“When she’s in the public eye – which often is – Martha Mitchell almost always looks like she’s fine.”
Then began Life‘s 1970 cover story about Martha, the lively wife of President Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell. When the magazine hit newsstands, the Arkansas-born socialite was a DC celebrity – legendary for her late-night, allegedly alcohol-free phone calls to the press. Although she smiled broadly at the cameras, she hated Washington, political planning and how much time her husband spent at Nixon. She also did not care who knew. “The day I start doing what I want to do again,” she told the press at the time, “is the day I leave Washington and return to New York.”
Her opinions and open phone line created regular headlines and headaches for Nixon’s administration. As Life put it five decades ago: “Her flamboyant general style and her spectacular verbal outbursts have turned many people off in Washington.”
Two years later, her view of Nixon’s DC further dampened after a kidnapping that was more alien than fiction, depicted in Starz’s new series Gaslitwith premiere Sunday and starring Julia Roberts as Martha. During the traumatic episode, Martha was held captive in a hotel room following the instructions of her husband (played in the series by Sean Penn) to prevent her from learning about the Watergate scandal. Her subsequent actions were brave – she tried to warn the public about Watergate – but her whistleblowing efforts were discredited by a Nixon smear campaign claiming she was an alcoholic.
Martha, who died of cancer in 1976, only recently returned to the consciousness of pop culture. In 2017 Leon Neyfakh introduced her in the first season of Slate’s Slow combustion podcast – the basis of Gaslit-as a fascinating, forgotten figure. Neyfakh ended the first paragraph by revealing Martha’s sad legacy: “Psychologists talk about a phenomenon where someone is diagnosed as delusional or paranoid because they say things that seem completely crazy and unlikely – but then it turns out they are not crazy after all, and that what they say is true. They call that phenomenon ‘The Martha Mitchell Effect’. “
In a conversation with Gaslit creates Robbie Pickering and author Amelia Gray, Pickering tells VF“When you read about Martha in the history of this period, she is very out of the game. But the more you find out about her, the more you see how central she is … She would listen to [John’s] calls – calls between him and the president, calls between him and Kissinger. She got drunk late at night and she wanted to call [John] went to bed.”