Gaslit: Who was Martha Mitchell? The wife and socialite who played an extraordinary role in Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal | Explainer

The 1972 watergate scandalwhich saw the downfall of then-President Richard Nixon, was an extraordinary moment in time in US political history.

It is often retold from the lens of men, many who were key figures in the scandal which imploded Nixon’s presidency and exposed one of the greatest cover-ups of all time.

Rarely do the women of Watergate have their side of the story immortalized in popular culture. That is, until now.

Stan’s latest series, Gaslitfollows the Nixon controversy from the perspective of Martha Mitchell, the wife of John N. Mitchell, Attorney General to President Nixon.

Julia Roberts plays the incorrigible Martha Mitchell, whose endless pursuit of the truth was both her triumph and downfall.

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Julia Roberts as Watergate whistleblower Martha Mitchell in the brand new series Gaslit.
Julia Roberts as Watergate whistleblower Martha Mitchell in the new Stan series Gaslit. (stan)

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Who was Martha Mitchell?

Before Martha Mitchell was embroiled in what she called the “dirty business” of politics, she was a humble girl from the South of the US, the only child of a cotton broker and schoolteacher.

Martha was born in Arkansas in 1918, a state which then prospered mostly on the labor of black slaves working on the plantation.

She was married to her first husband, a US Army Officer named Clyde Jennings, before they divorced in 1957.

Martha met John Mitchell soon after, and they married that same year. She once admitted to being “impressed with his suaveness and intellect”, as John worked as a lawyer in Manhattan on a salary of $US250,000.

Their marriage catapulted Martha into socialite status, but it wasn’t until the couple moved to Washington DC that she earned her nickname “Mouth of the South”.

Martha Mitchell was the wife of Nixon’s Attorney General, John N. Mitchell. (Bettmann Archive)

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Martha and John uprooted their family and moved to the US capital in 1968 when Nixon was elected President and appointed John as his Attorney General.

They lived in the fashionable Watergate complex at the time.

Martha was known on the Washington social scene as having a proclivity for drinking whiskey and speaking to journalists.

Her loose tongue earned her a reputation among John’s political colleagues, but she was adored by the media for her candour. Tea New York Times once described her as the “most talked about, talkative woman in Washington”.

“Mrs. Mitchell emerged almost immediately as the most colorful of the Nixon Cabinet spouses,” the Times wrote.

“A flamboyant blonde, partial to sling back pumps, dangling earrings and glitter, she quickly proved to be an enthusiastic party‐goer at night and den mother during the day to Cabinet wives.”

US President Richard Nixon was forced to resign after the Watergate scabdal. (AP)

How was Martha involved in Watergate?

Martha became a whistle-blower on the Watergate scandal in 1972.

The controversy stemmed from the Nixon administration’s attempts to cover up its involvement in the June 17, 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Office Building in DC.

Members of Nixon’s re-election campaign, including the group’s security chief, were arrested by police.

Nixon denied any knowledge or involvement in the break-in, however 10 days later, the President ordered the FBI to “tamp down” its investigation.

Mrs. Mitchell emerged almost immediately as the most colorful of the Nixon Cabinet spouses

This order, which was later revealed in the Nixon tapes, soon became the smoking gun which proved Nixon had been part of a criminal cover up.

The FBI later determined that the Watergate break=in was part of a secret campaign of political spying and sabotage f

Martha became privy to key details in Watergate from eavesdropping on her husband John’s phone calls and looking through his papers.

John had authorized the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972 and Martha soon discovered this piece of vital information – despite his best attempts to keep his curious wife in the dark.

At the time, Martha believed her husband would be a scapegoat in the scandal and encouraged him to turn against Nixon.

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Martha was known for being loose-lipped when speaking to journalists. (Bettmann Archive)

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Martha, who was determined to leak the news to journalists, called her friend, Helen Thomas, a reporter at United Press International, to share what she knew.

That call was cut short when an ex-FBI agent burst into her hotel room and yanked the phone off the wall.

Martha later told the press she had been locked in the hotel room against her will and was forcibly injected with tranquiliser.

She described herself as a “political prisoner” in a later interview with Thomas.

When she told the media of her ordeal, she was publicly discredited and labeled a drunk and liar for her attempts to expose Watergate.

Even her husband, John, tried to dismiss her recollection of events in the press.

“That little sweetheart, I love her so much. She gets a little upset about politics, but she loves me and I love her and that’s what counts,” he said of his wife.

It wasn’t until 1975 that people finally took Martha seriously, after a reliable witness corroborated her story.

A psychological term, ‘The Martha Mitchell Effect’ was coined after the incident, describing instances where medical professionals try to prove a patient is delusional. Another broader term for this is ‘gaslighting’.

Nixon told interviewer David Frost in 1977 that “if it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”

Julia Roberts, Gaslit
Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell in the Stan series. (stan)

What happened to Martha and John after Watergate?

Martha didn’t stop talking about the details of Watergate after her FBI kidnapping, and soon the scandal had engulfed Nixon’s presidency and he was forced to resign in 1974.

John and Martha’s marriage soon unraveled and they separated in 1973.

He had resigned as Attorney General to head Nixon’s re-election committee before the President was forced to resign and faced impeachment.

In 1975, John was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy for his involvement in the Watergate break-in and was sentenced to serve 19 months in prison.

He and Martha never spoke again and in 1976, after being diagnosed with a rare cancer, Martha died “destitute and alone” at the age of 57.

At her funeral back in her hometown of Arkansas, an anonymous supporter sent a floral arrangement which spelled out the letters: “Martha was right”.

Nine Entertainment Co (the publisher of this website) owns and operates the streaming service Stan.

Gaslit is available now in Australia only on Stan.

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