Fifty years after the break-in and burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters at Watergate, it is still regarded as one of the biggest political controversies of all time. And one chapter continues to shock decades later: the story of whistleblower Martha Mitchell, who leaked details from the scandal—and paid a high price.
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The Most Talked About Woman in Washington
Martha, a conservative and flamboyant socialite from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, was the wife of John Mitchell, the attorney general and confidante of President Richard Nixon. By 1970, she was also one of the most famous women in America.
With her blonde bouffant and larger-than-life persona, Martha was so well-known that she graced the November 1970 cover of Time magazine, which reported that she had a “lifetime habit of speaking her mind on the instant” and was a “figure of ridicule to liberals and a public embarrassment to many a traditionalist Republican.” That same year, the New York Times called her “the most talked about, talkative woman in Washington.” Her nickname in Washington was the “Mouth of the South.”
“She was this loud, brash, outspoken woman, an incredibly polarizing figure, at a time when most Cabinet wives were completely unknown,” says Garrett Graff, author of Watergate: A New History. “She was the most in-demand Republican speaker in the country next to the president himself.”
In addition to making the talk show rounds, Martha was known for listening in on her husband’s phone calls and meetings, much to the distress of her husband and the Nixon administration. Adding to their ire, she often shared that sensitive information with reporters during late night calls that were rumored to be fueled by her fondness for whiskey.
Martha Mitchell's Role in Watergate
On the weekend of June 17, 1972, Martha accompanied John, who was then leading Nixon’s reelection committee, to Newport Beach, California, to attend campaign events. It was there that John received a call alerting him that five men had been arrested at the Watergate complex—for the break-in he was said to have authorized.
John headed for Washington, leaving Martha behind at the hotel, reportedly under the watch of security aide and former FBI agent Stephen King. While John was away, Martha read the news and saw photos of one of the captured burglars, James McCord. Martha recognized McCord since he was a former CIA officer and security consultant for the reelection campaign who had recently been Martha’s personal security guard.
Five days after the break-in, Martha called Helen Thomas, a reporter at United Press International who wrote about the events in her book Front Row at the White House. As Thomas writes, Martha told her that she would leave her husband if he didn’t get out of the “dirty business” of politics. Before Thomas could ask her more, she heard Martha saying “Get away. Get away,” and then the phone went dead.
Thomas called back but was told Martha was “indisposed.” Concerned, Thomas wrote that she then called John who nonchalantly replied, “That little sweetheart,” he said. “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.”
According to Thomas, Martha alleged that King ripped the phone out of the wall, threw her onto the floor and kicked her. Thomas wrote that Martha was held hostage in the hotel for days and, at one point, five men held her down while a doctor injected her with a tranquilizer. Martha also told Thomas she received stitches in her hand.
She told Thomas when she returned to Washington, “I’m black and blue. They don’t want me to talk.”
But that didn’t stop her. Martha recounted her story to Thomas and other reporters. Despite her speaking out, no charges were ever brought against King or others; and King has denied the kidnapping allegations.
“The story got a fair amount of play—mostly on the women’s pages,” wrote Thomas. “Maybe editors thought it was just another case of Martha being Martha and newsworthy only because it revealed a rift in a very public marriage.”
The Fallout From the Scandal
Efforts to disparage Martha started right away, according to Thomas, who wrote that, “Back in Washington, administrative aides began hinting that Martha was hallucinating, that she was deranged or that she was just drunk.”
“She was written off in part because of the misogyny of the era,” says Graff.
“Martha Mitchell disdained feminists, but she was, in her own way, a feminist hero a woman who would not be bound by the conventional roles assigned to her, a woman who spoke her mind and was silenced,” says Jefferson Morley, author of Scorpions’ Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate.
Despite what she said had happened to her in California, Martha believed John was not involved in any wrongdoing and defended him during a civil suit against Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President. But John, who left Martha in 1973, was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury, and spent 19 months in prison. “It could have been a hell of a lot worse," John told reporters. "They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha.”
McCord, who was later convicted as a Watergate conspirator, backed up Martha’s story in a 1975 New York Times article. “Martha's story is true—basically the woman was kidnapped,” he said, in an attempt to keep her unaware of Watergate.
Nixon, who eventually resigned the presidency in August 1974, later blamed Martha for Watergate. He told British interviewer David Frost, “I’m convinced if it hadn’t been for Martha—and God rest her soul, because she in her heart was a good person. She just had a mental and emotional problem that nobody knew about. If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate.”
Just two years after Nixon resigned, Martha died of bone marrow cancer at the age of 57. In 2017, her story was detailed on the Slate podcast Slow Burn.
“Martha was written out of the story and forgotten for most of the last half century,” says Graff. “She warned America about what was about to envelop the country, and she was ignored. She deserves a much bigger role in the way we tell the story of Watergate.”