Virginia owes a personal debt to Martha Mitchell.
Just after Gov. Linwood Holton — father to former Virginia education secretary Anne Holton and father-in-law to Sen. Tim Kaine — was sworn in as governor on Jan. 17, 1970, a few friends and dignitaries were invited to the Executive Mansion for a light lunch.
Mitchell flew from room to room, finally saying to First Lady Virginia “Jinks” Holton, “Well Jinks, it’s just beautiful, but where in the hell are the antiques?” Though well appointed, the 1813 building was filled with modern and reproduction furniture.
Embarrassed by their new home’s lack of grandeur, the Holtons established a citizens’ advisory committee to provide historical oversight and update the Executive Mansion’s furnishings.
The event is a minor one in the life of Martha Mitchell, a famously outspoken socialite and Watergate whistleblower known for calling up reporters late at night to dish on Washington’s latest palace intrigue.
As the wife of President Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, the “Mouth of the South” had plenty to talk about, often rifling through her husband’s papers or eavesdropping on his conversations to get her scoops. Nixon himself once said, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”
In Virginia Rep’s “Martha Mitchell Calling,” local actress Debra Wagoner fills Martha’s slippers with aplomb, telling tales of Tricky Dicky, Pat Nixon and the whole Watergate mishigas. Decked out in a pink silk bathrobe and a suitably large blond wig, Wagoner recounts how Martha and John met on a date while married to other people, their goofy sex games and how the merging of Nixon and John’s law firms led to his becoming the attorney general.
Occasionally, actor Joe Pabst jumps out from behind a painted portrait on the wall to portray Martha’s husband John in short scenes.
- Aaron Sutten
Under Rick Hammerly’s direction, Wagoner wrings the script for laughs; her best moments come when she’s mocking Pat Nixon. Apparently, the First Lady once admonished Martha’s lack of “decorum” for wearing a low-cut dress. Later in the show, at a staid D.C. party, Martha delights in scandalizing the attendees by shaking her behind in a hula skirt.
These antics — and her outspoken nature — earn her a reputation as a socialite. At one point, 76% of Americans knew who she was, and her notoriety helped her raise substantial sums for Nixon’s reelection.
But the tide turns when John is put in charge of the Committee for the Re-election of the President (abbreviated to CRP, but mocked as “CREEP”).
Appalled by the Republicans’ dirty tricks, Martha is unreserved in her condemnation of Watergate, and may have been the first public figure to call for Nixon to resign because of it.
Her outspokenness costs her: as news of Watergate is breaking, she is drugged and held against her will in a California hotel room for a weekend. If that weren’t disturbing enough, the Nixon administration worked to discredit her, sneakily leaking to the press that she was drunk and mentally unwell. As John is charged with Watergate-related crimes, he moves out of their home; the two never reconciled.
Jodi Rothe’s script imparts Martha’s history in a breezy, accessible manner, but the narrative runs out of steam in the second act. Even actors charming and talented as Wagoner and Pabst — who, by the way, are married in real life — can’t overcome the script’s weaknesses.
Still, the show should be lauded for its work to illuminate the life of a largely forgotten woman who paid a tragic price for her whistleblowing efforts. So much of what we know today about Watergate focuses on the men, especially Nixon’s bogeymen like H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and James McCord.
As someone who didn’t live through Watergate, the whole affair almost seems quaint by modern standards. Half a century ago, even a politician as slimy, vindictive and corrupt as Nixon could still be shamed into resigning from scandal; these days, attempting to overturn an election means you can still be your party’s frontrunner nearly three years later.
Virginia Rep’s “Martha Mitchell Calling” plays through Oct. 29 at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, 23069. For more information, visit va-rep.org or call (804) 282-2620.