Who was Martha Mitchell? The true story of the socialite behind Gaslit

Author: Alessandro Zoppo ,
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From 24th April is available on Starzplay one of the most anticipated titles of 2022: gaslit by Robbie Pickering. The miniseries brings the first season of Slow burn, the eight-part podcast by journalist Leon Neyfakh which reconstructs the history of Watergate from an unusual point of view: that of Martha Mitchell, the woman who played a central role in unmasking the scandal.

Martha was the wife of John N. Mitchell, the United States Attorney General and Richard Nixon's trusted man, who became the head of the CRP, the President's Re-election Committee in 1972. To interpret it is Julia Roberts, while Sean Penn is Mitchell, Shea Whigham the former FBI agent and "mind" of Watergate G. Gordon Liddy, Dan Stevens the White House counsel John Dean and Betty Gilpin his wife Mo.

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But who really was Martha Mitchell and why has her story been so long unknown before now? Let's find out together.

Who was Martha Mitchell and why she was so famous

Martha Elizabeth Beall is a controversial and very famous figure in the United States for his public releases and television appearances. Born in 1918 and raised in a modest Arkansas family, Martha lei graduated from the University of Miami and as a young woman she dreams of becoming an actress. After World War II she moves to Washington, where she meets her first husband Clyde Jennings Jr., an honorably discharged army officer who has become a traveling salesman. The two move to Rye, New York and have a son, Jay, but in 1957 they separate: Clyde is too often away from home and the couple breaks out. Just four months after the divorce, Martha marries John Mitchell, struck, as she puts it in her autobiography, "by her sweetness and her intelligence".

Mitchell was a leading attorney in Manhattan at the time. In 1961 the two have a daughter, Marty, and attend the "high life" of the Big Apple. In 1966 John meets Richard Nixon and is immediately feeling: as soon as Nixon was elected president in 1968, Mitchell became attorney general, general Attorney. It is then that Martha's ascent begins: the lady is a glamorous and passionate anti-communist socialite, she dresses in fashion and organizes memorable parties. But she too is one of her who "talks too much": she confides in a frank and sincere way with her friends who are chroniclers of her, so much so that she is nicknamed "The Mouth of the South", the "mouth of the South".

In 1969, Mrs. Mitchell leapt to the headlines because in a television interview she candidly admitted that Washington's pacifist march reminds her husband of the Bolshevik revolution. Martha loves whiskey and when she drinks one glass too much she lets go of unspeakable backstories and uncomfortable gossip about the world of politics. In the 1970 New York Times he calls her "the most talked-about woman in Washington". She even wins the cover of Time and a poll reveals that it is known by 76% of Americans. In July 1971 she refuses to bow to Queen Elizabeth because "American citizens should not genuflect to foreign monarchs". Her popularity increases dramatically because she appears often and willingly on television at the show Laugh-In.

Martha "The Mouth" and the Watergate scandal

Even before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters of the The Washington Post who raise the scandal with their investigation reconstructed by Alan J. Pakula in the unsurpassable All the President's men, Martha Mitchell she is considered by many to be the cause and the first real responsible for Richard Nixon's resignation. In 1972 the President officially re-nominated himself to the White House: he is sure to repeat the success obtained in 1968, despite the unpopularity linked to the opening to China in an anti-Soviet key and to the persistence of the war in Vietnam. John Mitchell continues to follow him: resigns from the position of attorney general to lead the CRP, the Nixon Re-election Committee. But on the night of June 17, 1972, something strange happens.

Five men, all collaborators of the President, are arrested in the Watergate complex in Washington: they tried to steal documents from the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The security guard pinched them while they're setting up a bug in those offices. They are not just "anti-communists" as they call themselves. Yet that real espionage operation would only be discovered two years later. That day, the Mitchells are on vacation with other Republican government officials in Newport Beach to participate in a series of fundraisers. John receives the news of Watergate and immediately leaves for the capital, leaving his wife in California and placing the FBI agent alongside her as a bodyguard. Steve King. Her husband's goal is clear: Martha absolutely must keep her mouth shut. King must stop her from reading the newspapers and especially from calling her friends.

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Starz / Lionsgate Television / NBCUniversal Television
Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell in a scene from Gaslit
Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell, the "Mouth of the South"

Two days later, on June 19, Martha manages to obtain a copy of the Los Angeles Times and reads some shocking news: James McCord Jr., her daughter's chauffeur and former CIA agent hired by her husband as the Committee's director of security, was arrested by police. He is one of the five Watergate burglars. Suspicious of the inconsistencies between what you read in the newspapers and the official version coming from Washington, Martha picks up the phone and calls her friend Helen Thomas, a trusted United Press International reporter.

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Martha is a river in flood: she complains about the "dirty tricks" of the election campaign and promises to leave John. As she is spilling the beans, King hears her. You have received a specific assignment: breaks into the room, unplugs the phone and locks it in his hotel room. Thomas tries to call back but there is nothing to do: Martha is unreachable. A few hours later it is John who recontacts the reporter, explaining that his wife is "indisposed" but assuring that Martha is fine and everything is going well between them, it's just that Martha "gets a little angry about politics".

Starz / Lionsgate Television / NBCUniversal Television
Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell in a scene from the Gaslit series
Martha Mitchell's "chats" frighten Nixon and his folks

Since that day, there has been no news of Mitchell. John had her sedated by a doctor: everything is "settled". It's Marcia Kramer, a crime reporter from New York Daily News, to be able to track down Martha and arrange a meeting with her at Rye's Westchester Country Club. As Mrs. Mitchell arrives, the reporter notices bruises and marks of violence on her arms. Just a few questions and Martha says it all: the imprisonment in the Newport Beach hotel and the attempts to escape from the balcony, the anomalous raid on the Watergate and the direct involvement of the Republican leaders. When the interview comes out, Nixon and his henchmen don't sit idle: They unleash a huge mud machine on Martha.

They let the papers and TV know that Mitchell is not well, she is a mentally ill alcoholic mythomaniac who wanders and invents anything to have a modicum of visibility. Propaganda works. Martha is sent for rehab at a Connecticut psychiatric institution and is dumped by everyone: friends, family, neighbors. She only believes her son Jay. On November 7, 1972, the vote was finally taken: Nixon's victory was overwhelming. The incumbent president gets 60% and gathers 570 electors against only 17 of his opponent, the Democrat George McGovern.

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In 1973, the trial for the break-in at Watergate begins and the twist arrives: McCord claims he acted for political reasons, on the orders of the leaders of the Republican party, and confirms that Nixon and his men fear Martha's bluntness. She was kidnapped to prevent her from knowing what was going on and from talking about it in public.

Martha initially calls reporters to exonerate her husband. She is sure they made him a scapegoat. She tries to defend him at any cost, but she doesn't understand that John is far from unfamiliar with the facts, indeed. When she realizes her husband's direct involvement, she sheds the burden of what she has had to endure: she makes it clear that the Senate hearings are "tried and not spontaneous" and that "everyone is tired of Watergate".

It's the beginning of the end for Mitchell and Nixon. The President resigned on August 9, 1974, to anticipate the imminent impeachment. January 1, 1975 Mitchell is convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and conspiracy for his involvement in Watergate. His sentence is 19 months in federal prison. "If it hadn't been for Martha Mitchell, there wouldn't have been Watergate," Nixon said in his famous 1977 interview with David Frost. Meanwhile, in September 1973, Martha and John divorced.

In early 1975, Martha has multiple myeloma. A person close to her defines her as "desperately ill, without money and without friends". The only one to take care of her is Jay, who has since become a researcher on the Senate Subcommittee on Homeland Security. Martha's health conditions plummet and she ends up in a coma: the now ex Mrs. Mitchell dies on May 31, 1976 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York. She is 57 years old. At her funeral there is a cushion of flowers that reads "Martha was right":" Martha was right. "

Starz / Lionsgate Television / NBCUniversal Television
Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell in a scene from Gaslit
Martha Mitchell, the discredited and then rehabilitated "whistleblower"

"Martha was for many a cheeky and pompous woman - writes Myra MacPherson in the The Washington Post -, but for others she was a heroine who attacked the liberal permissiveness that had brought the country into chaos ". The story reconstructed by gaslit is part of that forgotten history, far from what has come down to our days thanks to the seventy-nine front page articles on Post and the investigations of Woodward and Bernstein. The goal of Pickering and director Matt Ross (that of Captain Fantastic) is to analyze the human side behind a "conservative cheerleader" like Martha, a woman "really punk albeit for horrible things". Incredible but equally true is what happened in 2017: Steve King, Martha Mitchell's jailer, was rehabilitated and chosen by President Donald Trump as US ambassador to the Czech Republic.

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