Martha Mitchell (1918–1976)
aka: Martha Elizabeth Beall Jennings Mitchell
Martha Elizabeth Beall Mitchell gained worldwide recognition for her outspokenness during the Watergate scandal—a scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign from office on August 9, 1974. She was a renowned character in Washington DC. During President Nixon’s first term, her husband, John Mitchell, was attorney general. Nixon once said, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”
Martha Beall was born on September 2, 1918, in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). Her father, George V. Beall, was a cotton broker, and her mother, Arie Elizabeth Ferguson Beall, was a speech and drama teacher for fifty years in the Pine Bluff School District. Beall graduated in May 1937 from Pine Bluff High School, where she was known as friendly, outgoing, and extremely talkative. She attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, and the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) before receiving a BA in history from the University of Miami. She was a school teacher for a year in Mobile, Alabama, but decided teaching was not for her and moved back home to Pine Bluff. In 1945, she was hired as a secretary at the Pine Bluff Arsenal and, after six weeks, was transferred to Washington DC with her boss, Brigadier General A. M. Prentiss.
Beall met Clyde Jennings Jr., a young U.S. Army officer from Lynchburg, Virginia, and went out on a date with him. Soon after he was honorably discharged, they were married in Pine Bluff on October 5, 1946, at the Presbyterian Church on 5th Avenue. They moved to Rye, New York, and had a son named Clyde Jay Jennings. The couple separated on May 18, 1956, and divorced on August 1, 1957. On December 30, 1957, she married John N. Mitchell, an attorney in New York City. They had one daughter, Martha (Marty) Elizabeth Mitchell Jr.
Her husband managed Richard Nixon’s successful presidential campaign in 1968 and was appointed attorney general after Nixon took office in 1969. Martha Mitchell became so well known as the outspoken wife of a cabinet member that, whenever her first name was mentioned, everyone knew who she was. She shared her views on everything: the Vietnam War, school busing, nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, and more. She was known to call reporters at all hours of the day to comment on particular issues, including relaying information about the Nixon administration’s corrupt activities. Mitchell claimed that, as a result, she was drugged and imprisoned in a California hotel room in an effort to keep her quiet.
In 1972, John Mitchell resigned his position to manage Nixon’s second campaign and became entangled in the Watergate scandal. He left his wife in September 1973 without giving her any financial support. She got a job as a TV show host to try to support herself. Martha Mitchell was a special guest host for Washington’s WTTG television program Panorama during the first week of April 1974. On April 27, the station aired the best of the week’s interviews as “Panorama Presents: The Best of Martha Mitchell.” This job lasted one week. The following year, on January 1, 1975, John Mitchell was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up; he served nineteen months in federal prison.
Martha Mitchell died in New York City on May 31, 1976, two years after her diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a rare bone cancer. The funeral was held at First Presbyterian Church in Pine Bluff. Her children, Jay and Marty, entered in the side door with Mitchell’s estranged husband John after the funeral started. One floral tribute at the service spelled “Martha was right” with white chrysanthemums. It was never known who sent them. She is buried at Bellwood Cemetery in Pine Bluff.
The psychological term “the Martha Mitchell effect” arose as a result of Mitchell’s experiences with mental health professionals who originally believed her to be delusional when she discussed matters related to the Watergate scandal—matters that turned out to be true.
The former Pine Bluff home of Mitchell’s maternal grandparents, Sallie Culp and Calvin Mc Fadden Ferguson, is now the Martha Beall Mitchell Home and Museum. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in January 1978. On May 31, 1978, the second anniversary of her death, the section of U.S. Highway 65 that ran through northern Pine Bluff was renamed the Martha Mitchell Expressway. On May 31, 1981, the fifth anniversary of her death, a bust was dedicated to Martha Beall Mitchell on the Civic Center grounds between East 10th and 11th streets. On the plaque were the words, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
Martha Mitchell’s life has been dramatized in the plays Dirty Tricks and This is Martha Speaking. The television series Gaslit, based upon the first season of the Slowburn podcast, which centered upon Mitchell, premiered in April 2022 on Starz. It stars Julia Roberts as Mitchell. In June 2022, Netflix released the documentary The Martha Mitchell Effect.
For additional information:
Birthplace and Childhood Home of Martha Beall Mitchell. http://www.atrol.com/martha/ (accessed February 14, 2022).
Horn, Deborah. “PB Native Focus of Starz TV Series.” Pine Bluff Commercial, February 14, 2022, pp. 1, 2. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/feb/14/pb-native-focus-of-starz-tv-series/ (accessed February 14, 2022).
McLendon, Winzola. Martha: The Life of Martha Mitchell. New York: Random House, 1979.
Mitchell, Martha, and John Newton Mitchell. On With the Wind: Martha Mitchell Speaks. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.
Brenda J. Hall
White Hall, Arkansas
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