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Pine Bluff (pop. 57,000) is Mid-America right out of Central Casting. There is a Main Street, an Elm Street, a kindly doctor and a lot of gossip. Things haven't changed very much since Sept. 2, 1918, when Arie Beall (pronounced Bell) and her cotton-broker second husband George had their only child, Martha. She went to private schools for six years, then to public schools when the Depression hit. She excelled at nothing, except perhaps having a good time. "I liked boys at an awful early age," she says, and in one of her high school annuals, where senior personalities were characterized by book titles, Martha's sobriquet was Arms and the Man. "We certainly never would have predicted she'd ever have an opinion on a national issue worth listening to," says one of her teachers. "Martha had a good mind when she used it," says another. "But she never used it. She was a pretty, happy, empty-headed little girl."
She went to Stephens College in Missouri ("I wanted to go into dramatics and become an actress, but my mother wouldn't let me"). Then she tried the University of Arkansas ("I decided to study premed, but with my Southern accent I decided I couldn't master foreign languages"). Finally, she graduated from Florida's University of Miami, where the water-skiing was great and the social life superb. After teaching seventh grade for a while in Mobile, Ala., and hating it, Martha came home and went to work at the Pine Bluff Arsenal as receptionist to the commanding general, who took her along with him to Washington when he was transferred in 1945. Martha says she knew then that the move would change her life.
It did—to the extent of an Army captain named Clyde W. Jennings of Lynchburg, Va., a handbag salesman in civilian life. Arie Beall gave them a big bang-up wedding in Pine Bluff, and they settled down in New York City's Forest Hills, known Before Martha as the site of the national tennis championship matches. But Clyde was on the road a good deal, the marriage failed, and they were divorced after eleven years. Their one child, Jay, is now a 23-year-old second lieutenant in the Tank Corps.
Martha met John Mitchell in New York through mutual friends. He was a successful lawyer specializing in municipal bonds who was divorced from his first wife. John and Martha were married 15 years ago. They settled in Rye, a super-affluent suburb, and on the grounds of the Apawamis Club—very In and venerably old as country clubs go. But Martha did not play golf, rarely turned up at the Apawamis clubhouse. Says one prominent neighbor and friend of John Mitchell: "I never heard of anyone there who really knew her. Of course, now that she's a celebrity, everyone stands around the Apawamis bar spinning great yarns about how they knew the gal. But I really don't think anyone realized she was there."
The Mitchells sold the house when John Mitchell joined the Nixon Cabinet, and they moved with Daughter Marty, now nine, to Washington, where Martha, whose mother would not let her study dramatics, found herself front and center on the biggest stage in the world. "I have so many roles to play," she said recently in mock despair to a friend.