The Nation: The Misfortunes of Martha

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"I've got one tongue and it works pretty well."

ONLY three days after Martha Mitchell delivered those brave, perhaps defiant words during a Watergate deposition hearing, her tongue was stilled. Unable to sleep, distraught and unhappy, she put herself under doctors' care and voluntarily entered a medical institution last week for treatment of a nervous breakdown.

Martha, the unrepressed Southern belle, once took great pride in the fact that John Mitchell—her second husband, whom she married in 1957—was one of Nixon's closest advisers. Martha delighted in sounding off against anyone to the left of William McKinley —Senator J. William Fulbright, for example, should be "crucified." Few took any of this too seriously, for Martha had a certain wacky charm.

She kept unwontedly quiet when in June last year she accompanied John to California for fund-raising appearances in his new post as head of Nixon's re-election campaign. Then came the Watergate breakin. Mitchell flew back to Washington, leaving Martha at the Newporter Inn with Security Agent Steve King, who was there supposedly to guard her. Martha waited for King to fall asleep, then placed her famous phone call to U.P.I. Washington Reporter Helen Thomas. She got as far as threatening to leave Mitchell unless he quit the "dirty business" of politics. Then came the sounds of struggle, and the phone went dead. Martha later complained that she had been held down while being injected "in the bottom."

Martha's hysteria then was overt, but despite a certain amount of public skepticism, it turned out that her cries about official skulduggery had a solid basis in fact. The Mitchells made their peace, and John bought Martha a Fifth Avenue apartment, complete with gold bathroom fixtures, where she has kept herself busy since last fall selecting and arranging the furnishings.

In recent weeks, she has felt herself a prisoner; her apartment now is filled with flowers sent by reporters trying to curry favor. When a friend suggested going out for lunch, she retorted: "Now where am I going to lunch with all this fuss?" Two weeks ago, Martha discussed with intimates the possibility of John's being indicted. She was worried, but she kept herself in check and made a rambling deposition in the Democrats' civil suit. Though she showed remarkably good spirits, she once lost her temper: "I have been at the mercy of the White House for four years, who have treated me abominably, half-crucified me, have sent lies out through the press and started rumors galore about me."

The pressure inside Martha mounted for two days and finally erupted in another late-night phone call to Helen Thomas. While her twelve-year-old daughter Marty begged her not to talk, she said deliberately: "If my husband knew anything' about the Watergate breakin, Mr. Nixon also knew about it. I think he should say goodbye, to give credibility to the Republican Party and to the United States. I think he let the country down. Mr. President should retire."

Next day John Mitchell issued a public statement berating U.P.I, for treating what Martha said as anything more than "fun and games." But Martha Mitchell obviously was, to the breaking point, totally in earnest.