By Martha Smilgis
Updated July 09, 1979 12:00 PM

Sick, often drunk and estranged from her husband John, Martha Mitchell began her autobiography in 1973. But she refused to sign a contract because “she was afraid she wouldn’t get her money from John,” recalls the Washington newswoman who was her collaborator, Winzola McLendon.

Martha died three years ago from a bone marrow disease, before she could either finish her book or reconcile with Mitchell. Now, on the basis of her long friendship with the most talked-about Cabinet wife in the Nixon administration, McLendon has written Martha (Random House, $12.95). John Mitchell will not be pleased (though a friend is sure he won’t read it).

“Martha always said John couldn’t stand me,” admits McLendon, who received as many as 18 calls a day from Martha. “She would phone just to say the mail was delivered, or that she was having trouble with the maid.” The author adds with a smile, “She always wanted me to fire her maid.”

The criticism of John Mitchell in the book is the least of his problems. Released seven months ago from a federal prison, the disbarred former Attorney General “was flat broke after Watergate and didn’t have the money to cover some of his legal fees,” says his lawyer, Bill Hundley. These days Mitchell, 65, lives with a wealthy Washington heiress, Mary Gore Dean, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Martha. Widow of Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Gordon Dean, she comes from an old and prominent Maryland family. “John has no place else to go,” says a friend.

According to his stepson Jay Jennings, the offspring of Martha’s first marriage, Mitchell “could be keeping up appearances on borrowed money.” Jennings has not seen John since his mother’s funeral nor has he been allowed to speak to his 18-year-old half sister, Marty Mitchell. A pre-law student at Georgetown, she is shy, scholarly and resembles her father.

In 1974 John received a $50,000 advance from Simon and Schuster to write a Watergate book, even though he stipulated in the contract that he would not discuss Nixon or Martha. The publisher is still waiting for the manuscript. Meanwhile the 60ish Winny McLendon collected a six-figure advance for Martha, which is expected to become a best-seller. As John’s accuser, she proclaims, “The Administration used this weak woman. He let them put her out on the campaign trail and she was pushed beyond her limits.” McLendon charges that Mitchell would not pay for the two nurses Martha required during her final illness. (Lawyer Hundley insists his client was insolvent.) The bills remain unpaid to this day.

After Watergate, Hundley recalls visiting the Mitchells’ New York co-op, which John nicknamed the Taj Mahal because of his wife’s opulent tastes. “Martha would come in and throw something at him and the lawyers would scatter. She had a good arm,” Hundley recalls. “Mitchell couldn’t control her. She was a sick woman. She accused him of playing around. He had faults, but that wasn’t one of them. I think he still loved her. In private, he never knocked her. Of course, he never knocked Nixon either. John didn’t want to commit Martha because it would be like committing Joan of Arc.”

McLendon found Martha to be sane, “a good sport with a drinking problem.” With Southern flair, she lied to McLendon about her background (“She said her father died of a heart attack; in truth, he committed suicide”) and exaggerated her means. Because of dyslexia, Martha could hardly read aloud, which McLendon, who suffers from the same problem, recognized. “She had a fit when I found out,” the author says.

Jay Jennings praises McLendon’s profile and confirms the couple’s early devotion. “They would have two Scotches together,” he says, “eat dinner on a TV tray and talk. She loved him till the day she died. Only John can answer whether he loved her those last years.” Jay adds, “Her problems came from diverticulitis, medication, a few drinks and an explosive personality.” Plus, McLendon notes, tremendous insecurity. “Before she entered a party, she would clutch you and stand trembling outside the door. Once inside she was like an actress onstage.”

The two women met in 1970 when McLendon was doing a story for Look. “She liked the piece,” the author recalls, “but not the photographs. She went on a diet immediately. We were from the same part of the country, of the same generation.” McLendon was born in Missouri and raised in Southern California. There she met her husband, a USC law student turned Navy officer. While they were stationed in Hawaii, she got a job as a columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser, and later worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Washington Post. She freelances now.

If Martha had ever completed her autobiography, McLendon says, “it wouldn’t have been as truthful. She didn’t want her drinking mentioned. And once she told me, ‘I don’t want any goddamn curse words in my book.’ ”