974, reporters unearthed the evidence of the cover-up and Senate hearings learned how deep the scandal went. Each new revelation showed that she was right from the beginning about the cover-up and obstruction. Nixon resigned in August 1974 to avoid impeachment.
Nixon was saved from a criminal trial by 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, obstruction of justice, and perjury. More than two dozen people were sentenced in connection to Watergate. None of this, however, was a consolation to Martha Mitchell. She was never able to find work, had few friends left, and was without money. Her health deteriorated, and she was diagnosed with cancer. In May 1976, she died at a New York hospital at age 57.
For her funeral, she was brought back to Pine Bluff where she was buried. One admirer sent a floral arrangement with white flowers that read, “Martha was right.”
Dr. Ken Bridges is a Professor of History at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado. He is the proud father of six children. He has written seven books and his columns appear in more than 85 papers in two states. Dr. Bridges can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.