The True Story Behind Starz’s Watergate Series Gaslit

9 minute read

Robbie Pickering, the creator of the political docudrama Gaslit, airing Sundays on Starz, has been a “Richard Nixon geek” ever since he saw his mom weeping as she watched the former president’s 1994 funeral on TV. At age 11, all Pickering knew about Nixon was that he was considered a “bad president” because of his connection to the Watergate scandal, the burglary and illegal wiretapping of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and subsequent cover-up that resulted in a 1974 resignation. “My mom turned to me and was like, ‘Oh my god, he was a great man. They crucified him!’” he told TIME. “From that moment on, I needed to know everything about this man.”

As Pickering got older and read more about the 37th president of the United States—Jeff Pearlstein’s 2008 book Nixonland is his favorite assessment of the Watergate era—he became more interested in the “people around Nixon [during Watergate], and this culture of complicity.”

Gaslit, inspired by the debut season of Slate’s Slow Burn podcast, tells the story of those who were involved in the political scandal, including Nixon’s White House counsel John Dean (played by Dan Stevens) and FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham), who was convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and illegal wiretapping for his role in Watergate. But, like the 2020 podcast, Gaslit is more interested in the lesser-known people who publicly opposed the former president. Specifically, that means Martha Mitchell, who was the outspoken wife of John N. Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general and close personal friend. She’s played in the new series by Julia Roberts. “Martha is often sidelined in most of the accounts of Watergate in a way that’s very conspicuous once you know how deeply she was involved in the scandal,” Pickering says.

Martha was nicknamed the “mouth of the South” for her gift of the gab. She was denigrated by Nixon loyalists, including her own husband, for speaking out against the president. “I think Martha spoke out in the beginning because she couldn’t stand that Nixon has such a hold on her husband,” Pickering says. “So maybe [her speaking out] started out as something more selfish and maybe it seemed less heroic, but the end result is that she is a hero.”

Who is Martha Mitchell?

When Martha Mitchell moved to Washington, D.C., with John N. Mitchell (who was her second husband) in 1968, she quickly became known as a rabble rouser. The Arkansas-born conservative, who married John in 1957, was called “the most talked about, talkative woman in Washington” by the New York Times for her penchant for drinking a glass or two of whisky and calling journalists late at night to gossip about the president. “During the Nixon Administration, she was the second most in-demand figure for Republican events after the president himself,” Garrett Graff, author of Watergate: A New History, told The Guardian before Gaslit’s premiere in April. “[She] was this larger-than-life, colorful, outspoken woman in Washington at a time when most cabinet wives were seen, not heard.” (Slow Burn reported that Nixon once told his chief of staff, “We need to turn off Martha.”)

Martha often admitted that she would eavesdrop on her husband’s phone calls or snoop through his paperwork, which is how she learned that John, then the head of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP), had authorized the June 1972 Watergate break-in. Once she went public with what she knew about the highly publicized breaking and entering, she became an enemy of the president. “After her death [in 1976], she was largely consigned to a footnote in the Nixon years and the administration,” Graff told Smithsonian Magazine in April. “It’s really only within these last five to seven years that she’s been resurrected and sort of re-centered in the telling of the Watergate story and that she was a very central figure [of the Nixon White House], both on its way up and on its way down.” With Gaslit, Pickering wanted to show that “in the best of us lies the potential to be complicit, and even in the most flawed among us lies the potential to be a hero. Martha, like all of us, was capable of being both.”

Was Martha Mitchell kidnapped by the Nixon Administration?

While on vacation in California with her husband and daughter Marty in June 1972, Martha learned that her former bodyguard and the newly appointed security director of the CRP, James McCord, had been arrested in connection with the Watergate break-in, which had taken place days earlier. She immediately phoned Helen Thomas, a journalist at United Press International (UPI), but the call was cut short when ex-FBI agent Steve King, who had been instructed by John to keep Martha from speaking to the press, allegedly pulled the phone out of the wall. “The conversation ended abruptly when it appeared that somebody had taken the phone from her hand,” Thomas later said. “She was heard to say, ‘You just get away.’”

Martha went on to accuse King of abusing and holding her hostage at the Newporter Inn in Newport Beach, California. “I’m black and blue,” she told Thomas days later. “I’m a political prisoner.” King, who eventually become President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the Czech Republic, has denied Martha’s account of what happened. However, in 1975, McCord said, “Martha’s story is true—basically the woman was kidnapped” to keep her from talking about Watergate. He also claimed that Nixon and those close to him “were extremely jealous of her and feared her because she was very candid.”

Gaslit recreates Martha’s oft-told account of those harrowing days in the Newporter Inn, including her claims that she accidentally lit her hand on fire, fell through a glass door (a glass coffee table on the show), and was tranquilized by King. “I wanted to tell that story how she told it,” Pickering says. “I wanted to take the trauma of that experience seriously. I also really wanted to depict how much John N. Mitchell betrayed her, because he really did give information about her mental history to the White House to undermine her claims.”

Pickering structured each episode of Gaslit “as a stage of a crumbling marriage,” but he didn’t want to paint Martha as a victim. “I wanted to be honest about her complexity, about her past complicity in Nixon’s policies, and her pill addiction and alcoholism,” he says. “I didn’t want to make her this whitewashed hero, and neither did Julia [Roberts].”

Did Richard Nixon blame Martha Mitchell for Watergate?

Following the alleged events at the Newporter, Martha Mitchell, a one-time Richard Nixon loyalist, became even more outspoken against him. In a March 1973 call with the New York Times, Mitchell claimed Nixon was trying to make her husband “the goat” for the break-in and the subsequent cover-up, but she was “not going to let that happen.” While her whistleblowing may have made her a hero to some, it led to vicious attacks from Nixon and his associates. The president publicly belittled her and questioned her mental state. In July 1973, McCall’s magazine reported, “Republicans in the highest places have been implying that Mrs. Mitchell has had a nervous breakdown.” Even her husband told reporters that it would be “ridiculous” to take anything she said seriously.

Mitchell continued to speak out, making one of the first public calls for Nixon’s resignation. “People know now that he cannot reign as president,” she told the New York Times in November 1973. “Everybody in the country is against him.” Nixon, facing impeachment charges for his part in the Watergate cover-up, resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, only to be pardoned a month later by his successor, President Gerald Ford. Three years later, Nixon implied that Mitchell was to blame for everything that had transpired. “I’m convinced if it hadn’t been for Martha—and God rest her soul, because she in her heart was a good person. She just had a mental and emotional problem that nobody knew about,” he told British journalist David Frost in 1977. “If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate.”

What happened to Martha Mitchell?

Mitchell died of a rare bone marrow cancer in 1976 at age 57. At the time of her death, her attorney told UPI that she had been “desperately ill, without friends and without funds.” John N. Mitchell had left Martha in 1973, reportedly on the advice of his lawyers. “He walked out and left me with $945,” she told the Washington Post at the time. Two years later, John was found guilty of conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice related to the Watergate break-in and spent 19 months in prison. He was the first former attorney general to be convicted of a crime. After receiving his sentence, John, who died in 1988, told the press, “It could have been worse. They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell.”

Martha had been belittled and embarrassed by Nixon and his administration, but it’s become clear in the last 50 years that much of what she said at the time was true. Martha’s Watergate experience even inspired a psychology concept called “the Martha Mitchell effect,” which refers to the process in which a medical professional labels a patient’s accurate perception of real events as delusional, resulting in misdiagnosis. Not everyone questioned Martha’s account at the time, though. A California admiral sent a bouquet of white mums for Mitchell’s memorial service that included a message for all to see: “Martha Was Right”—and as Gaslit shows, she paid a hefty price for that.

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