Kidnapped, Silenced — Then Vindicated: The True Story Behind Julia Roberts' Martha Mitchell in 'Gaslit'

A political wife who loved to drink and dial up reporters, Mitchell became a prominent figure in the scandal that brought down a presidency and eventually destroyed her marriage

Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon's attorney General John Mitchell
Photo: Getty Images

For her starring role in the new series Gaslit, Julia Roberts did a deep dive into the dramatic public persona of Martha Mitchell, a flashy political wife during the Nixon administration who had a prominent role in the Watergate scandal — which helped lead to the implosion of a presidency and her own marriage.

"One of the great things about portraying this person was there was a lot of source material, a lot of archival footage, a lot of photographs," Roberts, 54, told Entertainment Weekly of her research to play Mitchell for the Starz show, based on the first season of Slate's podcast Slow Burn.

"I could see her being interviewed, and the ways that she talked, the way that she walked, the way that she dressed," Roberts told EW. "There was so much that I could excavate from all those things to put together my interpretation of her."

Watching Gaslit, which debuted Sunday with new episodes airing weekly on Starz, gives viewers a glimpse at how Roberts transformed into her whiskey-sipping, gossip-loving, attention-craving character.

Here's some of what the Oscar winner likely uncovered in researching the real-life saga of the woman known as the "Mouth of the South."

'Most Talked About'

"She is the most talked about, talkative woman in Washington," The New York Times wrote in 1970 of Mitchell, who was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1918, to a cotton broker father and a drama teacher mother.

Mitchell (née Beall) married attorney John Mitchell (her second husband, played in Gaslit by an unrecognizable Roberts pal Sean Penn) in 1957.

"They would have two Scotches together, eat dinner on a TV tray and talk," Jay Jennings, Martha's son from her first marriage, told PEOPLE in 1979 of her and John's early years.

A decade after they wed, John became Richard Nixon's campaign manager in the 1968 presidential election. Two days after Nixon's inauguration, John was sworn in as the U.S. attorney general.

His wife, meanwhile, carved out her own spot in the public consciousness.

Sean Penn and Julia Roberts in Gaslit. starz

"Mrs. Mitchell emerged almost immediately as the most colorful of the Nixon Cabinet spouses," the Times wrote. "A flamboyant blonde, partial to sling back pumps, dangling earrings and glitter, she quickly proved to be an enthusiastic party‐goer at night and den mother during the day to Cabinet wives."

She also loved to gab with journalists — often with a cocktail in hand — and relished rattling off middle-of-the-night soundbites from the bathroom of her Watergate Complex home so her husband couldn't hear, according to a 1970 TIME profile.

"She calls them in the small hours of the morning with pungent advice," the newsweekly said. Her detractors, the profile notes, liked to "insinuate that she sometimes takes a drink or two too many," though friends said her "midnight telephonitis is nothing but her lifetime habit of speaking her mind on the instant."

Martha once told a TV reporter her husband compared the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, a massive 1969 peace protest in Washington, D.C., to the Russian Revolution. Though the comments might seem downright dainty nowadays, they were considered indiscreet and uncouth at the time.

John Mitchell, one of Richard Nixon's top aides, is sworn in at the Senate.
Keystone/Getty Images

The mainstream press noticed the notoriously chatty wife of an administration official. "She was besieged for interviews and became a national celebrity," according to a news report of her death from cancer in 1976.

Martha's outspoken nature fueled crossover fame with appearances on talk shows and on the sketch comedy show Laugh-In, which poked fun at her frequent-dialer reputation in a skit with Lily Tomlin's phone-operator character Ernestine giving her a "prize in the shape of the Supreme Court" for being the person who's done the most for her phone company employer.

"She was this loud, brash, outspoken woman, an incredibly polarizing figure, at a time when most Cabinet wives were completely unknown," Garrett Graff, author of Watergate: A New History, said, according to "She was the most in-demand Republican speaker in the country next to the president himself."

Breaking Watergate

In 1972, Martha's husband resigned from the Justice Department to become the director of the Committee to Re-elect the President (later dubbed CREEP). In that role, he allegedly approved the plan to wiretap the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the D.C. Watergate Office Building and authorized a hefty payment to the burglars, according to Esquire.

When five men, including a former bodyguard named James McCord, were arrested during their second illicit visit to the DNC, word got back to Martha's husband, who was then with her in Newport Beach, California. John quickly returned to Washington, leaving Martha behind without telling her about the break-in or McCord's arrest.

He also reportedly left instructions with her security guards: Don't let Martha speak to any reporters, who might ask her about the news — or mention McCord and then connect the burglars to Nixon's White House.

She found out anyway, possibly by eavesdropping on her husband's calls, Esquire reports.

Days later, still in Newport Beach, Martha pretended to be asleep and then crept to the phone to call her pal, Helen Thomas, doyenne of the White House press corps.

John and Martha Mitchell
Getty Images

During their conversation, Thomas said she heard Martha on the line telling someone, "Get away, get away" before they were cut off, according to the "Martha" episode of Slow Burn.

Indeed, one of the security guards had ripped the phone out of the wall. Thomas called back but was told by a switchboard operator that Martha was indisposed and could not come to the phone. Thomas reached John who told the reporter, "That little sweetheart, I love her so much. She gets a little upset about politics, but she loves me and I love her and that's what counts," according to Slow Burn.

That was just the beginning of the gaslighting of Martha Mitchell, who would face attacks on her character and efforts to discredit her story. And what a story it was.

'Political Prisoner'

Weeks after the Watergate break-ins, Martha told Thomas in an interview that she'd been a "political prisoner," held hostage in a hotel room for days and sedated while the security detail held her down, Esquire reports. "I'm black and blue," she said.

Winzola McLendon's 1979 biography, Martha, recounts Martha's claim that she was shoved, kicked and needed stitches in her hand after cutting it on glass during an escape attempt, according to Newsweek.

Calling it "the most horrible experience I have ever had," Martha described the ordeal in a letter to Parade magazine.

Former FBI agent Steve King, she alleged, "inflicted bodily harm upon me. Such as, kicking me, throwing me around, keeping me locked up in one room for more than twenty-four hours, sending my hand through a glass window, allowing no one inside the villa except the doctor whom he called — and last but not least — yanked the phone out of my bedroom while talking with Helen Thomas."

King, who went on to serve as an ambassador decades later, in 2017 denied that he "kidnapped" Mitchell as part of the Watergate cover-up, as had been reported in Newsweek. "Much if not most all of the facts as reported in that Newsweek article are false," he said.

But McCord, who was eventually convicted on conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping charges, confirmed Martha had been targeted. Speaking with the news wire UPI in 1975, he described "a great effort in the White House to discredit Martha Mitchell."

"Basically the woman was kidnapped," McCord said then.

"They were extremely jealous of her and feared her because she was very candid," McCord told UPI.

Martha, her suspicions further piqued by news of the Watergate operation, wanted to reveal what happened to her in California, saying once she was back in New York, "I am a prisoner … I won't stand for this dirty business," according to a 1973 McCall's story. She later called for Nixon to resign that same year.

But the efforts of powerful men to paint her as a mentally unstable pariah were effective. "It is evident that there was a concerted effort on the part of Republican party officials to suggest that Martha was indeed ill and that her remarks, present or future, were to be considered the product of an overwrought person," McCall's wrote in 1973.

"Everyone knows that Mrs. Mitchell has her private, personal problems," a CREEP source says in the story. "These are something only her husband can solve. She can be perfectly charming and then at other times — especially at night — she is not herself."

McLendon wrote in her biography, "The Nixon and CREEP people began to spread stories that Martha was crazy, an out-of-control alcoholic, or had had a breakdown," Newsweek reports.

Still, Martha kept talking — about her experiences, about the Republican Party, about the unfolding scandal and its ripples.

"You know I've never really known anything about the Watergate case," she told the Times in 1973 after giving a deposition in a related lawsuit. "But I'm glad its all coming out. It's like a breath of relief — a breath of fresh air."

Nixon himself told journalist David Frost in 1977 that he was "convinced" that "If it hadn't been for Martha, there'd have been no Watergate."

"God rest her soul, because she in her heart was a good person," the disgraced president also said.

Martha Mitchell (left), estranged wife of former Attorney General John Mitchell, tells Barbara Walters, "m husband was framed and I can almost document it."
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Separate Lives

In the months that followed, as controversy engulfed Nixon's presidency until he eventually resigned in August 1974, the Mitchells' marriage unraveled.

"For six months now, John and Martha Mitchell have lived separately and without speaking," begins a PEOPLE story written in 1974 as he was being tried on obstruction of justice charges. "When he moved out one night," the article continues, "he took with him the maid, the chauffeur and, in petty revenge, her Rolodex file of telephone numbers."

Alone in a Manhattan apartment, Martha told PEOPLE she believed her husband intended to drive her insane and wanted to destroy her relationship with their daughter, Marty (played by Darby Camp in Gaslit).

"He has brainwashed her against me. I have tried to see her at school, but the teachers say they have orders from him not to let me in," Martha said. "In the beginning she used to call me at night, but not anymore. It's the ugliest, cruelest thing in the world — they've used Marty to get even with me."

Neither her husband nor her daughter was by her side when Martha died "destitute and alone" of a rare bone cancer in 1976, according to a report on her death.

Jennings, Mitchell's son from her first marriage, told PEOPLE his mother loved her estranged husband "till the day she died," adding that "only John can answer whether he loved her those last years."

At Martha's funeral in Pine Bluff, an anonymous Mitchell supporter sent a floral arrangement of white chrysanthemums. According to a local report, the flowers spelled out in block letters six inches high, "Martha was right."

Related Articles