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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: One woman lost

by Philip Martin | April 26, 2022 at 4:28 a.m.


"If it hadn't been for Martha Mitchell, there'd have been no Watergate."

-- Richard Nixon to David Frost, 1977

In 1986, Abigail McCarthy and Jane Gray Muskie, the wives of Senators Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Edmund Muskie of Maine, collaborated on a novel called "One Woman Lost."

While I don't recall enough about the book to say whether it is worth seeking out--it's readily available online, with used copies starting at $3.75--I remember reading it, and some particulars of the plot stick with me to this day.

It is about Celia Mann, the wife of Senator John Mann of Ohio, a popular figure who is tapped by presidential candidate Lily Batchelder to be her running mate in 1988. Batchelder is a neo-con in the Margaret Thatcher mode, who believes in "peace through strength."

It is mildly embarrassing to Senator Mann that his wife is a leading member of a group of Senate wives called Peaceworks, and he takes measures to silence her. With the help of Celia's physician brother, Mann arranges to lace her face cream with a migraine-inducing drug. This eventually leads to her resignation from Peaceworks.

With Celia sidelined, Batchelder wins the election. But Celia emerges from her drug-fogged state long enough to uncover evidence of her husband's involvement in a CIA plot to overthrow the Canadian govenment. She's whisked away to a hospital, imprisoned under a cover of drug rehab.

She's rescued by a group of leftist nuns, aided by her gay hairdresser and the wife of the Canadian ambassador. They carry her off to their convent, where Celia engages their leader, Sister Kathleen, in a philosophical dialogue. Then Celia discovers that the sisters have connections to a drug-dealing terrorist organization.

So . . .

I remember thinking that Kurt Vonnegut might have done something with that kind of convoluted plot. But whatever else it is, "One Woman Lost" is obviously a memorable book. I remember it a lot better than I do Allen Drury's "Pentagon" or Christopher Buckley's "The White House Mess," both of which came out in 1986.

But I didn't remember "One Woman Lost" out of the blue. I remembered it because Martha Mitchell, the only child of Pine Bluff cotton broker George Beall and drama teacher Arie Beall, is about to have a cultural moment. Julia Roberts is playing her in the Starz series "Gaslit," which had its premiere Sunday night.

Celia Mann was based on Martha.

She was the wife of John Mitchell (played by a heavily prostheticized Sean Penn in "Gaslit"), who had been Richard Nixon's attorney general and was the president's campaign chief at the beginning of the Watergate affair. After John was appointed attorney general in 1968, the couple settled in Washington, and gregarious Martha acquired a reputation as a freewheeling gossip, making frequent and sometimes indiscreet observations about the Washington scene and attacking the permissiveness of the '60s counterculture.

William Fulbright ought to "be crucified" for voting against the Supreme Court nomination of G. Harrold Carswell, she said. The bombing of Cambodia was "100 percent wonderful."

She was on magazine covers and referenced in Johnny Carson's opening monologues. She became known as "The Mouth of the South" (and, in my youthful imagination, conflated with the comic, singer and toothpaste endorser Martha "The Big Mouth" Raye).

Martha Mitchell appeared on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in 1969, conversing with Lily Tomlin in her guise as telephone operator Earnestine. When Earnestine asks her if she had any hobbies, Mitchell replies that she likes to read "the funny papers." Which funny papers, Earnestine wants to know? "The New York Times and The Washington Post."

But in real life, Martha enjoyed a great relationship with members of the press, particularly with Helen Thomas of UPI, with whom she chatted regularly on the phone.

In June 1972, Martha accompanied John on a campaign fundraising trip to California. On the evening of June 17, John received a call about some men arrested in connection with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building.

John called a press conference to deny that the Nixon campaign had any involvement in the break-in. He worried if Martha saw newspaper or television accounts of the break-in, she'd recognize one of the Watergate burglars as James W. McCord Jr., who worked as security director of the Committee to Re-elect the President. McCord had swept the Mitchells' apartment and phones for bugs; he had X-rayed their furniture.

John told Martha to stay in California and enjoy a vacation while he flew back to Washington. And he instructed FBI agent turned CRP operative Steve King to keep her busy--to keep her from finding out about McCord's involvement.

Martha found at anyway, but it took her five days to call Thomas. She told the reporter she intended to leave John if he didn't resign from Nixon's dirty-tricks campaign. That conversation, Thomas wrote, "abruptly ended when it appeared that someone had taken the phone out of her hand."

A few days later, Martha traveled east to Rye, N.Y., where she was tracked down at the Westchester Country Club by New York Daily News reporter Marcia Kramer. Kramer reported Martha was "a beaten woman " with black and blue marks on her arms. She told Kramer that King had not only taken the phone from her hand, he yanked it out of the wall.

When she tried to escape via the balcony, she was physically restrained by five men. Then Nixon lawyer Herb Kalmbach appeared with an unnamed doctor, who injected Martha with tranquilizers as she was held down on the bed. She feared for her life.

"I am a prisoner," Martha said. "I won't stand for this dirty business."

Nixon and his aides immediately set out to discredit her, painting her as a disturbed woman with a predilection for drinking and pills. (Not entirely untrue.) They suggested she was convalescing at a psychiatric facility. John resigned from the campaign.

"My bride was tired of traveling, tired of making speeches, nervous about flying, and I wasn't around much to help. It's as simple as that," he said.

And Watergate played out. John separated from Martha and moved out in September 1973; he was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy on Jan. 1, 1975. He served 19 months in prison and never saw her again.

He did come to her funeral at Pine Bluff's Bellwood Cemetery in 1976. According to her lawyer, Martha was "without friends and without funds" when she died. But she had family.

And someone--the family declined to say who--sent a arrangement of white chrysanthemums that spelled, in six-inch block letters, "Martha was right."


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.


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