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Martha Mitchell, Watergate and the true history of 'Gaslit'

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Martha Mitchell, Watergate and the true history of 'Gaslit'
Martha Mitchell, pictured in 1969, tried to tell the media about the Nixon campaign's involvement in the Watergate break-in, but her husband, former Attorney General John Mitchell, had her drugged and silenced. File Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

April 21 (UPI) -- Julia Roberts' new Starz series, Gaslit, tells a little-known story at the heart of the Watergate scandal -- that of Martha Mitchell, whom former President Richard Nixon used as a scapegoat for the scandal even after his resignation.

But who is Mitchell and how exactly did she factor into the break-in that brought down a presidency?

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Martha Mitchell was the wife of John Mitchell (played by Sean Penn in Gaslit), who served as U.S. attorney general during Nixon's first term and later transitioned to working on his re-election campaign. Nixon is portrayed by Danny Winn in the Starz series.

Born and raised in rural Arkansas, Martha Mitchell entered the Washington, D.C., social scene as a media darling. She was known to be outspoken, making frequent appearances on television programs and talk shows, and calling up reporters to give an uncensored look at the inner goings-on of the administration.

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She came to be known as "Martha the Mouth" or the "Mouth of the South."

It was this outspoken nature that led Mitchell to nearly be the one to blow the lid off the Watergate scandal. Instead, she was muzzled, drugged, held hostage and ultimately shrugged off as an unhinged woman with a drinking problem who didn't know what she was talking about.

Watergate scandal

On June 17, 1972, five people were arrested for breaking in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Washington, D.C., Watergate building. The Mitchells and dozens of other lawmakers and politicos also lived at the fashionable complex just blocks from the White House.

Investigators found that the five perpetrators were connected to Nixon's re-election campaign -- run by John Mitchell -- and Nixon ultimately was impeached and resigned over the scandal and his attempts to cover it up. John Mitchell served a year and a half in prison for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury for his role.

Most of the world learned about the Nixon campaign's involvement in the Watergate break-in thanks to the efforts of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Stephen Todt) and Carl Bernstein. They uncovered the scandal through information passed to them by the anonymous source known as "Deep Throat," later unveiled to be FBI special agent Mark Felt (Reed Diamond).

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Their efforts were immortalized in the 1976 film All the President's Men starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, which nabbed four Academy Awards.

Martha the whistleblower

But Martha Mitchell became suspicious about her husband's possible involvement less than a week after the break-in and attempted to tip off the media, herself.

In the days after the break-in, John Mitchell ordered his security team to keep the news away from his wife as well as prevent her from reaching out to media sources. The couple had been vacationing in California at the time and the campaign manager suggested she stay on the West Coast while he returned to D.C.

At the California hotel, Martha Mitchell ultimately learned about the break-in and, learning about the perpetrators' connections to the re-election campaign, called UPI White House correspondent Helen Thomas -- one of her favorite reporters.

Martha Mitchell told Thomas she planned to separate from her husband if he didn't resign from the re-election campaign. She didn't get far into the conversation, though, before the phone call was abruptly ended.

Thomas said she heard Martha Mitchell tell someone, "You just get away!" before it was clear someone had taken the phone away from her. Thomas said she tried to call the hotel back, but an operator told her "Mrs. Mitchell is indisposed and cannot talk."

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Mitchell later said her husband's security ripped the phone out of the wall.

She said she was manhandled by her husband's agents, held prisoner at the Newport Inn in Newport Beach, Calif., and given tranquilizer injections to keep her placid. Martha Mitchell later told reporters about her treatment, but she was discredited by those involved in the scandal, including her husband, who said it was "ridiculous" for anyone to take her seriously.

After Martha Mitchell told UPI in May 1973 that Nixon "should resign immediately" in response to the Watergate scandal, John Mitchell lambasted the media for running articles based on his wife's phone calls to reporters.

"Martha's late-night telephone calls have been good fun and games in the past," a statement from his office said.

"However, this is a serious issue, I'm surprised and disappointed that United Press International would take advantage of a personal phone call made under the stress of the current situation and treat it as a sensational public statement."

The Mitchells eventually divorced in 1973, and she died of bone cancer three years later. A UPI article announcing her death said she died "with no member of her family at her bedside" at the age of 57. She was survived by two children, Jay Jennings, from her first marriage, and Marty (Darby Camp), her daughter with John Mitchell.

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In the decades since the Watergate scandal, Martha Mitchell has seen some redemption. James McCord (Chris Bauer), one of the five perpetrators arrested for the Watergate break-in, confirmed Martha Mitchell's account of her treatment in a 1975 interview with UPI.

"Martha's story is true -- basically the woman was kidnapped," he said. "They kept her locked up and she began to be afraid for her life."

McCord added that the White House attempted to discredit her because "they were extremely jealous of her and feared her because she was very candid."

In the 1990s, a psychologist coined the term the "Martha Mitchell effect," describing the situation in which mental health and other medical professionals dismiss someone as delusional even when they're telling the truth, bizarre as it may seem.

Gaslit

And now Starz is highlighting her story with its new political thriller Gaslit. In addition to Roberts and Penn, Dan Stevens will play John Dean, former White House counsel for Nixon who pleaded guilty to his role in the Watergate coverup. Betty Gilpin plays his wife, Mo Dean.

"Gaslit is the Watergate story you've never heard before. At the center of the show is Martha Mitchell, an unlikely whistleblower who is the first person to bust the whole scandal wide open and ultimately becomes the subject of a vicious White House smear campaign enacted in part by her own beloved husband," series creator and showrunner Robbie Pickering said in a statement.

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"The goal in making this project has always been to bring a real humanity to the subject, which yields a far richer and more relatable story than the standard male-driven political dramas about the period. I can't wait for viewers to experience the extraordinary performances in this remarkable ensemble, led by Julia Roberts, brought to life in this thrilling, stranger-than-fiction tale of marriage, love, betrayal, and ultimately, hope."

Gaslit is based on the first season of the Slow Burn podcast. Matt Ross directed the series and executive produced with Pickering, Roberts, Sam Esmail and Chad Hamilton.

Gaslit premieres Sunday on Starz.

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