Martha Mitchell: A look into the tragic last days of the Watergate whistleblower

Martha Mitchell, the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, was the first Watergate whistleblower — but she was silenced, discredited and all but forgotten


                            Martha Mitchell: A look into the tragic last days of the Watergate whistleblower
Martha Mitchell (Photo by Wood/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Martha Mitchell quickly became a household name during Richard Nixon’s presidency. She was a favorite due to her controversial public statements and natural ability to produce an electrifying story for the press. Martha Mitchell was known in her social circles for her quick wit and Southern charm.

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Mitchell held a very busy social schedule, with numerous lunches, events, and parties with Washington’s biggest political stars. In the 1970s, Martha Mitchell was a household name, but Watergate made her name a footnote on the pages of history. She paid a tragic price for trying to raise the alarm about Nixon’s scandal.

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Life after the Watergate scandal

Martha Mitchell at home with her husband, John, Nixon’s attorney general, and their daughter Marti. Photograph: Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images

White House aides claimed Mitchell’s story was the rantings of a mentally ill woman. They denied she had ever been beaten and accused her of being an out-of-control alcoholic. Throughout that time, Nixon and his aides accused Martha Mitchell of being an alcoholic, liar, and unscrupulous attention-seeker.

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The breakdown of her marriage soon followed. After a 16-year marriage, Martha and John Mitchell separated in September 1973. Without saying goodbye, he had walked out on Mitchell in 1973 and they never spoke again. The divorce proceedings received a great deal of media attention, with several news outlets labeling Martha as an alcoholic and a notorious gossip. Publicly shamed, recently divorced from her husband due to the scandal, and estranged from her children, Mitchell lived out of the public eye for two years after Nixon left office.

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Last tragic years of Martha Mitchell’s life

Martha Mitchell at a Republican fundraiser in New York in September 1972. She was the second most in-demand party figure after President Nixon himself. Photograph: Dave Pickoff/AP

 

Mitchell continued to live in political exile, with her integrity lost to a successful disinformation campaign from the Nixon administration. No one was ever charged in the 1972 kidnapping of Martha Mitchell. In late 1975, Mitchell fell ill. She was eventually diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that attacks plasma cells. Mitchell spent her final days in relative obscurity and died on May 31, 1976. Then in 1976, she died of rare bone cancer, “alone and destitute” at age 57. At her funeral, an anonymous supporter sent a large floral arrangement that read, “Martha Was Right.”

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Quinn commented: “She’s an absolute tragedy. One of the Washington people who end up being just ground up and spat out, and she had a tragic ending. She wasn’t crazy. She was brave. She called it as she saw it and she paid for it.” In 1977, Richard Nixon spoke in an interview about the Watergate scandal and Martha Mitchell’s influence on its unraveling. He concluded bitterly to a reporter, “If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate.” 

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