What Was Martha Mitchell Known for?

Martha Mitchell was married to John Mitchell, president Richard Nixon’s first attorney general. In Washington, D.C., she became a public figure known for her unfettered comments about politics and life in the capital. Mitchell, who often telephoned reporters, alleged she was physically prevented from contacting the press after the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate building complex. When she was again able to speak to reporters, Mitchell called herself “a political prisoner” who was fed up with “all those dirty things” in politics. These statements received little attention, in part due to rumors about her mental instability.

Mitchell and her husband, who remained loyal to the president, separated in 1973. She was vindicated when the Watergate scandal and looming impeachment charges resulted in Nixon’s resignation from the presidency on August 9, 1974. She had little time to appreciate this as she became ill with cancer in 1975 and died at the age of 57 in 1976.

Early Life and Education

Martha Mitchell was born Martha Elizabeth Beall on September 2, 1918, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Mitchell’s father was a cotton broker and her mother taught elocution. She graduated from Pine Bluff High School in 1937. She then went to three colleges: Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri; the University of Arkansas and the University of Miami, from which she graduated in 1942. She wanted to become an actress, but because her parents disapproved, she majored in history and minored in education instead.

First Marriage to Clyde Jennings

After graduating college, Mitchell became a seventh-grade teacher in Mobile, Ala. However, she “despised” the job and only lasted a year. Back in Pine Bluff, she found work as a secretary at a local arsenal.

In 1945, Mitchell followed the arsenal’s commanding general to Washington, D.C., where she held another secretarial position. There, she met serviceman Clyde Jennings. The two wed on October 5, 1946. After moving to New York, their son, Jay, arrived in November 1947.

Mitchell’s marriage faltered after a few years, and she and her husband divorced in August 1957.

Second Marriage to John Mitchell

Martha met John Mitchell in New York City in 1954, and the two married in December 1957. In January 1961, their daughter Martha “Marty” was born. The family relocated to Rye, New York, in 1964.

John Mitchell, an attorney at the time, became friends with Richard Nixon when they worked for the same law firm, and later supported and helped organize Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. When Nixon was elected president that year, he made John Mitchell his attorney general.

Life in Washington, D.C.

While being interviewed on television in 1969, Mitchell said that, according to her husband, a recent protest against the Vietnam War had been akin to the Russian revolution, with some American liberals behaving “worst than communists.” This moment put Martha Mitchell in the spotlight and led to her becoming a national figure with a reputation for speaking her mind. She often telephoned reporters to share her views on happenings inside the White House walls.

Mitchell appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s November 30, 1970, issue, representing “The Wives of Washington.” Though some Republicans saw her as an embarrassment, the party’s base embraced her.

Mitchell directly involved herself in politics when she called the wives and staff of senators and threatened to campaign against anyone who didn’t vote for her husband’s Supreme Court nominations. After Senator J. William Fulbright didn’t support a nominee, she contacted a paper in their home state of Arkansas to say, “I want you to crucify Fulbright.”

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Martha Mitchell and the Watergate Scandal

In February 1972, Mitchell’s husband resigned as attorney general to chair Nixon’s re-election committee. On June 17, 1972, a group of men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The burglars were later tied to Nixon’s re-election committee, and his administration decided to cover up its involvement.

John Mitchell publicly denied any connection between the burglary and the White House. However, Martha Mitchell knew one of the burglars and was aware that the man was part of the re-election committee. Martha Mitchell mostly learned details about the Watergate scandal from eavesdropping on her husband’s calls and meetings and looking through his papers. John Mitchell attempted to hide details of the break-in from his wife , but after a few days she saw a newspaper headline and realized something was going on. 

On June 22, Martha Mitchell phoned United Press International reporter Helen Thomas from California. Mitchell revealed she’d given her husband an ultimatum: leave politics, or she would leave him. Then Mitchell said, “You just get away,” before the line was broken. According to Thomas, a security agent forcibly ended the conversation. Mitchell alleged to Thomas she was prevented from contacting anyone else, and said, at one point, she was held down and injected with a tranquilizer.

Martha Mitchell returned to the East Coast a few days later. She again reached out to Thomas and said, “I’m not going to stand for all the dirty things that go on. If you could see me, you wouldn’t believe it. I’m black and blue.” Stories about what Mitchell was saying were consigned to newspapers’ back pages and received relatively little attention.

John Mitchell resigned as Nixon’s campaign manager at the beginning of July, ostensibly to focus on “the happiness and welfare of my wife and daughter.” Around the same time, stories began to spread that Martha Mitchell was having a mental health crisis and drinking heavily.

Nixon was re-elected to the presidency in November 1972, but Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein continued to delve into the Watergate scandal. In 1973, a convicted Watergate burglar said he’d thought the break-in had been sanctioned by John Mitchell. In May 1973, Martha Mitchell told reporters her husband was trying to protect Nixon. She also said Nixon could resign or be impeached.

In August 1973, Nixon stated at a press conference that John Mitchell never informed him about Watergate. Afterward Martha Mitchell countered, “Nixon was aware of the whole goddamned thing.” But even when John Mitchell was tried and convicted of conspiracy, he never implicated Nixon.

Later Years and Death

In September 1973, John Mitchell moved out of the couple’s New York City apartment. The two remained estranged for the rest of Martha Mitchell’s life. John Mitchell retained custody of their daughter, Marty, despite Martha’s fighting to change this.

Even without her husband by her side, Mitchell remained a public figure. David Frost interviewed her about Watergate for the BBC in 1974. That same year, she co-hosted a New York City morning talk show for a week, with guests that included Woodward and Bernstein.

In 1975, Mitchell was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Though she’d been awarded alimony, her husband’s payments lapsed and she was reportedly struggling financially as her bone marrow cancer worsened. She died in a New York City hospital on May 31, 1976, and was buried in her hometown of Pine Bluff.

What Is the Martha Mitchell Effect?

Martha Mitchell’s experiences led to the naming of the Martha Mitchell effect, in which a patient who relates a seemingly unbelievable tale is considered delusional but turns out to be telling the truth.

A Martha Mitchell biography, Martha: The Life of Martha Mitchell, was published in 1979. She was also depicted in the plays Dirty Tricks and This is Martha Speaking. Julia Roberts portrays Mitchell in the 2022 Starz limited series Gaslit, which is based on the Slow Burn podcast. 

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