Remember Martha Mitchell?

The following is an article from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader


 Martha Mitchell is largely forgotten now, but at the height of her fame in the 1970s, she was one of the most popular women in America.


On November 21, 1969, Martha Beall Mitchell, the wife of Attorney general John Mitchell, gave an interview on the CBS Morning News. Her husband had been on the job for nearly a year, and in that time she hadn't attracted that much attention. Her TV appearance changed that. She came out against Vietnam War protesters, whom she denounced as "liberal Communists… As my husband had said many times, some of the liberals in this country, he'd like to exchange them for the Russian Communists." Nixon administration officials cringed when they saw the show; they wondered how bad the fallout would be… until letters started pouring into the White House supporting Martha.



Suddenly people were interested in Martha Mitchell. She cut quite a figure: A native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, she was a 51-year-old Southern belle whose loud clothes, big hair, and cat-eye sunglasses competed with her big mouth for attention.

But the big mouth always won. Martha had an opinion on everything-she loved Richard Nixon (one of the funniest and sexiest men in America) but hated liberals (communistic), teachers (too liberal), lawyers (they're lawyers), the Supreme Court (too liberal), the press (too powerful), and universities (too liberal).

Martha Mitchell with Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

 She didn't agree with everything Nixon did, either, and she wasn't afraid to say it; Nixon appointed only men to the Supreme Court; Martha wanted a woman. The Vietnam War, which Nixon showed no sign of ending, as he'd promised to do on the campaign trail? "It stinks!" she said. The courage and spunk she showed in speaking her mind struck a chord with the American public and made her very popular, even with people who disagreed with her. In one poll, she was voted one of the 10 most admired women in the world. She was the second-most-requested speaker for Republican fundraisers after the president himself. If you mentioned "Martha" in conversation in the 1970s, everyone knew who you were talking about. She was the most famous Cabinet wife in American history.


 Nixon and his staff encouraged Martha's antics -even her late-night calls to reporters when she may have had a little too much to drink. They believed the administration was actually benefitting from her fame… until June 17, 1972, when five men were caught breaking into the Democratic Party's headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC.

John Mitchell and Richard Nixon.

Martha's husband John was a central figure in the Watergate scandal; he sat in on the meetings where this and other "dirty tricks" were planned. It would take more than two years for the details to become public, but Martha already knew much of what was going on, because in addition to being a big mouth, she was also a world-class snoop. When John met with his co-conspirators in their home, she eavesdropped from the stairway. When he talked on the phone, she listened on the extension in the bathroom. When Mitchell went to bed, she rifled through his briefcase and read his secret documents. He eventually bought a briefcase that locked, but Martha got into that one, too.


John and Martha were in Southern California on political business when the break-in was foiled; by then Mitchell had stepped down as Attorney General to run Nixon's reelection campaign. When Mitchell dashed back to Washington, DC, to contain the scandal, he left Martha behind in California without telling her what was going on. Then, when Martha read about the burglary in the newspaper, John Mitchell ignored her frantic calls for three entire days. That sent her into such a frenzy that she made one last call and left a message with an underling to tell John that 1) she was leaving him unless he got out of politics right now, and 2) her next call was going to be to UPI reporter Helen Thomas.

That call got Mitchell's attention- how could the White House pretend Watergate was just a "third-rate burglary" if Martha was spilling the beans to the press? Someone made a quick call to California; moments later a Nixon staffer burst into Martha's room and ripped the phone out of the wall. Then several aides held her down while a doctor injected her with a sedative against her will -"They pulled down my pants and shot me in the behind!"- and held her as a "political prisoner," she claimed, for several days.

Sedating Martha was only a temporary "solution" -Nixon and his cronies couldn't keep her out of the public eye forever. So they began leaking stories to undermine her credibility, saying she was an alcoholic (she did have a drinking problem), mentally ill (false), and an airhead who knew nothing. The strategy worked: Woodward, Bernstein, and other reporters apparently never saw her as major source for the Watergate story.

(YouTube link)


The Watergate coverup failed, of course, and as the scandal began to threaten Nixon and his top aides, John D. Erlichman and H.R. Haldeman, they tried to save themselves by setting John Mitchell up as a scapegoat. Martha turned on Nixon with a vengeance, telling reporters that the coverup scandal went all the way to the top -to Nixon himself- and calling for his resignation in midnight calls to reporters even as John continued fighting to save the president's skin. Watergate placed an unbearable strain on their marriage; in September 1973, John Mitchell moved out other apartment and filed for divorce.

Martha played no direct role in Watergate, and yet she is arguably one of its biggest victims. John Mitchell never saw or spoke to her again, and she became estranged from their 12-year-old daughter, who blamed her for John's problems. So did Mitchell- when he was sentenced to prison in 1975, he said, "It could have been worse. They would have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell."

(YouTube link)

The strain of Watergate may have even sent Martha to an early grave. In October 1975, she was diagnosed with an incurable form of bone-marrow cancer. For the rest of her days she wondered if the shot she received in California caused her illness. The following May she died, never having reconciled with her daughter. Now, more than 40 years after Watergate, Martha's most lasting claim to fame may be what psychiatrists have dubbed "The Martha Mitchell Effect." That's what it's called when someone is mistakenly diagnosed as delusional, only for it to be revealed later that their "delusions" were actually true.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 19th book in this fan-favorite series contain such gems like The Greatest Plane that Never Was, Forgotten Robot Milestones, Ancient Beauty Secrets, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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