Who Was Martha Mitchell? How the Socialite Was Involved in Watergate

If you are a fan of Impeachment: American Crime Story and The Post, you will not want to miss Gaslit. The eight-part series—which airs every Sunday on Starz in the U.S. and Starzplay in the U.K.—brings to life the Watergate scandal that plagued Richard Nixon's presidency in the early 1970s and led to his resignation.

The new series is inspired by the first season of Slate's Slow Burn podcast and explores untold stories from inside Nixon's White House during the Watergate era, with a particular focus on American socialite Martha Mitchell, who is portrayed by Julia Roberts.

So who was Martha Mitchell, and how was she involved in Watergate? Newsweek has everything you need to know.

Who Was Martha Mitchell?

Martha Mitchell was an American socialite and the wife of President Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, who also happened to be one of Nixon's closest friends.

A former teacher and secretary, Martha married John Mitchell on December 30, 1957. They had a daughter, Marty, together in 1961.

By 1968, John Mitchell had been appointed U.S. attorney general under President Nixon's government and the family moved to Washington D.C., living in the Watergate complex.

Martha Mitchell had earned the reputation of being a gossip and an outspoken socialite with the nickname "Martha the Mouth." As heard in the Slow Burn podcast, Martha Mitchell would phone the press with political gossip after going through her husband's papers.

who is martha mitchell
Martha Mitchell, wife of the attorney general, famed for her telephone exploits, tries out an early model as she attends an antique show put on by the Davis Memorial Goodwill industries. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Martha Mitchell's Connection to Watergate

Today, the term 'Watergate' generally refers to the major political scandal involving Nixon's administration from 1972 to 1974, which stemmed from the cover-up of its involvement in the June 1972 break-in and bug at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate complex.

Martha Mitchell was the first person to go public about Nixon's government's involvement in the Watergate scandal. As John Mitchell's wife, she was one of the most famous whistleblowers of the Nixon presidency. In an interview with the British journalist David Frost in 1977, Nixon himself would go on to state: "If it hadn't been for Martha Mitchell, there'd have been no Watergate."

For weeks prior to Watergate, Martha Mitchell had been complaining to reporters and anybody who would listen to her about the Republicans carrying out "dirty tricks" against the Democrats after overhearing her husband's conversations.

gaslit julia roberts
Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell in the television series 'Gaslit' on Starz Starz

Martha Mitchell's husband John Mitchell was head of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP) for the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign. During their holiday to Newport Beach, California, John Mitchell received a call about the June 1972 break-in at the DNC headquarters and held a press conference almost instantly to deny any CRP involvement.

John Mitchell then returned to Florida. When Martha Mitchell remained in California, John had their security guard, Steve King, watch his wife's every move to ensure she did not hear any more news about the break-in and to prevent her from talking to reporters.

However, Martha Mitchell soon found out more details via the newspapers and learned James W. McCord Jr., the security director of the CRP and her daughter's bodyguard and driver, was among those arrested for the break-in. The arrest of McCord went directly against the White House's statement that the break-in was not connected to the CRP.

Martha Mitchell's comments about Republicans' "dirty tricks" against the Democrats would eventually come to haunt the Nixon administration, which feared she would now go public with her concerns after hearing the news about McCord's involvement.

On June 22, 1972, Martha Mitchell managed to contact Helen Thomas of United Press International. She reportedly told the journalist that she planned to leave her husband until he resigned from the CRP. However, the phone call ended abruptly. It would transpire days later that Martha Mitchell had been effectively held captive in her California hotel.

According to Winzola McLendon's 1979 biography on Martha Mitchell, titled Martha, security guard King "rushed into her bedroom, threw her back across the bed, and ripped the telephone out of the wall" whilst she was on the phone to Thomas.

McLendon also details that during her stay in the Californian hotel, when she tried to escape from King's watch via a balcony to an adjoining room, "King ran out and pulled her back inside. She claimed he threw her down and kicked her...The next day...she slipped downstairs, planning to escape, but King spotted her just as she reached a glass door. In the ensuing scuffle, Martha's left hand was cut, so badly that six stitches were required in two fingers."

As heard on the Slow Burn podcast, Martha Mitchell was injected with a tranquilizer at Nixon lawyer Herbert Kalmbach's instruction.

In a December 2017 interview, King denied the allegations surrounding the reported incident.

Martha Mitchell was tracked down a few days later by crime reporter Marcia Kramer of the New York Daily News, who traced her to the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York.

The White House Press also presented the narrative Martha Mitchell was sick and needed help for her mental health. However, this was not the case at all. A CRP spokesperson was quoted as saying at the time: "Everyone knows that Mrs. Mitchell has her private, personal problems.

"These are something only her husband can solve. She can be perfectly charming and then at other times—especially at night—she is not herself," reported Vivian Cadden in McCall's July 1973 issue.

The narrative changed in February 1975 when McCord, the security director of the CRP who was convicted of conspiracy in the Watergate break-in, said that Martha Mitchell was "basically" kidnapped and confirmed the details of her story as true. As John Mitchell's wife, she had known too much about the CRP and Watergate.

Soon after the burglary, John Mitchell resigned as U.S. attorney general. Martha Mitchell was called to give testimony in a deposition at the offices of attorney Henry B. Rothblatt in relation to the Democratic Party's $6.4 million civil suit against CRP officials, reported The New York Times in April 1973.

On January 1, 1975, John Mitchell was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy for his involvement in the Watergate break-in. He served 19 months in prison.

Martha Mitchell died on May 31, 1976. She was 57 years old.

Gaslit airs Sunday, April 24 at 9 p.m. ET on Starz and Starzplay.